If you are unsure what ‘Women in Refrigerators’ are, check here first…*
Elena Fisher, the rather brilliant woman to whom Uncharted protagonist Nathan Drake is married, has not yet been announced as being in the ensemble for Uncharted 4; A Thief’s End, but it should be a reasonably safe bet that she will be. She and Nathan were reunited at the end of Uncharted 3; Drake’s Deception, and we see Nate in the E3 teaser still wearing the wedding ring he put back on in that final scene. And so speculation as to what her involvement might be is rife (naturally) and I see little more suggested than that she will, at best, be threatened and incapable of doing anything about it, or, at worst, physically taken and incapable of doing anything about it, thus Nathan is “brought out of retirement to save her”. This idea is problematic for a number of reasons, and while I wouldn’t normally comment on others’ speculation and theories, this one is a big enough issue to warrant a response.
We first meet Elena in the opening cutscene of Uncharted; Drake’s Fortune as the journalist whose cable TV show is essentially funding Nathan’s search for Sir Francis Drake. I don’t want to talk about how ‘capable’ she is, or how she ‘holds her own’ in difficult situations because that is patronising towards her and ultimately detracts from the very obvious fact that she is simply a great character. I believe this sort of language also does a disservice to the writing; well written characters aren’t a ‘feature’ of Uncharted games; they are just what you get.
Through her personal story across the games so far, we see her grow professionally. It is important to note that she does all this entirely without help from the men around her. The story that Nate promised her in Drake’s Fortune never really materialised as ultimately all the footage was lost. But by the time we meet her in Among Thieves, to Nate’s surprise (he is wholly unaware) she has become a reporter with her own cameraman, looking for a story in an incredibly dangerous situation. Sully’s greeting to Elena in Drake’s Deception (“Elena Fisher! Foreign Correspondent!”) suggests that neither he nor Nate have seen her since her latest career advancement. It is easy to see how Elena gets where she is. She isn’t afraid to ask the questions, and she isn’t shy about saying what is on her mind.
The scene in which Nate and Chloe run into Elena in Nepal is a very important one in her character construction as it shows her as a professional, but it also shows her as a person. Although she doesn’t openly lament the fact that her ex-boyfriend is apparently enjoying the company of another woman, she does stick the knife in a couple of times. Her self-introduction as “last year’s model” is a deliberate attempt (and a successful one) to make Nate feel uncomfortable, and also a subtle reminder that perhaps she isn’t entirely OK with the situation. It’s a natural reaction, no matter how ‘over’ someone you are. Even the animation of her not very guardedly eyeballing Chloe up and down reinforces this message. Her later concern for Nathan’s well-being is not, in my opinion, a ploy to ‘get him back’; rather it is what a person who cares about others would do.
We see Elena as Nathan’s moral compass several times throughout the series; she calls him out on his more stupid ideas more often than any other character. Sully is too indulgent and Chloe is too much like him. However, she also eggs him on when she feels he could do better. In Drake’s Fortune Nate is all ready to give up and go home, and it is Elena who reminds him of what he came for. Later in Among Thieves, although it is a different situation, Elena urges him to continue once more, for the sake of everyone. She recognises his strengths and weaknesses perhaps better than he does. So when in Drake’s Deception she questions why on earth he is so hell bent on following through, you know that really she is the one that Nate should be listening to. And yet he doesn’t, and ultimately it is Sully who is put in danger, and it is Elena who goes about arranging his release. While Nate is busy sinking a cruise liner, Elena is busy working out how to get onto a plane that will take her to where Sully is being held. “For Sully? Yeah.”
Narratively the idea that Elena is in danger doesn’t seem to work, either. In the E3 trailer it sounds as though Nathan is persuading Sully to help. If Elena were in danger, wouldn’t Sully be right there with Nate, no hesitation? The suggestion that Elena is pregnant with Nate’s child is also doing the rounds. She may well be, but this wouldn’t make her a helpless individual. As a formerly pregnant person I can report that while it is hard work it does not make you incapable of activity and looking after yourself. It doesn’t mean you instantly need a man to come and help you out if you get in a spot of bother. You do not cease to be who you were purely because you are carrying a child.
So where is this leading? The suggestion that Naughty Dog will now undo all the hard work that went into making Elena who she is shows a lack of faith in them as writers. The two possible fates suggested for Elena by this persistent theory boils down to two prevalent tropes used against female characters in video games. If Elena is harmed to ‘get at Nate’ she becomes a ‘Woman in a Refrigerator’, and if she is abducted, she becomes the Damsel in Distress. While it is true that not all things should be used to push some sort of ‘agenda’ (and writing female characters with as much dignity and thought as their male counterparts isn’t exactly an ‘agenda’) there are many better and more creative ways of not being loudly feminist, if not being loudly feminist is your goal. The narrative might not be trying to make a statement about the treatment of women in games, but neither should it forget that there is a problem in the first place. Shoving Elena Fisher into a metaphorical fridge is not the way forward for Naughty Dog, for game narrative or for Elena Fisher.
We know that the post-Hennig team of Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley know how to write a good story without objectifying their women or removing their agency. Slight spoilers follow for the Last of Us… When Joel is injured Ellie is left to fend for herself, and to find food and medicine for her incapacitated companion. She is captured by the cannibal David. Hold on, doesn’t this make her a Damsel in Distress? No, it doesn’t, because Ellie gets herself out. She battles her way free, despite being outnumbered and out-gunned, and in the process saves the life of Joel. Her agency is not removed by her capture, but if Nathan is ‘forced out of retirement to save his wife’, Elena has no agency whatsoever. She becomes an object, and this is what we should be avoiding.
I truly don’t believe Naughty Dog would fall back on this trope. They have a long history of doing things right with regards to their female characters and their female audiences. Without exception their female characters are well rounded and don’t merely exist to provide eye-candy, nor have they been objectified to the point where they could be easily replaced by a lampshade. Naughty Dog also look after their female audience by sticking to their guns about their marketing strategies etc. They reportedly put their foot down when it was suggested that the cover art for The Last of Us should show Joel more prominently than Ellie, and when a magazine purposefully airbrushed Ellie out of an image of both the main characters they were called out on it by Neil Druckmann very publicly. The list of times Naughty Dog got it right goes on. So why do people think they are going to screw up now and ruin Elena Fisher? And worryingly, why don’t more people see that damselling her or shoving her in that fridge would be screwing up?
*Briefly; Women in Refrigerators are female characters who are (usually) murdered as a plot device to motivate the male lead.