Thematic meaning is usually derived from a work’s conflict, though it may not always be the most obvious conflict. In the first Uncharted game, the surface level conflict is between Drake and the pirates headed by Gabriel Roman, but the thematic conflict is between ideas not people.
The subtitle of that game is Drake’s Fortune. The first question to ask is “which Drake is being referred to?,” and the answer is, it doesn’t matter. The second question is “what is the fortune?” That is not so easy a question to answer. The game is ostensibly a treasure hunt, mirroring the conquistadors’ own drive for El Dorado. The whole game concerns two groups on the hunt for a giant golden statue, first in the Central American jungle and then on an uncharted South Pacific island. But neither group gets the prize, which is due to Drake’s efforts.
The central element in every character’s motivations in the game is greed. Everyone wants something of a material nature. Gabriel, Navarro, Eddie, Sully and Drake are all after the money that the statue is worth. Elena is after her story and is willing to go to the same lengths that Drake and the others are for the gold. There is no higher goal for any of them than personal enrichment. Their desires are all selfish and the differences between the people is the lengths that they are willing to go to pursue them.
Now while this could be said to be the basic tenet of the entire series, it isn’t so. In both Among Thieves and Drake’s Deception, each plot begins as another treasure hunt, but that hunt is quick subsumed by other themes and more pressing concerns. At several points, Drake, Sully and Elena could hightail it out of there together, but they don’t take the opportunity. And this is before they learn the secret of the golden sarcophagus. It is only when they learn what it is capable of that Drake changes his goals from getting a hold of the thing to getting rid of it.
While each character is greedy, they all have different limits. Something for each of them is more powerful than the desire for treasure. Elena turns away from her desire first when she loses her camera. Without it, she is now along for the ride with Drake and hoping for a way out. For Eddie Raja, his limits are created from fear and superstition, too late to do him any good, however. Then Sully shifts his focus from the gold to his loyalty to Drake. The danger and effort has been too much for him, and the money isn’t worth it anymore. His next priority is Drake. Drake himself turns away next, but I’ll come back to him. Gabriel never turns away from greed but is instead distracted. He is blinded by the gold statue and forsakes his safety and common sense. Navarro remains greedy and incidentally is the only one with a clear sense of what the objective actually is. He has nothing to overcome, so his greed isn’t so much a fault as it is an asset.
While it is interesting to see these aspects of the other characters through this lens, the game is still called Drake’s Fortune after all. Drake’s overriding characteristic is his nobility. As much as he tries to deny it or ignore it, Drake will ultimately do the right thing for the sake of others. Once he realizes what the curse is, he is determined to run into the fire and take on Navarro by himself. This trait is emphasized by the opening quote of the game: “There must be a beginning of any great matter, but the continuing unto the end until it be thoroughly finished yields the true glory. – Sir Francis Drake, 1587”
At the sight of his ancestor, Drake finds himself ready to give up in the catacombs. He is ready to leave, until he sees the Nazi movie. Once he understands the danger that the world is in he sets out to prevent it. He has a goal again. He has a reason to continue on to the end.
And so the final conflict ensues. Drake dumps El Dorado into the ocean with Navarro bound to it and all has been set right with the world. Twice a man named Drake has averted global catastrophe. That is why I said it didn’t matter which Drake the fortune belonged to—because it belongs to both of them. The fortune is not the gold or any other physical thing. It is the “true glory” referred to in the quote. It is about overcoming one’s baser nature. The zombie colonists are a direct metaphor to succumbing to the lure of the gold. The Spanish could not resist that lure and lugged the gold all the way to the middle of the Pacific and paid the price for their greed. Sir Francis Drake tracked them down, and realizing what happened, sacrificed himself in making sure that El Dorado never leaves the island and remains hidden. Each step of the way, Nathan Drake follows in those footsteps. He comes to the same realization and possesses the same ability to overcome his baser nature. Thankfully, modern guns are more effective, and so he lives to tell another tale.
Everything in Drake’s Fortune has a physical representation. El Dorado is the object of desire and a real monster. It is a disguise and a disease—a beautiful shell covering a horrid, charred inner being. In every way, it is a perfect metaphor for greed itself. The zombies are the victims who succumbed and paid the ultimate price for their sins. And finally even the concept of true glory has its own representation. Drake has saved the world and has done his good deed because it was right and for the sake of doing it. He has earned true glory for seeing it to the end. And what do both Drake and Sully get for their trouble? A boat full of golden treasure. The non-curse-giving kind. Sometimes glory is its own reward, and sometimes there’s a cherry on top.