“We have to have a girls’ night soon!” That’s how a female acquaintance—the one I can say I’m fairly close to—always concludes our monthly lunch date. Despite her cheery insistence, it never happens, but that doesn’t stop me from dreading the possibility.I know that if I go, I’ll listen to everyone discuss their marriages, jobs, kids, wishing I were worlds away while also yearning to fit into their tidy lives. “Girls’ night” is a nice sentiment, but it’s never been my reality. From high school age onward (I’m in my late twenties), I’ve failed to establish or maintain the kind of “bestie” relationship I’ve yearned to find since my middle school days. Instead, I’ve always turned to my favorite hobby to help find an analogue for what a “normal” friendship actually feels like: Videogames.
I’m in a long-term relationship, but watching and playing out friendships between women provides the same comfort I’ve sought in a real-life female confidant. Typically, female friendships have been nearly nonexistent in gaming, and, when present, exist on the periphery—confined to character descriptions or backstory exposition, telling players rather than showing them. Thanks to recent game from developers like Naughty Dog and Deck Nine Games, though, some of 2017’s biggest games have foregrounded the primacy of women’s friendships in gaming. These studios have created situations that not only model the types of adventures and interactions I aspire to have in my own life, but broaden the narrative scope of gaming as a whole.
Recently, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy swapped out the franchise’s treasure-hunting frontman, Nathan Drake, for two of its prominent female characters: roguish Chloe Frazer (voiced by Claudia Black), and former mercenary Nadine Ross (Laura Bailey), originally seen in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. The change resonated with fans, much to Naughty Dog’s delight. But why Chloe, and why weave a tale of a strong relationship between two women rather than the raucous “buddy cop” adventures portrayed in the previous Uncharted games? “She was a very mysterious character. People really liked her, but no one really knew about her,” says Shaun Escayg, The Lost Legacy’s creative director. “We couldn’t tell which side she was on.” There was also an element of surprise: Chloe she wasn’t exactly someone that seemed ready to let anyone in.
The game’s writers paired Chloe with Nadine as a classic moral yin-yang. “Nadine is by the book,” says Escayg, “and Chloe is this hustler and thief. They’re sort of opposites with similarities that hold them together, bonding them.” It’s a relationship that could apply to any two women, and one I found myself relating to more and more as Nadine and I journeyed together through the game. I tend to be the sardonic, deadpan half of any pair, and can be quick to retreat behind a hardened facade if things aren’t going my way. In the past (and, frankly, even now) I found it hard to be anything other than bulletproof, but seeing Chloe open up to Nadine in the smallest of ways gave me flashbacks to friendships I now wish I had spent more time incubating.
There’s one in-game exchange between Chloe and Nadine that feels all too familiar—a conversation I’ve tried to have with other women working in games writing. “Look, for what it’s worth, it’s your kick-ass reputation that got you this job,” Chloe says to Nadine. As someone who struggles to be more eloquent and honest in my admiration of other strong women without coming off as though I’m fangirling, I can almost hear the blush creeping to her cheeks. “Plus, I figured you could use the money,” she adds quietly to inject a little humor.
“You’re not wrong,” Nadine scoffs, clearly beginning warmed to her new partner.
“Honestly, though, it’s actually nice working with a woman for a change.”
“Not many of us out here,” Nadine concurred. Truer words, I think to myself.
This kind of banter is unique for the Uncharted franchise as a whole; the only real interactions between Chloe with another woman up until The Lost Legacy usually revolved around Nathan Drake, or seeing Elena as competition, so it’s doubly refreshing to hear the two women build each other up the way Drake and his mentor Sully have always done. (ThoughAfter multiple games saddled with the swaggering masculinity of Drake and his pals, Chloe finally gets someone she can let her guard down around, and the game becomes stronger for it. “It happens in spite of her, but she’s willing to soften and open to the possibility of being vulnerable around someone,” says Claudia Black, who portrays Chloe. “I think it’s beautiful that it happens around another woman who has also had to be so strong.”
Pairing Chloe and Nadine may have been an unorthodox decision for Naughty Dog to make regarding the Uncharted series, especially since neither were exactly the poster child for women who were looking to befriend others, or anyone for that matter. But for a wildly popular adventure game series prequel from Square Enix and newcomer Deck Nine Games, it made all the sense in the world.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm is meant as a prequel to 2015’s Life is Strange, building upon a central relationship between two teenage girls. You play as Chloe Price (yes, another Chloe), who’s dealing with an teen-angst trifecta: her father has died; her best friend has suddenly moved away; and her mother has just introduced her to her potential new stepfather. But when Chloe befriends one of the most popular girls in school, Rachel Amber, the two share an electric chemistry—and it kicks off a rock-and-roll fable about two girls finding themselves in a world that’s increasingly unkind, forcing them to adapt to their ever-changing surroundings or get lost in the undertow.
The dynamic between the two reminded me of the few times in my own life when I met those special individuals who I thought I’d be bonded to for life—best friends who’d do anything for each other. Watching Chloe drawn to the flickering flame that was Rachel Amber, though, felt unexpectedly resonant, and in a flash I realized why I had disliked Chloe so much in the original Life is Strange: I saw myself in her. I saw a young woman who continued to push others away and tell herself that she’s the problem, much like I find myself doing as an adult. “When people continue to abandon Chloe, she builds a narrative in her head around what that means about her, like it’s a condemnation of her,” says Zak Garriss, Deck Nine Games’ lead writer. “I suspect we’ve all gone through something like that or we know someone who has.”
When I played through the pair skipping school together to hop on a train to nowhere, or lying to their friends and family, I saw my own unhealthy relationships reflected back at me. The friendship may bring Chloe out of her slump, but it’s also a dangerous one; still, when you have nothing else, even a disastrous friendship seems like one worth pursuing. It’s a cycle I’ve become intimately familiar with on my own quest to find women I can be friends with. But while an imperfect dynamic like Chloe and Rachel’s may seem detrimental to the portrayal of friendships between women in gaming as a whole, it’s in fact the opposite—providing a nuanced look into characters that many assume are relegated to princesses and femme fatales, bereft of the ability to make or maintain relationships.
Indie creators have always outpaced the big-budget sectors of gaming in telling stories about, and for, all people. But with larger studios like Deck Nine and Naughty Dog (who before The Lost Legacy explored female friendship in 2014’s critically acclaimed The Last of Us: Left Behind) doing the same, the that imbalance may slowly shift. Deck Nine’s Garriss says he’s invested in telling “better stories” about women in games: “I’m interested in what it’s doing to the industry, what it’s doing for an underrepresented community.” While it isn’t perfect—and probably never will be—there’s hope in the fact that developers are actively engaged in working to improve such stereotypical storytelling.
In the meantime, I’m still trying to figure out how to get friendship “right” as an adult. It may need to begin with introducing the women I know to the amazing characters I’ve been lucky enough to play.