May 31, 2013 at 7:51 PM ET
Immediately after I first stepped into Joel's shoes to play "The Last of Us," a new post-apocalyptic zombie game being published by Sony and developed by Naughty Dog, I died.
Joel and Ellie, his young female ward, had just been ambushed by a group of "Mad Max"-style raiders when trying to drive a car through a desolate, overgrown version of Pittsburgh, and the confrontation forced their car off the road and into a hollowed-out garage. Shortly after pulling himself and Ellie out of the wreckage, Joel was shot by one of the surviving raiders. He slumped over while the screen faded to black.
I tried again, and this time one of the raiders snuck up behind me and smashed Joel over the back of his head with a wooden plank. I reloaded, and tried to sneak around the ambushing force. But I messed up the controls and Joe slumped over once again, this time from a shotgun blast to the face.
I died so many times in that first part of the level Sony was previewing for NBC News that I started to get embarrassed. Eric Monacelli, community strategist at Naughty Dog, chuckled every time a raider snuck up on me, saying that the developers made sure that the artificial intelligence for enemies in the game worked together to flank Joel and Ellie.
Finally, I tried a last-ditch effort to step out of the car guns blazing and shoot all the bad guys before they had time to set foot in the garage. But Joel's aim was unsteady, and I missed more shots than I landed.
"It was important for us to make sure Joel isn't an expert," Monacelli said as Joel once again slumped over in death on the screen in front of us. "He's a survivor, not a soldier."
Since "The Last of Us" is a game about surviving the zombie apocalypse, this distinction might sound purely semantic. But it also shows how Naughty Dog has continued to evolve as a studio. While Naughty Dog first made its mark with a number of cartoonish PlayStation games like the "Crash Bandicoot" and "Jak and Daxter" series, the studio spent the PlayStation 3 generation perfecting the "Indiana Jones"-esque "Uncharted" series. Thanks to a combination of technological prowess and talented voice-over actors and writers, "Uncharted" was hailed as one of the first games to create a truly human protagonist in the ruggedly handsome Nathan Drake.
But there was always a problem with "Uncharted." Drake was as charismatic as a movie star, but, as the critic Tom Bissell noted, the meat of "Uncharted's" gameplay (shooting bad guys) inexplicably transformed him into a genocidal maniac. And that doesn't even explain how an errant 20-something traveler like Drake became such an expert with military-grade firearms in the first place.
It seems like Naughty Dog took this lesson to heart when creating the weathered and exceedingly gruff player character for "The Last of Us," which will be released exclusively for the PlayStation 3 on June 14. Joel doesn't move with the same superhuman grace as Nathan Drake, and the game doesn't have the most fast-paced or fluid combat system one could find today in video games.
But what "The Last of Us" does have is something better, something far more human. Every one of Joel's movements feels weighted down with actual pain and weariness — so much so that I started to feel bad for this virtual guy ever time I let him have his face smashed against a wall or be eaten by one of the game's fungal-looking zombies.
Still, "The Last of Us" is remains a video game at its core, and I'm not sure how it will sustain this kind of tension alongside the inevitable repetition that comes with killing zombies and scrounging through abandoned buildings for supplies. And even if Naughty Dog could create a video game equivalent of "The Road" — the most apparent inspiration for the setting and story of "The Last of Us" — would gamers brought up on "Call of Duty: Zombies," "Left 4 Dead," and "Resident Evil" even appreciate what it has done?
I honestly can't say. But from what I've played so far of "The Last of Us," I can tell that the game is a step, however tentative, in the right direction.
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: email@example.com.