Have you ever noticed that Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series opens through the lens of a camera? Not just any camera, of course, but that of Elena Fisher. While women do feature throughout the franchise, and even lead the acclaimed tie-in The Lost Legacy, only Elena appears in every game. Frankly, she’s one of the best parts of them. As a journalist, TV personality, and foreign correspondent, Elena is a force to be reckoned with, even able to hold her own throughout Nathan Drake’s daunting adventures. Which makes the “Elena problem” so sad.
The issue isn’t immediately obvious. Initially, when diving into the franchise, we see Elena as a fully-realised character, a woman who is just as intelligent and adept as Nate is, and even a figure of empowerment. Much of this relates to her skill-set, which mirrors and complements that of Nate. While his aim is sharp, her driving is steady; while his head is full of facts about the past, hers is crammed with modern know-how. Simply put, Elena is amazing at what she does. That’s why every time her work is dismissed by Nate and made wholly redundant by the game, the empowerment of her character fades until it’s barely there at all.
Drake’s Fortune sets up a cycle of promoting and consequent demoting of Elena’s work with a symmetry that would be deserving of praise—if it weren’t coming at the expense of the series’ most major female character. Opening within Elena’s recording, the game establishes her as a professional woman, drawing you into her world of TV journalism straight away as she narrates their discovery of Sir Francis Drake’s coffin while floating on the Pacific ocean.
She’s back on the ocean as the game closes. Her camera, the one thing she’s carried with her throughout her journey, has vanished into the waves. But she’s okay—she has treasure chests instead. It’s an uncharacteristic indifference that she shows to Nate saying, “there’ll be other stories.” The game asks you to accept the loss of all her work, and her apathetic response to it, because who needs career success when you have a boyfriend?
In essence, it comes down to gender bias. Nate’s work is prioritised over Elena’s despite its illegality and instability, unconsciously or otherwise. This preferential treatment afforded to men forgives Nate for not only swooping in to save Elena, as in the series’ second installment Among Thieves, but also for providing the answers to every question that she has regarding the games’ big bad, Lazarevic, in a fantastic example of mansplaining.
Her entire introduction in the game is framed in a way that celebrates her achievement in tracking down a war criminal that most believed to be dead; yet Nate’s arrival immediately makes that achievement feel insignificant. His presence in this predicament comes down to coincidence alone, but male bias leads us to see the charm in his actions rather than feel angry that Elena and her commitment to her work is belittled once again. It’s not the empowering set-up the game thinks it is.
Bias towards men is not lacking in video games. It manifests in many ways, allowing for the repetition of harmful depictions of hyper-masculine heroes like Nathan Drake; you know the ones, the adventurers who can shoot down hundreds, casually make misogynistic quips, or use their female counterparts when needed, before throwing them to the side until the kiss before the credits. It materialises throughout the Uncharted series as exploitation: the physical appeal of female characters is always complimented while their interests, desires, and goals are disregarded.
Drake’s Deception makes this evident. Though demoted to side-character, Elena is shown to be doing well, narratively-speaking. She married and later left Nate, taking a job as a foreign correspondent in Yemen. Maybe it’s unbelievable that she managed this position, considering her track record of trading news reports for romance, but her job is important. Without it, who could Nate rely on to fake ID cards to get him and Sully through the country and the rest of the plot? Caring in nature and designed to want to help, Elena does what she can to provide for the duo, but Nate is an action-hero. He’s not designed to say thank you, so her contribution goes thankless once again.
It’s deeply ironic. In creating a female character that is grounded by her ability to “handle herself,” but is consistently maneuvering her out of any danger to highlight Nate’s heroism, her independence and perceived empowerment is negated. Their efforts to depict a skilled journalist willing to risk her own life in order to reveal the truth instead demonstrate why it is that international relations articles written by women receive fewer citations than men and why only 40% of journalists in the ten top online news outlets are women.
It’s with some relief, then, that the finale, A Thief’s End, seems to be aware of the irony that has run deep within the franchise for nearly a decade. As the most emotionally intimate and thematically intricate of the series, family is at the heart of this story. For once, Elena is not working for a scoop, she’s there for her husband—to support him as he is torn between his chosen and biological families. While it is disappointing that Elena must again be demoted in order for Nate to deal with the emotional (and literal) fallout of his brother’s return, the two do share an extended sequence together where Nate finally begins to make it up to Elena, and by extension the largely female players he let down.
“I had to protect you,” he would repeat to Elena, almost as if it were a motto. But it’s a catchphrase he leaves behind here as he admits, “I guess I was protecting myself.” Finally, we see active appreciation for who she is as Nate takes the time to look at her, really look at her, before confessing, “You know I forgot. [You’re] pretty good at this.” It’s a touching moment, played quietly and with sincerity. Perhaps Naughty Dog realised that this was their last chance to capture Elena’s elusive empowerment. Or perhaps they just wanted to end the series with Nate in her good books. Either way, the closing moments show the two coming together finally as equals. It’s just a shame that equal is where Elena ends, and not where she begins.
I am someone who looks for the female characters in games, someone who truly roots for them. I wanted to root for Elena, and to an extent I did. But by the end of this series, after I’d seen her discredited, dismissed, and downtrodden time and time again, I couldn’t help but feel angry for her rather than inspired by her, despite our shared profession. It’s probably why, when prepping for Manchester Comic Con, it was Nathan Drake I cosplayed as—not her.
The “Elena problem” is subtle but no less potent; every installment offered her the chance to become a female video game icon to celebrate, but every installment snatched that opportunity from her before she could take it up. It’s a sad trait of the action genre; the adventuring hero needs someone to save and someone to love. Unluckily, it’s a role that Elena was written to take. And no amount of career success can surmount that. Not yet.