Joel and Ellie of the The Last of Us each experience some unusual character arcs despite the fact that neither of them change that much over the course of the game. Who they are at the end of the game is very similar to who they are at the beginning. They do a lot, a lot happens to them, and their attitudes toward each other change dramatically, but even the most significant events produce only minor changes in their defining characteristics and worldviews. This is not a bad thing. People don’t change easily, and the final conversation of the game is a great piece of writing because it shows two characters struggling with that fact.
Joel and Ellie have naturally conflicting personalities. The first half of the game, up until they meet Tommy, is dedicated to watching them work through these conflicts. This is when the game plays out like a road story with the two meeting various helpful folk along the way. The game needs to introduce these supporting characters because Joel and Ellie need someone to talk to besides each other, since neither of them really wants to talk to the other. By the time they leave Tommy’s dam for Colorado, they’ve reached an understanding. Joel decides to escort Ellie the rest of the way; his role as guardian is now a choice rather than a job. From here on out the structure of the game changes to introduce more external threats, things Joel and Ellie can take on together, but that doesn’t mean they don’t still have naturally conflicting personalities.
Joel as a character is defined by what he doesn’t say. He constantly displays an unwillingness to talk about difficult topics. We only know he cares about Ellie because we can see it on his face and in his more subtle movements. It’s the graphical touches that really bring him to life because his well-animated actions always betray his words.
However, it’s his back story that really gives him nuance as a character, his history that he never fully explains to anyone and that we only know of because we got to play it as part of the prologue. Even when he finally talks about that history with Ellie, he doesn’t go into detail about what happened, which makes sense for him. With such an introverted character like this, it would have been easy to introduce Joel as the cold-hearted mercenary and then reveal his loss halfway through the game in a late attempt to humanize him. However, not only would that be out-of-character, that kind of structure would also establish his back story as a spoiler, something that twists our preconceived idea of this character. Then we’d have two versions of Joel competing for our empathy, the bastard mercenary and the sad father, and for some people, this revelation may come too late to garner the desired sympathy.
Instead The Last of Us is structured around Joel’s introverted needs. The game shows us what happened to his daughter, thus negating the need for him to ever actually talk about it over the course of the game. It would be out-of-character for Joel to monologue about his past for exposition’s sake, so the game is designed to avoid this would-be inconsistency.
Ellie talks more than Joel. She expresses herself through conversation, whether she’s asking questions about how the world used to be or expressing something deeper, Ellie’s character is built out of the things she says. Talkativeness is typically associated with optimism, and Ellie is definitely portrayed as far more optimistic than Joel. She has a tendency to look on the bright side, and her take-no-shit attitude is born out of a desire to prove herself. Whereas Joel is in many ways a defeated man, Ellie is just starting her fight.
It would have been easy to portray Ellie as innocently naïve at first, then show her becoming colder and more distant as she experiences the horrors of the “real world,” but this doesn’t happen. Ellie’s child-like extroversion is never portrayed as naive. She jokes about sex while looking at Bill’s porno magazine, and while she’s surprised by Joel’s violence (always exclaiming “Fuck!” or “Holy Shit, Joel!” when you crush a Hunter’s skull in with a pipe), she never tells him to stop. She also avoids that clichéd character arc of “optimist sees bad things and becomes cynical.” She’s visibly shaken after the events of winter, but when she sees the giraffes on the college campus, she’s able to bounce back from that dark place. She retains her optimism throughout their journey.
In the end, Joel is still a cynical introvert, and Ellie is still an optimistic extrovert. They haven’t redefined themselves, rather they just change how they act around each other.
Ellie initiates the final conversation, as she is wont to do, by asking Joel what really happened at the Fireflies headquarters. She asks him questions throughout the game, and most of the time he just brushes her off. However, this time he answers her. He lies, but the point is that he actually comes up with something to say. He feels an obligation to speak, to communicate with her in the way that she is most comfortable with. However, that doesn’t mean he’s very good at it. His lie isn’t believable, he stumbles through it, and his face betrays him. He looks scared, like a kid desperately trying to save himself from punishment. He understands Ellie’s need for communication, and he tries to accommodate her in that regard. Nevertheless, he’s still the same secretive Joel we’ve seen throughout the game. His feelings towards Ellie have changed, but he hasn’t really changed. His new love for Ellie forces him to put up a façade of change.
Ellie, for her part, doesn’t push the topic. She says “okay,” and the game ends. However, it’s clear from her expression that she has serious doubts about Joel’s honesty. She may not believe him, but she understands by now that he’s not one to openly talk about traumatic events. Ellie has learned when talking with Joel is pointless. She too hasn’t really changed, she hasn’t suddenly become more naïve or blindly submissive, but she’s grown to trust Joel and that trust forces her to put up her own façade, one of acceptance.
The Last of Us gives us an ostensibly happy ending in that both of the main characters live, but the game twists that ending into something tragic by highlighting how delicate their relationship is. These two people trust and love each other, but they don’t actually know how to communicate with each other. Their relationship was forged in war, a time when they had a common enemy to guide them, but without that common enemy, these two characters naturally conflict with each other so much that it seems unlikely their relationship can survive the peace.