Ellie and Joel in The Last of Us HBO series

How ‘The Last of Us’ Characters Compare to Their Game Counterparts

The Last of Us premiered on HBO this month, with fans praising the series for its ability to adapt the 2013 Naughty Dog game of the same name almost perfectly. The first episode brought us into the world after Outbreak Day and introduced us to some of our favorite characters from the game. It also made changes that work better for the show while differing somewhat from what we know of the game.

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In looking at each character and how they function in the series, you can see why Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin made some tweaks. But let’s break down the differences between each of our favorite characters from The Last of Us and their video game counterparts.

Pedro Pascal as Joel Miller

Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal) stands in a dark room, holding a flashlight in a still from 'The Last of Us'
(HBO)

Joel Miller is our guide through the world of a post-apocalyptic America. In the game, he’s a construction worker who is celebrating his birthday when the Cordyceps outbreak hits. The biggest change right off the bat is Joel’s age. In the game, he’s 32 years old when the outbreak happens in 2013, but in the show, Joel is 36 years old in 2003, making him 56 years old in the modern 2023 storyline. Other than that, Pascal’s Joel is pretty true to the character.

There are little things like Joel’s cold nature (which is implied in the game but seen in action when he disposes of a young infected boy’s body in the pilot), but for the most part, it’s our Joel. Personally, I think it’s a smart move. Changing Joel too much would probably take fans of the game out of it, but having Pascal bring his own authenticity to the character while leaving him pretty much the same on paper is a brilliant choice.

Bella Ramsey as Ellie Williams

Bella Ramsey standing as Ellie in The Last of Us
(HBO)

Bella Ramsey IS Ellie Williams. That’s the best way of describing it. Ellie is brash, angry, and a smart ass, and all of that is embodied in a perfect performance from Ramsey. She is not an easy character to translate to screen. Ellie, who is of the utmost importance to the overall story, is someone who hides her own fear behind rude remarks and bad jokes. She’s strong and powerful, but she’s also still just a kid.

That’s why it is so funny (and accurate) when she first sees Joel and tries to attack him, and he just throws her into the wall to get her to stop. There are small changes to her story, but she is, for the most part, the same character we’ve come to love. In fact, I would go as far as to say that only Ramsey could bring this level of grit and humor to Ellie in real life, and it works incredibly well.

Nico Parker as Sarah Miller

Sarah Miller (Nico Parker) sticks her hand in the water from a sprinkler in a scene from 'The Last of Us'
(HBO)

Out of all the characters we got to meet first in the HBO series, I’d say the one who changed the most is Nico Parker’s Sarah Miller. And it was all for the better. Sarah is important to Joel’s story because she’s what he lost. His heart was gone the minute he lost his daughter, and while the game version is tragic, the show’s version is more effective because it lets us spend the day with Sarah.

I’d go as far as to say that we care in the game because Sarah, Joel, and Tommy are all together, but the show really makes it Sarah’s story. We see her school day and watch her trying to make her dad’s birthday great, and it is with her that we see our first infected person. She’s of the utmost importance to Joel but also to us, and frankly, I think the show’s take on Sarah is better than the version in the game.

Gabriel Luna as Tommy Miller

Gabriel Luna as Tommy in The Last of Us
(HBO)

Tommy and Joel’s relationship changed a lot for the television show and it was worth it. In fact, it makes a lot more sense than it did in the game. In the game, Tommy is part of the Fireflies and Joel hates it because he doesn’t like the group. In the show, he seems indifferent to the group. It then makes sense that he’d still try to reach out to Tommy and it helps to explain why he would go on this mission for Marlene. As of now, we’ve only seen Gabriel Luna as 2003 Tommy, and he does a great job as the little brother of Joel!

Tommy works with Joel before the outbreak, and we get to see their relationship and how that dynamic plays into the way they talk to each other. When it comes to the outbreak and trying to get out to safety, Tommy listens to Joel for the most part and doesn’t really question him that much. Although it results in chaos for the Millers, Tommy still does what his brother asks. And I like the change to Tommy and Joel’s relationship in the 2023 storyline—they still communicate and aren’t estranged—but it’ll be interesting to see how they interact with each other as the show goes on.

Merle Dandridge as Marlene

Marlene (Merle Dandridge) and Kim (Natasha Mumba) are standing in a hallway, bleeding from gunshot wounds in a scene from 'The Last of Us.'
(HBO)

For the most part, the show is honoring the actors who brought the game characters to life by casting them in different roles. We’ll see Troy Baker (who was Joel in the game) at some point in the season and Ashley Johnson (who was Ellie) will be there as well. But they enlisted Merle Dandridge to bring Marlene to life in the series just as she did in the game and it is glorious.

Marlene is the leader of the Fireflies and someone who is doing her best to fight in this rebellion. It’s failing and she knows that, but she’s still trying. When Marlene needs help, she puts her trust in Joel and Tess. For the most part, Marlene is the same. She hasn’t changed much from the game, but she does have a bit more of a soft side in how she talks to Ellie, even though the two are smart with each other. It is so incredibly fun to see Dandridge bring Marlene to life on screen!

Anna Torv as Tess

Tess (Anna Torv) with a wounded face in key art for 'The Last of Us'
(HBO)

Now, Tess in the game rules. And while Anna Torv is incredible, there are things that Tess in the game gets to do that we don’t get to see Torv tackle—mainly climbing and lifting Joel. That display of strength truly had me screaming when I watched play-throughs of the game, so I did miss that from her dynamic with Joel in the show. She’s still a badass (she’s introduced with a black-and-blue eye), but it’s different from the game.

For lack of a better way of explaining it, Tess is in love with Joel, while he’s sort of there for comfort because his heart died with his daughter. The changes in Tess’ character come more from her relationship with Joel and how the two interact with FEDRA and Boston.

Tess has now met her end after being bitten by a clicker at a museum in Boston. She reveals her bite to Joel in the Capitol building, where they discover all the Fireflies they’re looking for are dead. In the game, FEDRA soldiers were following them, but in the show, clickers are coming—and Tess sacrifices herself so that Joel and Ellie can get away.

She blows up the Capitol building and all the clickers inside of it as Joel and Ellie escape to go and find Bill and Frank. (In the game, she tells Joel to go find Tommy.) She does leave us with one amazing quote: “Save who you can save.”

Nick Offerman as Bill

Bill (Nick Offerman) sits at the piano in The Last of Us.
(HBO)

In the game, Bill is—for lack of a better term—a grump. He doesn’t want to deal with anyone and he helps Joel and Ellie despite the fact that he really doesn’t want to. The show is different. Bill does get to meet with Joel (and Tess for that matter), but he doesn’t get to meet Ellie. As we saw in episode 3, he is already dead by the time that Joel and Ellie show up to Bill’s Town.

The series really diverges from the game when it comes to Bill and Frank: Their characters have an arc in which they grow old together and meet a tragic end by their own hand. It is a love story that is truly heartbreaking to watch unfold, but also a nice change for the characters.

In the game, Bill is alive. He leaves Joel and Ellie and is still alive despite Frank being dead, and although that’s the last we see of him, we know he’s probably fine. The show gives Bill and Frank a love story and an end to their time together, and while beautiful, it is a significant change.

Murray Bartlett as Frank

Murray Bartlett as Frank in episode 3 of 'The Last of Us
(HBO)

First, Frank is an actual character in the show, meaning that we get time with him and get to understand him—versus the game, where he’s mentioned by name but we don’t get to see him fully in action. And the show goes a great job of making us care for Frank and his relationship with Bill, and fleshing out a character the game really did brush past.

In the game, we get a very brief look into who Frank was. We know that he’s someone who was once with Bill and who does not make it to meeting Joel and Ellie when we do as we’re playing. Frank’s plan was to leave Bill’s town and Bill altogether. He leaves a letter for Bill saying he’d rather die than live his life with Bill, and as he’s leaving, he gets bitten and takes his own life. As players, we don’t get to really see Frank at all. This is all information we’re given through Bill and the game, but not Frank.

In the show, Frank is a whole character with a life and a love story, and that was a nice change from the character we had only heard about and knew briefly from the game.

Lamar Johnson as Henry

Sam and Henry running in the last of us
(HBO)

Henry is a character who connects to Joel on one level: They want to protect those who need them. In the game, Henry is pretty much just Sam’s older brother who is looking out for him. The major difference between Lamar Johnson’s portrayal and the game version is just that it is set in Pittsburgh instead of Kanas City. But even that isn’t that big of a shift.

One thing I did notice in the TV series versus the game is that Henry is a lot more understanding and relatable of a character. Because you’re playing as Joel in the game, it can come across as a stand-offish interaction between Henry and you (as the player). But the series made Henry a fascinating character to meet and grow with and it made his death even harder to watch because you wanted to see him go with Joel and Ellie.

Keivonn Woodard as Sam

Sam in The Last of Us show.
(HBO)

Sam as a character didn’t change a lot between the show and the game but I would go as far to say that Keivonn Woodard’s performance as Sam made his arc even harder to watch than it was in the game. Which is saying something. Woodard did an incredible job bringing Sam’s love for his brother and his childlike wonder to life and it made you instantly feel pain knowing what was going to happen to him (if you played the game).

Seeing how he brought out that childish nature in Ellie just made their relationship that much stronger and something that we, as the audience, instantly care more about. Sam’s fear over being bitten and Ellie trying to make him feel better hurts because Woodard gave us so much in his performance and so while the character wasn’t that different, it’s Woodard’s performance that made the show stand out more.

Rutina Wesley as Maria Miller

Rutina Wesley as Maria Miller in the Last of Us
(HBO)

Maria is quite different from her game counterpart. Played beautifully by the incredible Rutina Wesley, Maria is Tommy’s wife and someone who helps run Jackson Hole. She’s pregnant in the television show and she takes Ellie under her wing when they first arrive. She’s also the reason that Ellie knows anything about Sarah.

How she’s different is that her and Tommy are going to have a kid together but also that she isn’t afraid to kick people out of Jackson Hole. It’s clear that she loves the community she made and if that means completely destroying someone who comes between her home and their safety, she’ll do it. So her meeting with Joel and Ellie was less than perfect. But she’s fierce, loyal, and a character that I hope we see a lot more of.

____________

We’ll continue to compare characters from the series to the game as The Last of Us progresses, but so far, the show is doing a great job of bringing characters we love to life!

(featured image: HBO)


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Rachel Leishman
Rachel Leishman (She/Her) is an Assistant Editor at the Mary Sue. She's been a writer professionally since 2016 but was always obsessed with movies and television and writing about them growing up. A lover of Spider-Man and Wanda Maximoff's biggest defender, she has interests in all things nerdy and a cat named Benjamin Wyatt the cat. If you want to talk classic rock music or all things Harrison Ford, she's your girl but her interests span far and wide. Yes, she knows she looks like Florence Pugh. She has multiple podcasts, normally has opinions on any bit of pop culture, and can tell you can actors entire filmography off the top of her head. Her work at the Mary Sue often includes Star Wars, Marvel, DC, movie reviews, and interviews.