Let’s talk about the characters in The Last of Us. Because I still want to talk about that game. For the sake of direction, we’ll focus on Joel and Ellie, because they’re the protagonists (and arguably each other’s antagonist) and you spend nearly eighteen hours with them.
I’m going to try to keep this mostly spoiler-free, but since this’ll be discussing characters and arcs and development, be warned of mentions and implications and stuff. If you’re playing the game right now or are planning to in the near future, might be best to avoid this.
The dynamic of Joel and Ellie is not like Batman/Robin’s hero/sideckick or even a sort of Riggs/Murtaugh case of contrasting partners. Sure, they have their joint task of getting Ellie to the Fireflies, but there’s nothing personal to that; it’s what they’ve been told to do. That hardly makes for interesting characters. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut: “Every character has to want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” So what do Joel and Ellie want?
Ellie’s goal is made clear in early conversations: she wants her life to be for something; she doesn’t want to just exist. Like all good goals, it sheds a lot of light on her character. See, Ellie was born after the outbreak, she’s used to a world where people have resigned themselves to the bleak status quo (and eventual death). She wants more than that.
Joel’s goal is more fluid. At the outset, he’s content to just get by. Enter Ellie, the other protagonist. She’s serves as his antagonist just as he does hers; she interferes with his life and forces him to find a new goal and he is the catalyst for her ability to journey after her goal. Joel can no longer live just for the sake of surviving, he has to change. There are no other candidates for an antagonist in the game; the Infected, hunters, and other enemies are exactly that: enemies without personification. Eventually, Joel does change and he does achieve his new goal, he finds a new reason to live.
What complicates this is that Ellie’s goal cannot coexist with Joel’s new goal. Joel now wants to protect Ellie best he can, but this protection means that Ellie cannot do the thing she thinks she might be meant to do. Now we see Joel as Ellie’s antagonist in full. There’s tension in the dynamic but no enmity; rather it’s iron sharpening iron as Joel and Ellie rub off on each other and challenge the other to do more as they forge their pseudo-father/daughter relationship.
The Last of Us, however, merrily subverts any innate expectation a player might have of that dynamic. Ellie doesn’t sit around waiting for Joel to save her: she’ll often stab people in the back or save Joel from a dead end. But, like Elena and Chloe from Naughty Dog’s other PS3 games, Ellie’s not just there for support or a sort of surrogate daughter but a strong character in her own right. Her cheerfulness masks a strong sense of survival’s guilt (which, again, stems from her want). She’s used to the violence littering the post-apocalyptic world but she’ll still wince at Joel’s brutality. Neil Druckmann wrote a character who’s incredibly interesting, and, yes, happens to be a woman in a video game. On that note, it’s worth mentioning that she’s never portrayed patronizingly or as an act of affirmative action. More so than Joel, Ellie has a sense of personal direction for much of the game. Though she’s not quite sure where she’s going, she has a conviction about her life.
Interestingly, Joel lacks much of this conviction. More interestingly, he’s the character you play as for almost the entirety of the game. In The Last of Us you only play as a character when their conviction is shaken and they’re not entirely sure what they should do. Often Joel’s not even sure how to get somewhere and is following someone else’s lead. He’s listless and without any driving force for much of the game. He’s looking for a reason to survive, remember?
Contrast this with Uncharted where Nathan Drake’s going after the treasure or saving the world (he’s a little sketchy on the how) or Halo’s Master Chief who has a very clear direction of defeat the bad guys and save the world. This is what sets The Last of Us apart: the perennial “what now?” And where do we see this the most? In the characters: the complex, layered characters of The Last of Us.