Character Psychology: Joel, The Last of Us (Part 1)
Hello all, to anyone unfamiliar with this site, I’m Dr Jennifer Hazel, a psychiatry physician and advocate for the use of technology in mental health care. I’m also a passionate gamer. I write psychological profiles of game characters I find interesting, in order to break down stigma and help game fans reach out. Today, we’ll be looking at Joel from Naughty Dog’s 2013 release, The Last of Us.
Needless to say, this post contains significant spoilers. The Last of Us is a masterpiece – do not let me ruin its story for you if you haven’t played it. Go forth and experience this truly unique adventure before reading this article.
Why Joel and not Ellie?
The narrative design in The Last of Us is ascendant. I would not hesitate to cite it as the best written game of all time, if not for the portrayal of the characters therein. It is, in my opinion, the current pinnacle of storytelling in games, a feat it achieves through a raw and often painful observation of the human condition.
Whilst Ellie’s journey is more relatable, I find the arc through which Joel travels to be fascinating, moving, realistic and terrifying all in equal measures. It’s taken me weeks of research and analysis to even sit down to write his profile. I hope I can do him justice.
All images are screencapped from a video hosted by YouTube user dansg08.
- PTSD, Grief and Survivor’s Guilt
- Attachment Theory
- Defence Mechanisms
This article comes with a trigger warning for descriptions of very traumatic events which, though they are fictional, could be triggering. If at any point you need to stop reading, please do, and of course refer to our mental health services page.
Exploring Joel’s Past to Understand the Present
Joel doesn’t give much away on the surface. He’s stoic, emotionally unavailable, and mercilessly practical. It is easiest to penetrate his psyche through his relationships with others; his behaviours around those close to him often betray his underlying motivations, which he would prefer to remain well hidden. Let’s do this chronologically.
When we construct a psychological formulation, we like to start right at the beginning. Think as far back as conception. We go forward from there and continually add data to get a better idea of how someone thinks and feels, what motivates them, what they fear and believe, and altogether who they are as a person.
Of course it is difficult to be thorough in most cases, because there are gaps, but we take what we can get. So what we know of Joel’s childhood revolves around his interactions with Tommy.
When you meet adults who internalise their feelings, often if you look back on their childhood it is because they were parentified very early, meaning that instead of having adults to look after them (either physically or emotionally), they had to learn how to parent themselves. Joel exhibits classic signs of this.
We are told that Joel basically raised his younger brother. It seems as though for whatever reason, there was a lack of reliable caregiving from the adults around them, and therefore Joel’s instinct to survive began very young.
I would put money on Joel having developed an avoidant attachment style during this period.
Attachment theory describes how a person relates to others, specifically how much he feels able to rely on them.
The avoidant person feels, “No one will look after me so I have to look after myself (and people I love)”. He would therefore have an overwhelming sense of responsibility to those he loved, believing that no one else was capable of caring for them but him.
This is likely why, later on, Joel was willing to do anything he could to get by, including things he morally disagreed with – if it would keep him or his loved ones safe. Incidentally, this also contributes to a lot of Joel’s more admirable traits – his loyalty, his willingness to put others before himself and his persistence in the face of adversity.
Because Joel is such a secretive individual, he has not spoken directly about his wife. He mentions he had Sarah young – before university age, so likely around 17 or 18 seeing as Sarah is 12 at the start of the game. Perhaps this was during a rebellious phase, after many years of single-handedly caring for Tommy? If so, the entire marriage would be encompassed in significant guilt for the perceived abandonment of his brother, entangled with a similarly strong sense of responsibility over his spouse and, soon after, his daughter. This would be confusing and difficult to navigate for Joel, who has not learned how to express himself, having had no adults to show him how to.
A Single Father
What happened next? We’re not sure, but we can glean information from the environmental storytelling. We know Joel was raising Sarah since at least infancy (if not since birth). There are no photos of his wife in the home. We are not sure whether she died, or left abruptly. We do know the separation was painful (briefly explored later during a conversation with Ellie).
Either way, Joel was thrust into a situation where he had responsibility over someone else, again, in a thread that has yet to break. Interestingly, if we assume that she died, and there are no photos, that means Joel has been compartmentalising and ignoring the painful things in his life for a long time.
These events probably reinforced Joel’s need to be faultlessly independent, to never rely on anyone but himself, feeding back into that avoidant attachment style.
Single fatherhood probably suited Joel quite well. He is self-sufficient and selfless simultaneously; this would have come completely naturally, and in fact anything else might feel overwhelming.
By this point, we’re looking at a man who has spent his entire life looking after other people. There has never been space to explore who Joel is, and that likely suited him. Finding oneself is a psychologically complex experience, and this is a man who doesn’t even know what he is feeling most of the time, never having had adults to contain and normalise his childhood emotions.
A Structured Approach
Let’s skip forward to the opening of the game. What do we know about Joel?
- He compartmentalises and internalises his feelings to deal with them.
- He has limited understanding of his own emotions, but is astute about others’.
- His sense of purpose – even his sense of self – is dictated by caring for people around him.
- He is fiercely loyal, hard-working, and resourceful.
- He is currently (for the first time ever?) looking to branch out and explore expanding himself – around the house are books on managing your own business.
The death of a child is unimaginably traumatic to any parent. I can’t even begin to comprehend what that loss would be like. To really understand what happened over the next twenty years, we need to look at this devastating event in context.
Within the first hour of the game, Joel is left without a daughter and without an identity. Everything he was would have revolve around Sarah. Protecting her was his only purpose, and losing her would have been literally unbearable.
Survival instinct would have taken over initially – natural resilience is the main component of grief and trauma reactions.
Driven by adrenaline, unable to psychologically process what had happened, and fortunately led by his brother, I can’t imagine Joel even remembers what happened next. It isn’t until things calmed down a bit that he would have been able to truly reflect on what was left.
It is perhaps understandable that Joel would have considered ending his own life. For a man who puts unfaltering responsibility for the fate of others upon himself, it would feel like he had failed in the most absolute way. In real examples of similar situations, people often state they feel they deserve to die. Their instinct therefore to live, even though their loved one didn’t, causes them a deep anguish. This is called Survivor’s Guilt (a type of PTSD), and it is something that would plague Joel for two decades. You can read more about PTSD here.
Ellie comments that she hates bad dreams, and Joel replies, “Me too”. Recurrent nightmares are a symptom of PTSD.
When Joel tells Ellie, “You have to find something to fight for,” he is referring to the journey he went on to justify himself wanting to keep living, when morally he believed that he should die.
A World Without Sarah
Joel tends to pick one person at a time to look after. For a while, this was Tess.
Tess is a survivor, she is strong and independent too – she represents some respite for Joel from his role as sole protector. It seems for a while, he was able to give someone else some of the responsibility. That is HUGE for him, and allowing himself this was probably one of the only ways he was able to cope with the transition after Sarah’s death.
What else can we tell through Tess? The two clearly have a relationship that goes beyond practical.
When throughout his entire pre-zombie-apocalypse life, Joel chose never to remarry, this is significant.
It means he was able to let himself succumb to his basic human needs again, and to justify it to himself. He’s regaining some of what he had lost. In a way, he is using Tess for self-preservation.
And so, old habits dying hard, he becomes fiercely loyal to her, even going out of his way and doing things he doesn’t agree with to further her agenda, to protect her and ensure her safety (and therefore his own purpose). By the time she dies, she understands what this will do to Joel. Instead of allowing him to fall apart, she gives him one last mission – protect Ellie. And thus the chain continues.
It’s hard to know how Joel feels about Marlene. And yet, we can read a lot from how she behaves towards him, and the stark opposition we find ourselves in at the game’s climax.
Marlene trusts Joel. She clearly doesn’t agree with his methods, but she has complete faith that he’ll get the job done. He’s obviously been reliable in the past. Her only flaw there is believing what she reads on the surface – that he is broken and detached, ruthlessly efficient – and completely missing the vulnerabilities beneath. In this subconscious omission, she triggers a chain of events which ultimately lead to her death.
A Philosophical View
If we pull an Inception and “go deeper”, by the game’s climax these two characters can be seen as metaphors for morality . Marlene represents utilitarianism – the ends justify the means, even if those means are obviously immoral. To Marlene, hope for the human race justifies ending Ellie’s life.
There is a huge disconnect here with our need for gratification and fulfilment – as symbolised by Joel.
He is not the opposite of Marlene, ethically. That would be deontological ethics – that one must do what is morally right by the minority despite the consequences. Instead, he seems to act amorally, and knowingly so, to preserve himself. He knows what he is doing is wrong, and he doesn’t care. This is more a representation of psychological egoism, though my philosophy is not up to scratch so I’m happy to be corrected.
And now, the grand finale, la pièce de résistance…
Find out how Joel feels about Ellie in part 2! An eagerly awaited sequel because I got very excited writing this and wanted to start releasing it before I was finished.