[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.
The 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.
What 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.
So 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.
The 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.
What 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.