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Analysis: The Sexual Politics Of  Uncharted 2
Analysis: The Sexual Politics Of Uncharted 2
January 4, 2010 | By Tom Cross

January 4, 2010 | By Tom Cross
More: Console/PC

[Writer Tom Cross continues his earlier examination of the sexual politics behind games by examining the sexual narrative and characters of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.]

In my last article, I expounded upon the more obvious and systematic methods of conservative, regressive sexualization that can be found throughout games, the video games industry, game critics, and gamers themselves. While I singled out Prince of Persia as a game that stepped (slightly) outside of these traditional boundaries, I also pointed to Uncharted 2: Among Thieves as a game that both subtly continues these traditions, and blatantly, brashly confounds them. It’s a game that is both safe and radical in its depiction of sex.

This isn’t to say that Drake and the relationships in which he participates are not sexual in any way. In fact, he and his various compatriots stand out as some of the few video game characters that are crafted to evince sexual desires and frustrations that are connected to actual human emotions. In that way he, Elena, Sully, and Chloe are similar to the Prince and Elika.

However, their romantic entanglements fall into extremely comfortable filmic roles: the plucky, independent female lead (who will end up with the roguish, devil-may-care male lead even though they have their differences), the lecherous old guy who isn’t really that bad, and the so bad she’s good femme fatale. They may be ahead of the grade by being empathetic, emotionally heartfelt, and sexual, but it’s well-worn territory they’re treading on. It doesn’t turn any heads.

The Prince in the new Prince of Persia, is, as I have argued, cut from a slightly (importantly) different cloth than North's Drake. Likewise, the way he and Elika interact with each other is slightly different from those interactions seen in the Drake’s Fortune games.

uncharted-2-among-thieves-ps3-screenshot-3.jpgThe Best of the Best

While Among Thieves creates interesting, fun characters, it still pigeon holes them into stock character story arcs: the good girl, the guy who will become good, and the bad girl, who is allowed to be sexually suggestive because the plot will ultimately remove her as a viable partner for the ultimately good guy. Among Thieves is an example of careful writing, world-building, and characterization, something we rarely see in games.

Among Thieves paradoxically picks one of the older, more cliched and tired adventure stories (and settings), and turns it into an exciting, cleverly written adventure featuring characters who obviously have heartfelt connections with each other. The story and its characters don’t revolve around meaninglessly repetitive moralistic haranguing (yes, MGS, we understand that war is bad, we just wonder why it takes you a quartet of games to actually “say” something about the subject) and teenage angst surrounding aging and sex (we have the un-self-consciously teenage Braid and the endlessly weighty Final Fantasy series to serve all of our young men their fantasies and failures).

Among Thieves introduces us to characters familiar to anyone who has read a few books or watched a few movies (of the right sort, of course). Even as these characters fit into old molds, they also introduce quirks and wrinkles to the story and the tone of the game, in ways I have yet to see replicated in any other narrative-centric video game. Nathan Drake may have his flaws, as a character and as a narrative creation. This cannot be denied. The game may present us with interesting, fun, wholly realized and independently motivated characters (two are women, in an unprecedented occurrence) but for every step these characters take in the direction of originality, they carefully prop up certain expectations and tired tropes.

uncharted2_image03.jpgWhat Does it Take to Get Nate to Grow Up?

Chloe and Elena may be strong women who have their own agendas, their own opinions on the game’s many characters and situations, but they, like the rest of the cast, serve to help Nathan come to understand his own situation and responsibilities. Elena may be a kickass reporter hell-bent on revealing the wrongs committed by horrible people to the rest of the world, but she also can’t help but fall for the lovable, flawed Drake.

Of course, part of the orbital nature of the main cast (inextricably attached to or attracted toward the wise-cracking Mr. Drake) is thanks to the fact that this is a game, and a heavily, carefully scripted and structured one. This doesn’t stop the game from using this seemingly inescapable gameplay trope (that all characters revolve around the player) to reinforce long-standing societal notions of race, class, and gender.

Chloe Frazer is (sadly) a first for video games: she is a smart, competent, sexually aware pointedly heterosexual female character who constantly disagrees with and harries the main male character, sometimes out of self-interest and sometimes out of deeply felt connection and respect. While it’s amazing that I can describe a character in a video game as possessing those qualities, it is depressingly astounding that I have just described a woman in a video game.

uncharted2a1.jpgSo Bad She's Good?

Chloe Frazer stands head and shoulders above all video game characters, but compared to most women in games, she is truly unique. Forget, or the moment, the way in which her sexy bad girl status is both facilitated by and neutralized by the game’s traditionally romantic story arc.

Chloe, unlike Elena, starts and finishes the game doing what she wants, when she wants, however she wants. The initial heist, her subsequent allegiance hopping, and her final moments onscreen are all informed by whatever machinations are going on inside her head.

Elean, for all that I love her character, enters the narrative by chance, but she enters it with the express purpose of merging her path with Drake’s. She and her cameraman buddy (Jeff) run into Drake in the middle of a burning city. Drake is on the trail of the Cintamani Stone (and thus Lazarovich), while Elena is pursuing Lazarovich to expose him for the war criminal that he is. They may constantly bicker, but we (and more importantly, Chloe) know that they care about each other too much to let anything happen to each other, even if Drake pisses off Elena.

Chloe, even when she “finally” comes down on Drake’s side, does so not for Drake, but for her own sense of honor and morality (admittedly, Elena does the same). Chloe cares for Drake, but she sees that he cares more for Elena. Chloe understands the situation that her characterization has put her in.

ChloeFrazer_Uncharted2.jpgThe Good, The Bad, and The Overtly Sexual

Early in the game, Chloe and Drake have what is, for a game, a love scene. Chloe is the aggressor, while Drake the wisecracking, diffident (yet quite willing) collaborator. There is no way that Elena and Drake could ever play out a similar scene. Their romantic scenes have to be light, sexually unthreatening, and focused around a more Rosalind Russell, Cary Grant school of romantic entanglement (not that there’s anything wrong with clever verbal sparing).

Chloe and Drake’s scene sets up several precedents and creates a track for the two characters: they have a romantic past (Drake broke it off), they are still attracted to each other, and both would like to get back together (although Chloe is slightly more verbally effusive on this topic). This dynamic in turn allows Chloe to play the part of the duplicitous (possibly?) moral (and adventuring) free agent.

This allows Chloe to play a dramatically interesting part, to be sure, but it is worth noting that she is enabled in her temporary duplicity by her already established “adventurous” or “promiscuous” sexual behavior. By establishing Chloe as a sexually “forward” character (and despite the fact that she is never judged negatively for this activity, except by Drake, who is in turn mocked for his own sexual profligacy) the story can quickly convince us of her morally worrisome, “gray” tendencies.

Likewise, Elena’s “goodness” and morally right-minded nature mark her as the only possible (final) subject of Drake’s affections, and the story’s attention and allegiance. True, Chloe exits the story gracefully, wittily, and self-assuredly, but she does so with the understanding (on the characters’ part and on the audience’s part) that the sexual, social threat she poses has been diffused.

50025_orig.jpgWhat it Takes to Get and Be The Girl

It is an old and sorry trope, that sexual “freeness” or what is deemed as promiscuous behavior are coupled with moral weakness or fluctuation. Chloe herself is shown to be an interesting, fun character who makes some dangerous “bad” choices (less than Drake does, the story thankfully is keen to point out) in search of personal gain and fulfillment. Drake himself makes many decisions based on selfish, unthinking urges. He is chastised by many (including himself) for these decisions and mistakes.

The difference between Drake and Chloe (the one among many that matters, in this case) is that Drake can makes these mistakes and think in this “problematic” way without the need for complimentary characterization. It is assumed, on a subliminal level, that players can accept and ruminate upon the nature of a flawed, selfish man who changes his ways. For a woman to make the same (or similar) mistakes, she must already be established as a problematic female presence, sexually, in this case (sexually promiscuous women are, after all, an almost universally worrisome topic to heterosexual men).

This is one of the many curses video game women suffer under. They are not considered to be strong enough as characters to survive without heavy handed, stereotyped characterization (of course, the dark, troubles male hero is his own, grand stereotype…).

Yet I would be a fool to fail to mention the incredible quality of Among Thieves’ script, story, and acting. The characters and actors sell their work excellently, and the characters of Elena, Chloe, and Drake are some of the most fun, interesting, inoffensive characters in video games. Naughty Dog deserves every single accolade possible in this area: I haven’t enjoyed the company of most video game characters and protagonists. I mostly tolerate them.

The three principal actors of Among Thieves may fall into the odd narrative or stylistic trap, but they’re a joy to play with and listen to. They act like mature, sexual beings, and I wish every game would stop and take note of their charm and wit. I can’t think of another game about which I could say the same things, as emphatically or as honestly.

[Tom Cross writes for Gamers' Temple and Popmatters, is the Associate Editor at Sleeper Hit, and blogs about games at Delayed Responsibility. You can contact him at romain47 at gmail dot com.]

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Anthony Charles
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i cant understand how you give the character chloe so much praise. for all the hype about the maturity and depth of uncharted's hollywood style storyline, the character chloe never let me forget that i was playing a video game designed, primarily, for high school age boys. i can't think of one serious female character from a legitimate movie as one dimensionally over sexed.

Timothy Dempsey
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Ever consider putting your articles in front of someone else's eyes for proofreading?

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Mr. Zurkon
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The game is a step forward from the stereotypical characterizations and writing, but incredible quality? The game does follow basic rules of writing in regards to characters and their actions, but this is merely a requirement for creating believable character. Video game writing isn't at the same level of good movies and books, but we can't change our standards of writing because of it.

Ben Rice
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Don't act so aloof; I'm assuming you've played it to comment?

The acting and story has already earned universal acclaim. Apparently just not from Dave.

Daniel Man
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I just finished the game last night, and I must say that the "hype" is well deserved. As the article states, the game does use cliches and what not, but they are used well. The story was engaging, but not necessarily revolutionary. The key thing here, in regards to the story and its characters, is that although it may not all be new stuff, it is well written stuff. Yes, blockbuster movies are predictable and should we be striving towards that kind of writing for games? As of now, I say yes! When you look at some other games and their "stories," we need to get past the "hey, lets go and kill some people until we have no more to kill" mentality. Uncharted 2 is a definite step in the write direction. This a standard worth striving for, but we cannot stop here. We need to take what we have learn from this game and continue the momentum forward. We cannot allow game stories to fall stale again.

Glenn Storm
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I thought this was a great comparative analysis between the characters/story of Uncharted 2 and the pulp novel/action adventure movie narrative conventions. It's clear Naughty Dog has paid attention to this as well. Thanks again, Tom!

Brandon Sheffield
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"Chloe Frazer is (sadly) a first for video games: she is a smart, competent, sexually aware pointedly heterosexual female character who constantly disagrees with and harries the main male character, sometimes out of self-interest and sometimes out of deeply felt connection and respect."

Are you saying she's the first sassy, competent, intimidating-yet-soft-and-sexual woman in games? That is an astoundingly incorrect statement, because in the industry thus far, that is the archetypal female videogame character.

Let's make a list:

Lara Croft


Lulu from the Final Fantasy series

Alicia in Bullet Witch

Almost any female fighting game character

Basically every female character in devil may cry, ninja gaiden series, God Hand, No More Heroes, Killer 7, etc etc etc etc.

I'll stop here, because I'm kind of overwhelmed with the number of these, and I'm not even touching indies, which have a much more complex bent. Jade from Beyond Good and Evil represents a more unique female character than Chloe, and she's not even that complicated.

In short, I totally disagree with the main drive of this article. The story is a competent blockbuster affair, but innovation and forward-looking elements are not what it's about.

Cody Church
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A thoughtful read: I'm just sad that there aren't more games that involve romance and sexuality with the same degree of maturity as they did in Uncharted. I'm getting more than a little tired of the overly chaste behaviour of most JRPGs, or the blatantly pornographic scenes like in God of War.

@ Brandon: I think you might have missed the point he made about the Chloe character. While, undeniably, your list includes female characters with obvious and significant sexual appeal, how many are portrayed with the amount of depth, realism and frailty that makes a character that much more human? For instance Bayonetta, as I understand it, has a fairly deep personality . . . but for god's sake she becomes almost naked every few seconds, fixed in a sexual pose while crushing enemies to death with her hair! Sexual? Yes. Realistic in their behaviour? Perhaps not.

I would argue that very few of the characters on your list excel at evoking any emotion in the player other than lust, while Chloe can actually inspire more complex feelings of regret, anger, sympathy and respect.

Brandon Sheffield
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Cody - I see what you are saying, but I would argue that chloe does not inspire those feelings either.

Nathan Sherrets
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Cody! Bravo! It seems like there were a couple of people who looked deeply enough into not only this article but into the actual characters themselves. Thanks for defending the author, who obviously has an extreme familiarity with the topic.

Tom - very well written article, it definitely made me look at the characters analytically instead of just experiencing them with the story. While I realize what you're writing isn't gospel, it is after all your interpretation, I feel you had a lot of good points to make about characterization and what that means for today's video game females.

Matt Diamond
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Overall I found your analysis interesting, but your comment about Braid was very strange to me. "[..] teenage angst surrounding aging and sex (we have the un-self-consciously teenage Braid [..] to serve all of our young men their fantasies and failures)." I can't in any way relate that sentence to Braid, which was a clever puzzle game loosely wrapped in an allegory. Romance, sexual politics, teenage fantasies didn't really enter into it. Nor was there much characterization at all, except for Tim. Tim's alternating inattention and obsession is a lens that intentionally obscures what we know of the female characters.

In short, I would think that there are hundreds of games that would be more relevant to this discussion than Braid. Could you clarify what you meant?

Thomas Cross
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@Matt: Sure. People talked a lot about Braid for two reasons, mostly: the gameplay (which I thought was good, until it broke my brain), and the way it worked with and enhanced the story.

Regardless of how the game ends (and how you interpret that ending), I don't think you can say that it was "a clever puzzle game loosely wrapped in an allegory." Blow himself has pointed out that he thinks that more games should be personal, and his game definitely is. I'm just tired of hearing about a girl and how a guy missed a chance with her or she left him or things fell apart. Even if you think the content was mature, it's still a story of falling out of love, or of falling in love, but always focused on a mysterious, almost inhuman (as you point out) woman. I'm glad Blow is making games. I think he's pretty obviously a very smart designer. That doesn't mean that I can't want games that avoid concerning themselves with male, heterosexual longings and what often boils down to tales that mix sexual and practical maturity. Society has plenty of aids and stories for boys and men to figure out how to cope with/imagine loss, love, and sex. We need other things, from other points of view, and we need them desperately. To say that is to in no way invalidate Braid's achievement, or Blow's obvious skill and talent.

Christopher Plummer
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Did you play the first one? I think you are making quite a few assumptions about characters that were developed in prior installments.

Also, most importantly, this is a story about Drake, not Chloe. Elena is the one that got away. I don't think you have to analyze it any further than that.

I'm curious why you chose to forget about Sully since he seemed to posses a lot of the traits that Chloe did. Again, I think it's because you didn't play the first one or didn't consider that these characters extend beyond what was shown in Amongst Thieves.

Jeff Spock
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I think that what Naughty Dog mastered in this game was the art of storytelling for a linear gameplay experience. The story development, timing, and presentation were evidently carefully considered and brilliantly executed. "Among Thieves" will not be forgotten; it will be a reference when critics and reviewers point to what comes out of the game industry and say, "Here is when games learned to tell stories like movies do."

The debate is open to whether this is good or bad, and it's really a matter of personal preference. But I feel that Naughty Dog really knocked this one out of the park in terms of what they were trying to achieve.

However, I would also agree that it is more an example of perfectly executed convention than an example of innovation, and does not necessarily deserve a label like "incredible quality" for the script and story. As you found the roles and the story to be polished but predictable and conventional, I would say the same thing of the script. It's hard to fault the developers for not being too daring with the characters and the dialog; they were building a title with a solidly mainstream appeal. But when I see a generic indyclone character saying "Payback's a bitch," I realize that we still have some road to travel.

Personally I can't help but wish that major studios, making big titles, would occasionally push the envelope a bit further. Still, kudos to Naughty Dog for doing what they did--a Spielberg rather than a Tarentino; a Clancy rather than a Le Carré.

Matt Diamond
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@Thomas Thanks for the reply regarding Braid. I am warming to your position - late in the game especially, there's a he-said/she-said nature to some of the scenes that supports your view.

You were right to call me on the allegory comment; I don't actually KNOW it was intended that way. (Though supporting my view: there are a lot of people who believe that the game is actually about the Manhattan Project.) And even allegories can involve sexual politics... Still, overall I feel that Braid wasn't a very telling example for this topic.

Thanks for the thoughtful reply to my digression, and for the article.

Josh Foreman
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"It is an old and sorry trope, that sexual “freeness” or what is deemed as promiscuous behavior are coupled with moral weakness or fluctuation."

Depending on what you mean by "freeness", my interpretation of the real world suggests that this trope is based in truth. (Yes, I understand that I'm a product of my society's norms and mores.) There absolutely IS a double standard as this trope is applied more heavy-handedly to female characters, and that is sad in that it fails to challenge males to reevaluate their own sexual behavior. But it seems that you are making a moral judgment against those who utilize this trope as being backwards or... well, I don't want to put words in your mouth. But I think there is a basic issue of conservative thinking verses more... libertine(?) thinking. Your presupposition that the conservative take is less moral is simply a matter of preference, no?