by Adi Stein
** MAJOR SPOILERS FOR UNCHARTED 4 AHEAD **
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is an epic, complicated, emotional, flawed, and rewarding game that has so many moving parts that you could easily write countless essays about it. You could write about its confident and rewarding pacing in the face of its slow and drawn out opening half. You could write about the game as an allegory for the development team’s own lives; how their drive and love of their work ultimately pulls them away from their families, despite a need to spend time with the ones they love. You could write about the role of race in this entry and how the game fails most of its non-white characters. You could write about all this and more, but when I sat down to write this piece, the same thing kept popping up into my head and that is this: what Uncharted 4 does most successfully is normalize the power and strength of women.
While this message is important, it’s not at all surprising. Uncharted 4 was directed by Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley, the same pair of developers responsible for directing The Last of Us. The Last of Us was one of the defining games of the last console generation and introduced us to one of gaming’s strongest and most memorable female characters, Ellie. Around the time that game was releasing, I remember seeing an interview with Druckmann in which he talked about the lack of female role models in video games for his daughter. He said he wanted to create the type of character that his daughter could relate and look up to. A female character that was not sexualized; that was fully independent, capable, smart, and complicated. For the most part, that sort of character is very hard to find in contemporary video games (some might disagree with that but I’m gonna leave it there as that’s another essay entirely), so Druckmann created Ellie, a teenage girl who is as confident, complex, flawed, and fascinating as any male character.
So with that in mind, it makes sense that the same pair who created Ellie would bring that eye and mindset to the final Uncharted game. While Uncharted 4 still follows straight-white-man Nathan Drake, valuable additions and changes to the cast of characters makes the women in this game stand out in important and thought provoking ways.
Take Elena, for example. Elena has been in every game in this franchise and has always been able to care for herself and kick ass on her own. But in this game, we see a more complicated depiction of this character. When things start off we see that she and Nathan have created a peaceful and normal life for themselves. A life devoid of action and adventure. So it makes sense that when Nathan decides to go on another globe trotting treasure hunt, he lies and doesn’t tell Elena about it. In the end she obviously finds out about things and catches up with Nathan, ultimately saving his life.
What’s most important about her arc, however, is that when she does catch up with Nathan she isn’t upset about him going on this adventure; she’s upset that he lied to her. When she confronts him about it she says, “You don’t need to protect me. We’re a team. We help each other out.” To this Nathan responds, “I wasn’t protecting you. I was protecting myself. I thought you’d leave me if you found out and I couldn’t handle that risk.” What’s implied here is that there is no concern that Elena couldn’t handle herself. Nathan knows how strong she is. It’s just a part of her and a part of their life together. In other stories told by other games, the female character in this role would hold back the male character because she wants to create a home, she’s worried about her safety, or she’s worried about losing her partner. Here it’s the opposite. Here Elena wants in on the adventure and can take care of herself. Here Nathan is afraid of losing Elena not because she might die but because he would have disappointed her so severely that she would leave him.
The conclusion of her and Nathan’s story is particularly poignant. After the adventure is over and the treasure has been found, Nathan goes back to his ordinary job and his ordinary life. He’s sitting at his desk completing mindless paper work when Elena changes his life yet again. She pushes him to go on more adventures and to not give up on who he is. On who they are. She says, “Finding that treasure reminded me that this is who we are and this is what we do. We can’t give it up. You missed it and I missed it so let’s commit to this life but let’s commit to it together.” It’s a powerful moment that solidifies Elena has a globe trotting adrenaline junky in her own right. The thrill is just as vital to her as it is to Nathan. Hell, you could even make the argument that it’s more important to her. Nathan is content sitting there doing his boring paper work. Elena is the one with the passion that drives them both forward.
But she’s not the only example of a passionate and driven female character in this game. Uncharted 4 introduces us to maybe my favorite character yet in the franchise: Nadine. Nadine is the owner and operator of a large South African PMC group working with the game’s main villain (Rafe) to find Captain Avery’s treasure before Nathan and his brother (Sam) do. She’s a powerful adversary who you don’t want to mess with. Other characters in the game talk about her ruthlessness, strength, and power in ways that establish her as a formidable opponent while normalizing who she is in the context of the game world. That is to say, it’s not at all surprising that a woman can hold this kind of power. She runs a PMC for crying out loud. Of course she’s a tough leader and a skilled fighter. The first time we meet Nadine she handily kicks Nathan’s ass in a fistfight. Later in the game, she fights Nathan and his brother at the same time and has no problem throwing Nathan out a window while simultaneously slamming Sam’s head through a crumbling wall. She is a force to be reckoned with and at no point do her male counterparts belittle her power.
There is one moment, though, that is problematic. Towards the end of the game Nadine is fed up with chasing Avery’s treasure. She tells Rafe that she’s lost too many men and that the cost to her company is not worth whatever they might find at the end. It’s at this moment that Rafe open-handedly slaps her across the face. This slap is the problematic moment I’m talking about. It feels very much like how a man might hit a lady who has stepped out of line. It feels condescending and misogynistic. At no other point in the game is a character dealt with this way. Violence occurs, yes, but it’s through meaty punches and sharp kicks, never with slaps across the face. The moment seems to imply that if she were a man, Rafe would have punched her in the gut. But he doesn’t. He slaps her across the face.
In the end though, Nadine gets her vengeance. She leaves Rafe to die in a burning room on a sinking ship while she runs away to survive and move on her with life. In doing this Nadine tells us that a man’s actions and opinions don’t own her destiny. She decides what she is and isn’t going to do and sacrifice. It’s a moment of strength and independence that highlights Nadine as the exact kind of female character I’m describing: one who is complicated, powerful, and independent.
The game’s epilogue, however, holds the key example of Uncharted 4’s ability to normalize the strength of women in its world. The penultimate chapter of the game ends with Nathan and Elena sitting with each other and joking about their lives and the adventures they’ve been on. The scene fades to black and then fades up on a video game screen. You’re playing Crash Bandicoot, a game you played one of Uncharted 4’s early chapters. You complete the level and the camera pulls back, revealing that you are now playing as a teenage girl. You don’t know who she is or where she is. She gets up, pets her dog, and goes looking for her parents. In a scene reminiscent of the opening of The Last of Us, you explore her peaceful and tropical home, finally learning that you are playing as Cassie, daughter of Nate and Elena. You walk past a wall filled with framed magazine covers of Nate and Elena’s adventures. Pictures and headlines tell you that they’ve become a world famous archeological team who has uncovered some of Earth’s greatest treasures and secrets. You also find a magazine with you on the cover. Through this magazine we learn that you are some sort of archeological wunderkind.
All of this is a perfect and beautiful ending to the franchise, but Cassie is also a great example of this normalized female empowerment. At such a young age she has already started leaving her mark on the world. She’s already solved mysteries that countless generations before her couldn’t solve. And yes, that is impressive to the world but it’s surprising. There’s no moment of, “You’re the most special world saving hero ever.” Her bravery and intellect aren’t bewildering; they are expected.
And in the end it’s those expectations that make these women so impressive. In most games very little is expected of the female characters beyond the fact that they will be captured, in need of rescuing, or sexualized in some way. But that’s not the case in Uncharted 4. There’s no sexualizing camera angles, no women in need or rescuing. Clothing is always practical and never unnecessarily revealing. But most importantly, none of this is surprising to any of the characters in the game. There’s no “blah blah blah for a woman” moment. Elena, Nadine, and Cassie are all strong female role models because they are just normal women. There is nothing unbelievable about their strength and resolve. The world that they inhabit allows them to be impressive not as women but as people, and that world actually ends up being the perfect role model for us.
Uncharted 4 says that we should not only strive to empower the women around us but also strive for that to be normal and not impressive. Powerful women should simply be viewed as powerful people. I can’t wait to live in a world where my younger sisters and my daughters can look up to female characters that are brave adventures or badass warriors, and with Uncharted 4 that world seems a hell of a lot closer.