Let’s talk about damsels, because the idea of the damsel in distress goes way back and ‘cuz damseling female characters (especially in video games) kinda has to stop.
So what is a damsel in distress? Anita Sarkeesian succinctly describes it as “a plot device in which a female character is placed in a perilous situation from which she cannot escape on her own and must be rescued by a male character…” This has been a staple of video games since very early on. In Super Mario Bros, Mario quests to save Princess Peach. This wasn’t necessarily bad, but it becomes a problem when the save-the-girl trope becomes systemic. It becomes old when I’m still saving Peach again nearly three decades later.
But let’s not focus on what games are doing wrong, since that’s plain depressing. Uncharted, in each of its three games, utilizes the damsel-in-distress trope, but in different ways each time. Given developer Naughty Dog’s near-legendary know-how of storytelling, it should come as no surprise that they know how to use and subvert this trope with great mastery.
The first game, Drake’s Fortune, seems to play the trope mostly straight. Reporter-of-sorts Elena, protagonist Nathan Drake’s sidekick/tagalong, gets captured early on in the story. The first chunk of the main story has Nate trekking to a castle to free Elena — only to get himself captured. It’s then Elena who busts him out, nicely turning the male-hero-rescues-imprisoned-female dynamic on its head. Elena does get captured again towards the end, and Nate sets out after her (and the treasure). It makes enough sense in context — and Elena is far from a helpless hostage, she fights her captors and effectively sets up the final confrontation of Nate and the villain. She’s damsel’d, yes, but she’s hardly helpless most of the time.
Elena shows up about halfway through Among Thieves, the second game; this time she meets Nate gun in hand, on her own (investigative) hunt for warlord Zoran Lazaravic. Not only does she not need saving: she’s now a fighter in her own right. This game doesn’t damsel her, and even getting caught in an explosion towards the end doesn’t make her the villain’s helpless captive.
But Among Thieves introduces a new character in Chloe, an old flame from Nate’s past who constantly flips sides between good and bad. Nate, feeling like he’s dragged her into this mess, is eager to rescue her from Zoran’s camp. To do so, he fights his way along a train traveling through Nepal (that he got on with Elena’s help, which is also worth noting). But when he finds Chloe it turns out she doesn’t want to be saved: this ‘damsel’ has her own agenda. Nate — and by extension the player — may see Chloe as a damsel, but she’s hardly in distress. Here Naughty Dog subverts the players’ expectations that the damsel awaits the heroes with open arms. Instead, Chloe saves Nate’s ass when they reunite and then calls him out on his stupid heroics. Nate’s princess isn’t in another castle: Nate’s princess plain doesn’t exist.
So come the third game, Drake’s Deception, it’s almost expected that no female character gets damsel’d. And they don’t, at no point is Nate trying to save a captured woman. Instead, his best friend and father-figure Sully is captured. A good chunk of the second act has Nate trying to rescue Sully. Having an older man as the damsel rather than the typical attractive young-woman is a fun twist in and of itself. But Naughty Dog doesn’t let it end there. Nate’s unrelenting quest to rescue Sully gives us a glimpse into his own psyche. Sully being captured doesn’t just serve as an arbitrary goal for Nate; instead his capture forces Nate to confront his own inner demons, demons that only a smack on the head from a father-figure can cure him of. Dameseling a male character not only avoids unfortunate implications, but also lets us a see a more vulnerable Nate.
We need more video games like the Uncharted games. Hell, we need more stories like this. It’s wonderful to see women in an action-adventure genre who aren’t reduced to set dressing. Characters who, like Marion in Raiders of the Lost Ark, can hold their own and are fantastic in their own right. What Uncharted does is show that stories with strong plotting and motivation can be written without resorting to creating damsels in distress. It’s time to stop being lazy and to work on storytelling.
Postscript: Gameplay-wise, Chloe and Elena are useful allies in firefights, never becoming a burden. Furthermore, these games fantastic to play and not just for the narrative, they’re solid all around. Also Drake’s Deception is an example of what I was talking about last week, where we have a mixed cast but also bits of intimacy between Nate and Sully. See? It’s doable.