February Character Studies - Ellie and Joel
For today's study, I decided to look at Ellie and Joel from The Last of Us. I've looked at how other characters impact the development of the main character in previous studies, but I can't separate Ellie and Joel because it's their story, not the story of one while the other goes along with it. Their journey and development relies on the other, and it's a great way to see how a story with two leads works. The Last of Us blew me away. It haunts me, and I mean that in the best possible way. I adore the journey these characters go on. They take me on an emotional journey that is full of joy and anguish. I couldn't leave them out of this month's character studies.
I've kept spoilers to a minimum and have clearly marked the one I couldn't avoid. If you own a PS3 or PS4 and haven't played this game, you owe it to yourself. It's one of the most beautiful stories I have ever played. I cannot do it justice in this essay. If you want a feel for the game, just listen to the opening theme. It serves as an overture to the entire story.
The Last of Us is set twenty years after our society fell into ruin. Humanity has been driven to the brink of extinction by a virus that turns people into terrifying monsters. However, that's the backdrop to Ellie and Joel's story. The darkness of their world only serves to show how human they truly are. The game is so jam-packed with moments of characterisation that I can't even begin to deconstruct it all here. The neatest summary I can offer is the game shows you that it isn't always the huge moments that define your characters. Tiny conversations can reveal your characters' depths. Ellie and Joel do this a lot, and in doing so, tell us so much about themselves. It's a brilliant way to develop your characters.
If you want a really in-depth analysis of the game itself, I highly recommend Grant Voegtle's video. My 'tear counter' is up there with his ;) His analysis of Joel and Ellie is spot on. Fair warning, the video spoils everything.
Part of what makes Ellie and Joel's story so interesting is how the generation gap is taken to a massive extreme. Joel knows what life was like before the infected destroyed everything while Ellie was born into a world overrun by monsters. She doesn't even know what an ice cream truck is. We can relate to Joel because we know what he's lost, because it's our world that's a memory. Ellie makes the world you and I are sitting in right now seem bizarre because it's so far out of her experience. Despite that difference, they both have experienced terrible amounts of loss. On the surface, they have nothing in common, but the more we learn about them, the more we discover how alike they are. It's one of my favourite aspects to their characters.
Ellie's insistence that they talk about what's happened forces Joel to confront feelings he'd rather ignore. The best example I can show without spoiling the plot is the first time Ellie kills someone to save Joel. She goes from shock to anger because he's totally ungrateful. Had she not been there, he would be dead. She doesn't deserve his ungrateful response. And yet even while you're angry with Joel too, it makes perfect sense that he isn't jumping for joy after Ellie saves him. He's angry she put herself at risk, and devastated she had to murder someone for his sake. He only sees what he failed to do. For a while, the two are at odds. Joel knows he's upset her, but she's too angry to hear his attempts to move on without talking about it (which is a Joel specialty for about 90% of the story). However, they come to terms when, in order to escape their pursuers, Joel hands Ellie a rifle and asks her to cover him. He doesn't do it because he doesn't have a choice; he does it because he knows Ellie is capable of doing what needs to be done. He trusts her, and she accepts his apology. It's the first time they really accept what they can do for each other.
This one plot point gives these characters so much depth because their reactions are completely believable - far more believable than Ellie shrugging it off or Joel being like "Hey, that's my girl!" You can throw anything at your characters - the end of the world, monsters, monsters at the end of the world - but the only way it's going to really resonate is if your characters respond in a reasonable way. From a character development perspective, we see that Ellie is as capable as she says she is. As for Joel, we see that he's not as cold as he's been up to that point. The person we met right at the start of the game, before the world ended, is still inside him somewhere. Neither of these characters would've developed in these ways without the other.
When we first meet them, Ellie and Joel are a product of their circumstances. Joel is cold and selfish because he did what he had to do to survive the fall of humanity. We don't know exactly what he did, but it's heavily suggested that it wasn't nice. We're talking about a guy capable of torture and murder. Meanwhile, Ellie was born into a world without safety. She's lost a lot of people over the course of her life, and she hides her terror and sadness behind her cocky attitude. But whereas Joel's emotional distance has been perfected over twenty years, Ellie can't keep it all bottled up. She is so scared Joel will abandon her. And, even if he won't admit it in so many words, he's so terrified he's not good enough to protect her that he doesn't trust himself to try. Yes, she can look out for herself, but she's still a fourteen-year-old child. There are times when she acknowledges that she needs Joel. Joel's the only one around who can guide her, but his own fear means he continually pushes her away. Ellie, being Ellie, simply refuses to be ignored or left to one side. The following scene sums it all up perfectly, but it comes with a BIG spoiler warning.
Thankfully, despite how keen Joel is to give up the responsibility of protecting Ellie, deep down he knows can't. Not only will she not let him, he cares about her too much to walk away. It just takes him a bit longer to accept it. Once he does, what follows is proof of the lengths both will go to in order to protect the other. The "Winter" section of The Last of Us could be summed up as "Ellie takes on the world to defend Joel, and Joel accepts Ellie as his daughter". Ellie stops at nothing to keep Joel safe after he's injured, at great personal cost. In the aftermath of Ellie's life-changing confrontation with a distinctly human monster, we see how Joel supports her mental well-being. And, not only that, we see just how far he will go to keep her safe. The choices he makes are astounding. But I am absolutely not spoiling any of that in detail here. You are going to have to play the game. All I will say about the ending is that, for me, it is perfect.
I can sum it up neatly. Over the course of the game, Ellie and Joel discover their own strengths and force each other to acknowledge their own weaknesses. They discover there is hope to be found in the strength of another person, and it's okay to rely on that. And both will fight for and protect each other no matter what the cost.
If you are writing a story with two lead characters, especially one set in circumstances beyond reality, it's their relationship that will really engage your readers and leave them as giant piles of weeping goo at the end. The Last of Us is one of the best examples to see how well it can work.