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Learning From Joel: A Dissection of Successful Character Design
Joel has a following that rivals Nathan Drake's. It's no surprise, and here's why.
August 2, 2017
13 Min Read
For the sake of background and proving the strength of my argument, let me begin this article by saying I have an unending love for stories. The way they weave together, the way the characters become these…either likable or detested people in our real lives. It’s powerful stuff. Stories are as old as the human race, beginning with orally told stories of heroes, and evolving into visual mediums. From movies to video games, TV shows and even YouTube webisodes, stories have never left our side.
And neither have the characters. After all, there is no story without the characters.
As game developers, you may not appreciate the value of a good character, but we’re here to tell you that character development isn’t something to scoff at and toss at your contracted writer. In fact, character development is an integral part of any game with a story line, and when created with care, can become super impactful in player lives.
Obviously, we cannot possibly tackle this subject without mentioning the phenomenon that is the character of Joel in The Last of Us. Naughty Dog single-handedly set the bar higher than ever before with the character, and it would be wise for every serious developer out there to take heed and learn a few things.
In this article, we aim to both dissect Joel’s character design and examine the takeaways.
Who Is Joel?
When I first played The Last of Us, the first of three times, I let my jaw drop around 30 minutes into the game. Joel had already gone from a typical single father to a mourning, lost man. He’d already become real, and someone worthy of compassion. I quickly realized that this wouldn’t just be another game, it would be a roller-coaster ride of emotion, brutal honesty, and violence. And Joel would be the main character to focus on, even more so than Ellie.
Quickly, I searched online to see if anyone felt the same way, and not too surprisingly, many did. I found several accounts of players who’d fallen in love with Joel, one of whom was “Star Butterfly” on the PSNProfiles forums. She put it perfectly when describing who Joel actually is:
“Multiple times in the game, it is hinted and alluded to that Joel has a very dark history with the bandits, highwaymen and raiders. ‘I’ve been on both sides,’ he says. That moment, those seconds after he speaks those words, are some of the most chilling in the game. The instant he said that, the hairs on my arms bristled…. Throughout the game we see various facets of Joel’s character as we play. We see the loving, doting father he used to be, the emotional being, the brutal mercenary, the heartless killer, the dedicated guardian and the survivor. All of this blends to create one of the most complicated characters in modern gaming. Without a close examination, Joel is just another badass video game character. That just isn’t acceptable.”
Joel is more than a standard hero character. He’s not inherently good nor bad; he’s human. He’s capable of judgement and anger, but he’s also filled with love to give for those who earn their place. He’s hardened, yet softened by the meaningful.
In other words, Joel wasn’t just written. He wasn’t just given a personality. He was given life. Much like anyone would describe someone they know in detail, players can do that with Joel. He’s so complex and so convincingly developed that descriptions of him sound like you’re talking about a close friend.
This is the takeaway for developers out there: don’t just write a standard character. Don’t adhere to the heroic standards, or the hero versus villain tradition. If you want to make a character seem real, they need to be rough around the edges, much like any human being. Don’t shy away from showing the raw emotion, the flaws, or any of the many qualities that make them human.
Examining the Dialogue
Think back to any time you’ve sat down with someone you know, someone close. It could be a friend, a family member, or even a partner. Consider how you interact, and how dialogue flows, especially if you’re butting heads.
Now watch the video above, and gawk as you realize that you just watched a video game cutscene, and the characters aren’t real. Those mannerisms, those reactions, and most of all, that dialogue was all created by the exceptional Naughty Dog team.
In this scene, Joel interacts with his brother Tommy, and proposes that he take Ellie off his hands. Joel figures Ellie needs protection, and his brother has the manpower for it. Now, there’s another element at play here: at this point in the story, Joel is still very much mourning his daughter. Ellie strikes a chord with him for just being a young girl.
The conversation begins friendly enough talking about the compound that Tommy runs, but takes a turn when Joel begins explaining that Ellie is immune to the infection. Quickly, things begin heating up, Joel brings up the years he took care of Tommy, and the rest of the dialogue very much evolves into its simplest core: Tommy and Joel have history, and not much of it is good. Joel felt he still had a chance of asking Tommy for help, but Tommy doesn’t feel the same way at all.
And all of this is projected in a matter of 2 minutes and 17 seconds. All with amazing use of colloquial speech patterns.
Speaking of which, colloquial speech is the way in which a person talks in casual conversation. It can include stuttering, using “um’s,” the use of slang or profanity, etc. In Joel’s case, he does a few things regularly: he keeps his voice low and clear when calm, emphasizes certain important words, and slowly ramps up his volume when agitated. He uses short, direct sentences that lay out his intentions clearly. More so, he knows exactly how to insult people using one single sentence or question. In essence, Joel is a man of few words, but when he speaks, it’s valuable.
It’s no wonder that Joel commands so much attention anywhere he goes. In every scene, he’s the primary focus. And this particular scene is no exception. Despite the fact that they are in Tommy’s compound, a place he runs and manages, Joel takes the stage in every way possible. From his confident body language, to the way the confidence oozes out in his dialogue when he says “I’ve seen her breathe enough spores to take down a dozen men and nothing. I wouldn’t have believed it neither, but I can show you.”
In fact, he further establishes his age (he’s the older brother) and how little he thinks of Tommy’s reign by simply saying “Jesus boy… have Maria get some of your born-again friends to do it,” referencing taking Ellie all the way to the Fireflies.
Turns out dialogue matters more than people tend to think. The common thought process for developers is “having a story is enough, adding minimal dialogue is enough, maybe even cutting scenes short is fine.” Well, actually that’s the worst approach to take ever. Naughty Dog put the story, and its characters, front and center and let them shine. They didn’t shy away from it. They didn’t doubt their approach, thinking players would get impatient 3 seconds into the cutscene.
No, they invested in each and every cutscene, making all the characters, including Joel, come alive with every word. And they trusted that their effort would be enough to keep players hooked. Unsurprisingly, it worked.
The Defining Moments
Now, obviously Joel is who he is in large part because of his daughter’s death. It was a massive turning point in his life. It’s when he lost his home, his family, his life as he knew it. The whole world was never the same due to the outbreak. And for Joel, it was also because Sarah wasn’t there beside him anymore. He’d seen the ugly world after an outbreak. He’d seen death and innocence lost.
But see, there’s something so witty about Sarah’s death, and the player connection to Joel. Gamesradar even noted it in their article “Why The Last of Us Is the First Truly Mature Action Game (And Our Game of the Year)”: everything in the game, especially the beginning, is designed in a way that makes the player adopt Joel’s approach of “cautious preparation or suffer the consequences.”
For instance, at the start of the game, the player doesn’t control Joel. They’re playing as Sarah. And they are introduced to Joel in a completely understated way, as if to further cast a light on Sarah. She’s the focus, the first connection. Why?
Because it’s in this way that players feel her loss just like Joel does. The players fail her just like Joel, and once that happens, the player and Joel have something in common: a shockingly eye-awakening perspective on the affected world, and the horrible people in it. The players can’t help but be cautious after a scene like this.
And that sets the stage for his other defining moment, doesn’t it? That explains why meeting Ellie went so rough. She’s the first little girl he’s seen in a while, and he’s assigned the painful task of taking her to the Fireflies. He’s used to smuggling things, objects, not people. He’s perfectly aware of the dangers and how he failed Sarah. He’s not up to the task of failing someone else again, especially someone who is roughly the age Sarah was when she died. What if they bond while they’re out there fighting to survive?
In the scene, Joel barely speaks a word to Ellie, instead he makes his concern heard. He doesn’t like the situation, he’s not happy about it. But despite the fact that he makes his opinion clear, he doesn’t bail on the plan, because he has a heart still. He sees how Ellie interacts with Marlene, the leader of the Fireflies who’s been taking care of her up until now. And most of all, Tess, Joel’s sidekick smuggler says “she’s just cargo.”
Now, you have to understand, Joel is an interesting character. He went from being a loving, devoted father, to a smuggler to make ends meet in a post-pandemic world. He’s a laid-back, proud yet humble, southern kind of man. He is rough around the edges, but he has a heart of solid gold. Despite his reservations, a little girl in need is still a little girl in need. And yes, a job is a job. When push comes to shove, Joel will cast his feelings aside, and do what he needs to do. Even if it means blowing up later.
But what does all of this mean? What is there to learn from this? Well, for starters, consider the intricate detail that went into just three interactions: playing as Sarah, losing Sarah, and meeting Ellie. Everything was perfectly thought out and designed in a way that makes the player not only connect with Joel, but understand why he and Ellie have such a rough start. This in turn is then used to further validate the strengthening of their bond, as well as the touching ending of the game.
In other words, every single interaction between characters needs to serve a purpose that can be further capitalized on later. Everything must connect, and either prove, explain or strengthen something.
Never Underestimate Joel
Going back to “Star Butterfly” from the PSNProfiles forums, there were two paragraphs that caught my attention more than anything else:
“Joel is both lover and fighter it seems. He walks a line of moral ambiguity, and it is important to keep that in mind. This, coupled with the loss of his daughter, and the horrors he encounters in the post-pandemic America, serve to create one of the most complex, most well-fleshed out characters in gaming history, and the reason Joel has affected my outlook on life.
Seeing Joel transform like this, hearing his small-talk with Ellie on their journey, seeing his story unfold as led me to gain a greater appreciation for the small things in life. We never know what the future will bring. We never know when our time will come. Joel lost everything, but took the time to invest in a child and gained more than ever. We could all take a note from Joel’s book.”
In case you missed it, or overlooked it, this player proves that learning from Joel is not only possible, but wise. Joel affected this person’s outlook on life by reminding her that life is all about the small things, and that our time here is limited. More so, the character taught her that even when you lose everything, sometimes investing in something seemingly unimportant can help you gain more than ever before.
Now ask yourself this: have you ever created a character that has taught someone, anyone, something remotely valuable? If the answer is a no, then why not? Never underestimate anything in life, that’s the primary lesson that this player learned from Joel, and it’s the lesson for you to learn as well. Never underestimate your potential. You can create a character that teaches players something useful and meaningful as well.
The Power of Writing
Jeremy Conrady, a writer for Venture Beat, described what writing was generally like in development:
“For years, games really didn’t have stories as much as they had concepts. You take an idea — say a robot guy with a blaster for an arm who has to fight other robot guys because the evil mad scientist is just an evil mad scientist — and build the narrative around that. Story was secondary because the design of the game was more important.”
Granted, this hasn’t outright changed at its core. Despite the fact that story and narrative have become much more prominent in recent years, it still gets overlooked by factors like graphics and level design.
In the end, writing is always molded to accommodate the latter, but rarely ever the other way around. This is primarily attributed to the fact that games are a visual medium, and as such, they have to uphold certain visual standards.
But the Naughty Dog team completely threw out the handbook on that one. They didn’t choose to focus on design more so than the writing. They didn’t give into the belief that heroes and villains are clearly one or the other. They put out a game that was all about the writing, all about the dialogue and all about the characters, especially Joel.
Joel has some serious fandom. Serious. Fandom. And that’s just not something you overlook as a developer, writer, or player. He is raw, honest, emotional, angry, lost and most of all, caring, and he wears all of this on his sleeve. He’s a complex character that is developed so well that players can’t get enough of him.
Learning from Joel should be high on the developer to-do list. This character blurs the line between good and evil, and proves that a man doesn’t need to be a husk with muscles to be considered a strong male. He proves that players can enjoy good writing in a game. It’s just that, well, it can’t be half-baked. There is no trying to create a great, memorable character. You just do it.
Naughty Dog took a risk that resulted in one of the best characters in video game history, all because they chose to forget the rules set in place by others, and focused on exceptional dialogue, backstory creation, and crafting hard lessons for players to learn.
Will you also take a risk?
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