The Relationship Between Joel & Ellie Is One Of Gaming's Most Touching

Just before we jump into the article, here's your formal spoiler alert - this post contains story-related spoilers!

After completing Naughty Dog's utterly enthralling The Last of Us a certain emptiness consumed my mind. Mainly sourcing from the game's immensely satisfying ending that left me wanting more, I felt empty for my journey along the development of Joel and Ellie had come to an end. Although the relationship of Joel and Ellie may be fairly subtle in the way in which it has been conveyed, once the dots are connected the relationship turns out to be the journey of the game. The destination was the journey in The Last of Us due to the core focus of the game being between Joel and Ellie and their slow relationship development, here's why.

Once Joel picks up Ellie during the early stages of the game it's clear to the gamer that the relationship between the two protagonists is one of assumption. The assumption coming from each character's idea of a stereotype; for example, Joel's first line aimed towards Ellie is "you're recruitin' kind of young, aren't ya" and "we're smuggling here" (with a hint of confusion and condescension) which implies Joel initially had a low opinion of Ellie due to her age. When the character Marlene (Ellie's overseer) suggests Ellie stay with Joel (for the first time in the game) rather than with Tess the stereotypical assumptions of each character are revealed when Ellie replies to Marlene with "Bullshit! I'm not going with him" whereas Joel sneers "whoa, whoa, I don't think that's the best idea". Could it be mistrust, stereotypical views on age (such as Ellie being weak due to being young and Joel being slow due to being old) or simple discomfort? We'll never know, but a good guess is that they initially based each other off stereotypical ideas. During this stage of the game their relationship is neutral, and may even be negative as each character only engages with the other when absolutely necessary (they don't try and explore each other's personalities) as Ellie's first line when alone with Joel regards a pile of bodies left rotting in the street. This sets the stage for their long yet deep relationship development.

The early stages of the game are very unclear in who the characters actually are. As the game develops each character reveals more of their past (as their relationship develops) which will be covered later; however, for the time being, the focus will be put on the starting stages of the game. Since the two characters are alone it can be claimed that they're forced to get along once they escape their stereotypical viewpoints, but it is certainly clear that during the game's initial stages the characters have little consideration towards each other as Joel is the only character who actively tries to protect Ellie as he has to - this is easy to identify later on in the game when Joel actually wants to defend Ellie - not just because he was tasked to do so.

The next point I'd like to cover regards Joel's past and attitude towards Sarah and Ellie. During the utterly stunning introduction to The Last of Us the player jumps into the shoes of Joel's 9 year-old daughter, Sarah, which perfectly sets the tone of the game by combining the shock and horror of the outbreak with the innocence and confusion of a child during the scene which the player can relate to due to being in exactly the same situation. During Joel's short in-game time with Sarah the player can identify patterns and attitudes towards his beloved daughter; for example, Joel uses language such as "scoot" and "baby girl" when addressing his daughter - and as the completionists know, this language is yet again used towards the end of the game when Joel addresses Ellie. The return to this child-like, comforting language is used to reflect Joel's feelings towards the character in question; thus, this reflects the developed relationship between Joel and Ellie as Joel begins treating Ellie as his long-gone daughter (who would be 29 years old when Joel met Ellie) which is reflected through his language used as he treats a 14 year old as a 9 year old (his daughter was treated in the same way); thus, it is implied that Joel sees Ellie as his daughter or wishes she was. The whole "baby girl" term is only used at the start and end of the game; the start towards Sarah during her untimely death and at the end when Joel subdues Ellie after she unleashed her fear into David's once-rigid face. Yet again, this language usage shows their relationship's development and how Joel's perspective of Ellie changes as he starts treating Ellie to be his daughter.

The next scene reflecting the characters' touching relationship can be seen through the characters' openness with regard to their past lives. Until their relationship strengthens, Joel remains unusually silent about his past - possibly to withhold upsetting memories - this can be seen in a scene later on in the game before Joel actively tries to save Ellie's life in the hospital. In this scene Ellie insists on hearing of Joel's relationship between himself and Sarah to which he angrily grunts "Ellie, you're stepping on mighty-thin ice here" implying he wishes to remain quiet on the asked subject. Although Joel's story slowly opens up throughout the course of the game, Ellie's story stays shut until the very end. During the final scene Ellie reveals how her friends were brutally slayed by a horde of the undead and she was the only survivor. This scene brings the story full circle for it implies that Ellie is willing to take on Joel as her friend whereas Joel's relationship towards Ellie can be seen when he tears Ellie from the surgery bed. What's more, Joel lies to Ellie in the closing scene - although it is unclear whether Ellie knows the truth, it can arguably be seen in her eyes that she knows he is lying about the Fireflies' pursuit for a vaccine had ended.

If we wrap these points into one statement then their relationship is extremely close. This is identifiable in their slow opening-up towards each other, it can also be seen in Joel's past ways. Moreover, as Joel begins to treat Ellie as his daughter it is clear that Naughty Dog intended to bring closure to those sad about Sarah's death at the game's introduction. In conclusion, Joel and Ellie's relationship is one of gaming's most touching. Why, You may ask? The reason for this is that we witness each and every step from their neutral relationship at the beginning of the game. Not only do we see it branch out into a real friendly relationship, but the implications of such a relationship in a time of horror are that mankind can recover. Mankind can end all of the tribalism and come together to bring closure and neutralise the threat of those infected for good - this is all conveyed through their slow, unexpected yet true relationship. The post-apocalyptic setting only makes their relationship seem more important, too, for it emphasizes the power between their relationship due to being formed in a time of mistrust and fear.

Encase you didn't get he gist of what I'm trying to say then read this short version; the reason the relationship between Joel and Ellie is one of gaming's most touching character-character relationships is because of the unlikelihood of it all. An older man befriends a younger girl who reminds him of his daughter whereas Ellie befriends Joel because all of her 'old' friends were killed by the infected. During this period they learn each others' secrets and in turn form a strong relationship without being forced to do so.