The Sarkeesian Sexism in Uncharted 4

(Warning: Spoilers for Uncharted 4, blahblahblah)

I really enjoyed Uncharted 4, as I have enjoyed all the Uncharted games.  They’re top notch in many ways, and I recommend them.  What they are not, however, is feminist.  That’s okay.  They don’t have to be.  I still like them.

But it’s important to point out that the Uncharted games are homages to serial adventure stories, and those include some decidedly dated gender-based tropes. In order to effectively modernize the adventure serial, its important to recognize these tropes for what they are.

So it’s baffling to me that Anita Sarkeesian fan Neil Druckmann, the creative director on the game, decided to shame a playtester on Uncharted 4 who, among other things, had the reaction that many gamers are having to the second generation mercenary character, Nadine Ross.  He got pissed off that Nadine seemed like a “Strong Female Character” instead of a developed character.

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I totally disagree with the playtester’s additional opinions on giving Nate and Elena a daughter, but playtesting is supposed to be a confidential process where people are honest about their feelings.  People don’t sign up to be mocked by the devs for having an honest reaction because that reaction was wrong.  You want unfiltered feedback, even if its stupid.  You can’t get that if playtesters think you might mock them in the press for political correctness points.

And that playtester wasn’t wrong about Nadine Ross.

The very thing that creates weaknesses in Nadine as a character was the Sarkeesian-inspired thing Druckmann is patting himself on the back for: changing male characters into female ones “to be different” instead of creating female characters from the outset.

Nadine is a stock character with a makeover.  Remember the big sub boss dude in Raiders of the Lost Ark that Indiana Jones fought around the airplane?

That’s the role Nadine plays in Uncharted 4.  And yes, absolutely, that character kicks the crap out of the hero unless the hero fights dirty.  But there’s a physicality to that character trope that isn’t there with Nadine: these characters tend to look physically intimidating, not like retired supermodels on high protein diets with gym-sculpted shoulders.

Nadine fell into a trope that didn’t end up on Tropes vs Women: Superwoman Syndrome.  Superwoman Syndrome is a state recognized by post-second wave feminists as a “double enslavement” of women.  Not only are women now supposed to be perfect wives and homemakers, but we’re supposed to be perfect at everything else too.

The problem with Superwoman Syndrome is that it’s impossible to be perfect at everything.  So the ongoing attempts to be perfect at everything wear women down and make us physically and mentally sick.  It’s a uniquely profound issue for black women, something Nadine’s motion capture actress, Laura Bailey, couldn’t bring to the part because Naughty Dog cast a white woman.  That’s the developer’s right, but in light of how the character turned out, I think it’s fair to criticize them for that decision.

The film Deadpool uses the same type of character, but did it right.  When audiences first see Gina Carano’s Angel Dust character, they have the same reaction that they did to that guy in Indiana Jones,  “Oh my freaking god nothing is going to stop that human tank.”  Carano brought a physical presence that was appropriate for the part, and the very same guys complaining about Nadine absolutely love Carano in that role.  It isn’t about misogyny.  It’s about failing to replicate the requirements of the trope in the switch from male to female.

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With Superwoman Syndrome comes a tightening of the beauty myth.  Gina Carano smashed it in Deadpool because she was physically large, but still beautiful and desirable.  But she’s an exception that proves the larger rule that in most media, women look like models no matter what they’re supposed to be playing.  Cops look like models.  Firefighters look like models.  Doctors look like models.  So real life female cops don’t tend to look like the ones you see on TV, while real life male cops do.  That becomes a PR problem for real life first responders.

The social impact goes deeper than that, however.  The body type that keeps getting replicated is decidedly and profoundly white.  The b-to-c-cup breasts, boyish hips, and the lean muscle; the slightly freckled skin and “modest” Western dress that are the hallmarks of Sarkeesian-brand false-feminist character design… this rigid standard marginalizes the beauty paradigms of other cultures.  Latina and Black women have to reclaim their fuller hips and “Oakland booties” to get around accusations that their natural bodies are fat or obscene.  The fear of naked female bodies is colonial thinking.

All Sarkeesian’s followers have done is swap one set of racist, sexist ideals for another, instead of actually reducing racism and sexism.  They’ve just created another trope: The Sarkeesian.  It’s no less sexist to force a woman to conform to the Sarkeesian — a woman who is the embodiment of “strong” until the point that strength might threaten or offend — than, say, a Ms Male Character.

Ellie in The Last of Us and Angel Dust in Deadpool were embraced, because they are not Sarkeesians.  Trishka in Bulletstorm is not a Sarkeesian.  They have personalities and say and do deliberately offensive or “unfeminine” things.  Nadine doesn’t have quotable lines, a distinct look, or any sort of swagger or spark, because those might put someone off.  A Sarkeesian trope character never offends with intent.  That’s what makes them so offensive.

As I said, no one expects the Uncharted games to be paragons of political correctness.  The four most prominent characters in Uncharted 4 — Nate, Sully, Nate’s brother, and the main bad guy – are all white, cisgendered men.  Uncharted games have always been bromances, and that’s fine.  There’s a place for that.  Just don’t piss in my ear and tell me it’s raining feminism.

Furthermore, making a game about men doesn’t mean there’s license to get lazy with the writing of the female characters who ARE included.  There’s a distinct, if subtle, difference in how certain plot and character points are handled in Uncharted 4 than in the previous Uncharted games… when the games were written by a woman, Amy Hennig.  I have never been a big fan of Elena Fisher, but Uncharted 2 and Uncharted 3 did a lot to pull her away from her stock character “feisty Girl Friday love interest” origins in the original game.  Of course, a lot of men love Elena for the very reasons I despise her in Uncharted and Uncharted 4 – she enables Nate’s truly bad behaviour.

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Elena doesn’t, I believe, get nearly angry enough when Nate yet again lies to her for no good reason.  Of course, it’s very possible that Elena was furious when she first discovered her husband had lied to her a-gain, but we never see that, because her wifely rage happens off screen.  So despite the piles of laundry in their house, Elena is still a Superwoman: she doesn’t have limits or boundaries where a fully-formed woman would.

Nate, and the player, is never truly confronted with the depths of what lying does to your partner.  The game does not confront the player with Elena’s raw, authentic feelings in response to being deceived.  Where Ellie swore, yelled, cried, and smashed stuff in The Last of Us, Elena pouts and offers sage words of understanding.  We don’t see the depths and immediacy of Elena’s pain, we don’t empathize with her the way we do Ellie, because we never see Elena at her worst, so she’s not totally real.

Because Elena is the perfect wife who only gets angry in perfect, private ways.  I’m sure I’m not the only woman who plays this game who has been married long enough to go “Oh come on!  That’s BULLSHIT.”

Oh but we’re not supposed to have that reaction, see?  We’re supposed to be “understanding” and “supportive” partners.  Because when our husband FEELZ BAD, the dutiful wife understands that it’s okay that he acts like an irresponsible manchild instead of discussing the situation like a grown up.  We’re supposed to accept that this is just the way men are.

Bullshit.  Bullshit bullshit bullshit.  There are different ways to be a man, but grown up men are honest.  Lying to your spouse about important things is the fastest way to destroy a marriage.  Nate and Elena broke up multiple times because of his immaturity.  He was supposed to have grown up some at the end of Uncharted 3, which is why they got back together and everyone cheered.

But in Uncharted 4, he’s back to being a dishonest baby, and Elena lets him be a dishonest baby with smiles, loving stokes to his face, and little more than the occasional pout.  He’s worn her down, and at this point she’s accepted that he’s going to lie to her whenever it’s convenient for him to do so, as long as he’s sorry later.  When a partner lies for that long, that consistently, he’s going to keep lying.  He has to want to change not to stop her from leaving — which is still manipulating things to get a desired outcome — but because he realizes that lying to her shows her no respect.  (The same goes for when women lie.  Just in this case, Nate and Elena are a heterosexual couple and the lying partner is male.)

So Nate and Elena go off into domestic bliss, where she never again sets hard boundaries because he’ll just lie his way around them.  Yes, that’s not what the game is supposed to have us believe, but that’s what someone like me, who has been married for seventeen years, sees.  A hard lesson of marriage is that feeling bad isn’t enough.  In order for your partner to trust you, you can’t keep doing the same crap to them over and over.

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Nate and Elena do not have a believable, healthy marriage of equals.  They are a manboy married to a Superwoman.  That’s disappointing, because those marriages don’t tend to last in the real world.  A cycle of passive aggressive resentment forms because the Elena is constantly biting down her anger to be “supportive” and the Nate justifies a string of “white” lies because he doesn’t want to trouble the little wife with the truth.  If he does, she might say no.

These sorts of on-screen marriages are a sexist trope that gets replicated to falsely portray women as superior people in inferior positions.  Since we have to give cutesy names to all these tropes now, let’s call it “Wifey McAwesomesauce”.  Wifey McAwesomesauce is also seen in numerous sitcoms, in which no one can quite figure out why a mature, competent woman is married to Schlubby McScrewup.  Wifey McAwesomesauce has a great job, great clothes, great hair, and raised great kids.  Schlubby McScrewup is a misandrist stereotype who can’t change a diaper, make a school lunch, or drop the kids off without “hilarious” calamity.  And yet the show is always about Schlubby McScrewup because no one actually cares what’s going on in Wifey McAwesome’s mind.  Her perfect perfectness of perfection is only there to validate the comic struggles of her schlub husband.  It’s a rare sitcom, like All In The Family, Roseanne, and Blackish, where the spouses actually seem believably matched.  In these sitcoms, both partners screw up, and they actually yell at each other.  Like, really yell.  The way people do in real life.  The way Elena didn’t yell at Nate.

I’m not saying Naughty Dog should change any of this.  It’s a particular brand of escapist male fantasy, and that’s fine, since the tradition in which the games exist is soaking in that stuff.  But Naughty Dog doesn’t get to play in that sandbox and also collect “Great Male Feminist” points.  Elena may put on a few non-perfect post-baby pounds if they keep trying to have their cake and eat it too.

 

Note: Someone on twitter asked me what I would have changed in Elena’s reaction to make her seem more real.  There are various ways to do that.  A complex way would have been bonus content that allowed the player to play through, as Elena, discovering Nate lied, so we got to see her reaction.  A much faster way would be to have her be less damned nice to him right off the bat.  Saving his life is one thing, but it would have been more satisfying if she saved him without forgiving him right away.  We lost out on a lot of good potential dialogue because Elena was too nice to be fun.

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Uncharted 4 Single Player Review

 

Naughty Dog has been adamant that the story of Nathan Drake is coming to a close, and they decided to send him off in grand style. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a gigantic game, and its strengths and weaknesses are mostly connected to the sheer scope and grandeur of the game. At its best, it’s mind-blowingly awesome. At its weakest moments, it’s just trying to do too much in one game.

For me, Naughty Dog’s biggest achievement this go-round isn’t the astounding graphics, the masterful sound, or the awe-inspiring level designs. It’s the fact that the studio has finally overcome its traditional Achilles heel of a bug that let characters drift inside environmental objects. The game did freeze once, there was some minor frame rate lag from time to time, and I noticed a couple of object pop ins, but considering the size of the levels, the sheer amount of stuff going on in-game, and a general video game industry allowance for a level of sloppiness when games go beyond a certain scale, the profound absence of bugs in the single player campaign is a huge achievement for which Naughty Dog should be praised.

Now let’s dig into the stuff that most people care about more: gameplay and story. Drake is on the trail of Henry “the King of Pirates” Avery’s pirate loot. The focus on pirates feels a little stale after Assassin’s Creed put almost every pirate ever into their games, but the platforming puzzles are astoundingly good, with a nice flow that doesn’t sharply demarcate between puzzle portions, exploration portions, and combat elements. Gone are the days of one artificially-indicated path. Yes, those obvious ledges are still there, but there’s often more than one, with some dead ends. Exploration also pays off because of collectables, but there are also additional journal entries to find that give you a much better sense of the mystery that Drake is chasing this time around.

Uncharted games have traditionally been challenging – action adventure platformers tend to be more difficult and require you to think more than your average shooter. I think Uncharted 4 ups the ante a little, and there are a few downright frustrating moments. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but a “skip” option might have been nice for those playing just for the story.

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Though I wouldn’t recommend that. Uncharted plots have always been goofy in the spirit of the matinee serial films that inspire the series. The lighter tone has distinguished Uncharted’s obvious direct competitor: the Tomb Raider games. The plot of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End benefits by comparison to the garbage fire that was the story of Lara’s latest adventure, but that doesn’t mean that it’s great. The second half of the story is great. The first half is slow, scattered, humourless, and overly reliant on overlong cut scenes. Yes yes, it’s all very pretty, but I don’t want to watch a game. I want to play a game.

For some reason, Naughty Dog decided to sideline characters we know and love to introduce Sam Drake, Nate’s long lost brother. Sam is a pretty good character in his own right, but he hogs the screen time, and since this is perhaps the last we’re going to see of Elena and Sully, it’s frustrating that they’re not present for large portions of the game. At times, it feels like Naughty Dog is trying to recapture the bromance patter that made Uncharted 2 such a joy to play, but the game falls short, and of course it does: the loss of Amy Hennig’s light dialogue touch is profoundly felt, as is a seeming lack of understanding regarding what’s going on in the female characters’ heads. Many of Elena’s lines come across as products of “my wife said this to me once, so it must be profound” moments in the writers’ room. Accordingly, these lines come across as “perfect woman” platitudes that reminded me why I couldn’t stand Elena in the first game.

And Elena isn’t the only too-perfect female character in Uncharted 4. Nadine Ross is another “better than men at everything” character. The whole game just seems so self-conscious about having “positive” female representation that it doesn’t let these characters just be characters. None of them pop like Ellie does in The Last of Us, despite numerous other elements transferred over from that game.

After all, Nathan Drake is a great character precisely because he’s flawed. He screws up. He can’t always fix it. But some of his morally questionable actions this time around ring hollow. It left me with the distinct impression that Naughty Dog listened to their critics too much, and wanted very badly to explain why their charming rogue hero kills so many people. Who cares? Indiana Jones also shoots plenty of people. Shooting people in a video game is fun. Especially when they’re sociopathic mercenaries who are trying to kill my in-game avatar.

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The insecurity on display in the writing is a shame, because the characters who are just allowed to be characters are pretty awesome. Sully is very Sully when he makes his appearances, and this is good. Sam, as I mentioned, is good too. And the villain of the game is as legitimately scary as a guy without super powers other than ridiculous wealth can be. Every element of the guy made me want to punch him in the face in the very best of ways.

As I said, the second half of the game, once they cut through all the “serious emotional core” nonsense, is great. Once you’re exploring beautiful levels, experiencing the wonder of the glorious graphics and romantic scenarios, you forget about the cheeseball attempts at a “meaningful” story. The Madagascar level is one of the most glorious things I’ve experienced in a video game, and it’s one of many thoroughly gorgeous environments you’ll encounter. There’s so much eye candy, you’ll get retinal cavities. Lots of stuff blows up, lots of shooting happens, and what more do you really want from a video game?

I’ve hammered at Uncharted 4‘s flaws because I really do think the game is worth playing. Better, I think it’s worth paying full price, because technically, it’s a glimpse into the future of what video games can do. It’s not just graphics either. It’s everything: rope physics, driving mechanics, mud and gravel behaving realistically, weather effects being a subtle addition instead of LOOK THERE IS WEATHER! On top of this is sound design so artful there were times I stopped to appreciate the creaking of different types of flooring, the groan of a building, or a subtle environmental sound that just made the whole thing seem that much more magical. I still think the pause sound effect is one of the greatest game sounds ever. Is that enough sound nerding? I hope so.

Despite iffy writing, Uncharted 4 innovates. If you’ve got a PS4, give it a try.

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Text of my Canada’s Top 20 Countdown Segment on Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

city_06This segment will air on Canada’s Top 20 Countdown syndicated radio show on Saturday.

IT’S ALMOST HERE! After numerous delays, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End finally gets released to the public on May 10th! But because I have special privileges… meaning a review code… I’ve already started playing it!

The graphics are, possibly, the best you’ve ever seen on a console, but more importantly, the game plays smoothly, thanks to subtle tweaks that make slippery surfaces and ropes move more realistically. And because it’s an exclusive, it’s optimized for the Playstation 4, but it also has a ton of audio and video customization options, as well as accessibility options, so everyone can get the experience they want.

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For those who haven’t played an Uncharted game before, it’s the story of globetrotting rogue Nathan Drake, and is an homage to classic adventure movies in the Indiana Jones type tradition. These games have always been technical showpieces for Playstation, and this one is no exception.

But what about the story? Playstation has sworn me – and pretty much every other journalist – to secrecy. But I’m sure plot spoilers will be all over the internet before launch, because a lot of games reviewers are angry jerks with no lives who live to spread their misery around like internet herpes whenever possible.

… oops, did I say that out loud?

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(I’ll have a full review up when I finish the game!)

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