Max Landis is no stranger to writing strong female characters.
In his recently released directorial debut, Me Him Her, Landis tells a story of identity and sexual fluidity. Early in the film, one character remarks “the line between dreams and reality is thinner here,” when describing the Los Angeles setting. This line cleverly alludes to gender politics and confusion, while simultaneously giving Landis license to make directing choices that would otherwise be considered weird. While grappling with their sexuality, characters float through space and ride mythical creatures. Without spoiling anything from the movie, because it’s great and you should see it, the lead female character is clearly strong. She’s dynamic and weird and frustrated and dumb and smart—it’s great.
Landis’ Mr. Right, shows off what might be the strongest female character I’ve seen in film. Martha (played by Anna Kendrick) is a person. In that I mean she’s a complete person that occasionally goes out of her way to make mistakes wrought with self-pity. Other times she’s insightful, wistful and charming. Most importantly, she is definitely not a damsel in distress in this action-thriller/romantic comedy. Again, without spoiling the movie (also great, you should see it), Martha asserts her importance both in the film and as a female character outside of it.
Max Landis is an accomplished Hollywood screenwriter. It’s important for storyteller’s to listen and dialogue with one another. In what seems like a genuine attempt at a teaching moment, Landis published a video (posted below) explaining why he thinks Nadine from Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 4 is a fake female character.
Landis contends that Uncharted 4 falls into a “narrative trap.” He describes this by stating “You fall into doing something easy because it’s a trope and you’ve seen it before and you need to evoke an emotion.” Landis clarifies that this is not an intentional act, rather it’s something writers do after being unknowingly exposed to a storytelling method over and over again.
Landis reminds us that Nadine is the leader of a private army that she inherited from her father. She fights you and establishes clear physical dominance. Then, she fights you and your brother at the same time, and beats you both. Finally, she is able to track Nathan Drake, a skilled explorer, all around the world.
Nadine is strong, but Landis reminds us that what it means to be a strong female character is often “blurry.” He clarifies that ideally, female characters are about more than their status as women. They can own their sexuality, but they need to be dynamic people. I spoke to Landis’ recent movies above to assure readers that he has done this, he has accomplished this.
So, what’s the issue with Nadine?
Well, at the close of the game, she gets a pass.
Landis contends that Nadine should be the main villain of Uncharted 4. The tough sidekick should take the reins of the operation from the whiny boss, Rafe. Instead, Nadine is slapped, Rafe turns on her and reveals he has paid off her army so that they are now devoted to him.
This is ridiculous, and frankly, I’m upset I didn’t notice it the first time. Every review, every spoiler discussion of Uncharted 4, was upset with Nadine’s importance to the story. “She’s the army,” we would say, “she’s the means of establishing a ridiculous amount of meaningless grunts to kill.”
The whole point, for the ENTIRETY of the game, is that Nadine has what Rafe needs: soldiers. Yet, at the end of Uncharted 4, that entire role is forgotten. Her soldiers side with Rafe for no reason other than some smarmy comment akin to “everyone has a price.”
Instead of letting Nadine take control of the situation, instead of getting the opportunity to defeat her, she is discarded, in favor of a man-on-man duel.
The “narrative trap” is encapsulated in the moment when Rafe slaps Nadine. She is reduced to victim status. After being abused by a man, players will feel sympathy for her, side with her, and when she turns on Rafe players should be happy for her.
If Nadine’s character was treated more like a person, we would have gotten the chance to freaking kill her. Landis contends that the developers should have chosen “the trope over the trap.” Having Nadine overthrow Rafe would have allowed her to claim main villain status. Instead, her importance is almost limited to that of grunt supplier, and the second her man betrays her, she removes herself from the entire situation.
Naughty Dog would rather their strong female character wasn’t the bad guy. They rob her of everything that made her a badass at the beginning of the game. Rafe, for some reason, needs to be the bad guy. In achieving that, Nadine’s character is betrayed.
“If you have an opportunity to be true to your character over your story, take it.”
That’s just good advice.
Uncharted 4 is such a fantastic game, it’s really great to see it critiqued by such accomplished storytellers. With continued dialogue between creators, hopefully we will see less stories that fall into these traps, and more that emerge with stronger characters.