There’s no shortage of male power fantasies in games. But Naughty Dog may have just opened the door to more honest representations of female power fantasies — and I want more of it.
As a young girl, I remember running down the gaming aisles at Walmart, scanning desperately for any covers with something other than gruff dudes with varying degrees of scowls on their faces.
That’s why the first images to come out of Naughty Dog’s announcement for Uncharted: The Lost Legacy all but stopped me in my tracks. There was that trademark game protagonist scowl again, but this time, it was etched across the gruff faces of two women of color.
More times than not, video game protagonists provide male ideals for us to play around with: whether the hero, anti-hero, thief, or silent type.
I’m as down as the next girl to play as (and low-key ogle) feats of masculine fantasies as represented by Nathan Drake, Kratos, or Solid Snake. But I can’t help but feel we’re being cheated by the sheer volume and domination of these hyper-masculine tropes.
After playing a 45 minute preview of The Lost Legacy, my long-standing suspicion was confirmed: We’ve been cheated out of a whole world of other experiences.
“This game was a lot of fun to write,” Josh Scheer, series co-writer, said. “Particularly because, having written for the previous games and playing off this masculine, macho bravado, we had to stop and think, okay, well what does the female version of that look like?”
I’ve never seen ass-kicking female action-adventure heroines quite like Chloe and Nadine before.
Early internal and player focus tests at Naughty Dog reflected concern that the two new female leads might be too much of a departure from the dude-ly camaraderie of Nathan Drake and Sully.
Molded in the tradition of action films like James Bond, some worried about the potential for dissonance in dropping these two female protagonists in the middle of this hyper-masculine genre.
But as director Kurt Margenau said, the distinct freshness of Chloe and Nadine’s female camaraderie “was actually the reason we chose these characters in the first place.”
“The chemistry that we knew was going to work became the basis for basically everything else,” he said.
To be clear, female action-adventure heroines of a certain type are nothing new to games. Lara Croft, Samus Aaron — these are age-old icons of gaming on the level of Mario. But, at the end of the day, those heroines (even the recently rebooted ones claiming to be more “realistic”) have more often than not ultimately still played to male fantasies — just in a different way.
What Naughty Dog seems to have achieved with this new dynamic duo of Chloe Fraser and Nadine Ross feels worlds apart from any of that.
The acclaimed studio behind The Last of Us already holds a singular track record for telling female stories extremely well through traditionally male-dominated genres. No one in big budget games seems to be pulling it off quite like Naughty Dog. And I’ve never seen ass-kicking female action-adventure heroines quite like Chloe and Nadine, either.
“Obviously, [their gender] was an important consideration in the writing, but ultimately we always start from a place of creating characters: what are their personality traits, their backstories — how do they feel from moment to moment in these situations?” Margenau said. “We focus on the fact that they’re just human beings who happen to be very capable and good at their jobs. So we put them into the same situations as anyone else.”
It appears that, at the heart of what makes them feel so different from the likes of a Lara Croft or Samus Aaron is the same reason why Joel feels so different from the likes of a male protagonist like Kratos. Naughty Dog approaches characters as people first, and build mechanics around them to fit their personalities.
“So when we’re thinking about how she’s different from Drake, mechanically, it just added to our already established suite of Uncharted mechanics,” Margenau said. “It’s based on who she is as a character, how the two of them work together, how that changes the melee system — like with Nadine’s ability to beat the crap out of everyone. Then you’re able to help her out, or she can help you out.”
The beautiful dance between the two stands out, both during gameplay moments and the quiet character moments they share with one another.
Admittedly, Scheer said, both he and co-writer Shaun Escayg were conscientious of the fact that they are two dudes. But that’s why Naughty Dog also relies on the talent and perspectives of the female designers in key leadership roles at the company.
While I only had the chance to talk to the two male designers, Scheer emphasized the importance of the women on their team for gut checks, helping to decide whether Nadine and Chloe’s moment to moment interactions rang true to them.
“They’d give us their unbiased, unvarnished opinions on anything we did. And sometimes they’d just go, ‘Mmm — no,” Scheer laughed. “And we’d go back to the drawing board.”
These subtleties and nuances in the duo’s relationship were exactly what struck me as so different from other examples of female action heroines. Often, feedback came down to things like, well, that’s just not really how women talk to each other. Having little experience with such things themselves, the co-writers took their teammates at their word.
“But we don’t actually think about them that much differently,” Margenau said. “It’s certainly part of their characters. And part of [Lost Legacy] is about these two women living in this world of thieves, this thematically male-dominated world of Uncharted. They’re characters who feel they’ve been wronged in certain ways before, and they connect over that.”
“They’re characters who feel they’ve been wronged in certain ways before, and they connect over that.”
True to life, both women feel like they have something to prove. Nadine, for example, seeks to rebuild herself after Drake’s destruction of her mercenary militia, known as The Shoreline, following the events of Uncharted 4. Chloe, previously always a hired gun on other people’s operations, now seeks to run her own mission — with Nadine as her first hire.
At the end of the day, Naughty Dog’s method for telling female stories successfully might seem obvious, but still feels revolutionary for the video game world: just treat them like people. Everything else flows from that single, simple tenant.
When I asked Scheer whether, at any point, the team aimed to address the still persistent myth that male players don’t want to play as female characters, he smiled and shrugged.
“The best way I can sum that up is with the phrase: their loss. If you really have a problem with it, then you have a billion other games where you can play as a guy. And that’s your choice. But it sure seems like you’re closing yourself off to some really amazing games, like Horizon Zero Dawn, Tomb Raider, and a growing list of so many others.”