The Last of Us
The Last of Us has officially been unveiled care of the VGAs as Naughty Dog’s next game following its successful Uncharted series. Based on the trailer, we think the game will likely feature an older man and a young teenage woman as they try to survive in newly created post-apocalypse world.
The first footage shown about the game was a montage of riot footage as a male narrator reminisced about a time when you could watch football on TV and enjoy barbecue. He ends his narration with, “Just one peaceful night. A clean conscience. All gone.” Something really bad must have happened.
The next hint offered got a little bit more interesting. Some footage was posted on the game's official website of an ant throwing some sort of fit, and growing a fungus out of his head. The internet realized that the footage of the ant was taken from a BBC documentary called Planet Earth discussing the effects of a parasitic fungus called Cordyceps. We’ll talk more about that later.
It was also revealed that Uncharted 3 contained an Easter egg for The Last Of Us. In the opening level of the game, you can find a newspaper with the headline, “Scientists are still struggling to understand deadly fungus.”
Finally, the VGAs showed us the first true footage of the game and things started clicking. This was a game that takes place years after something has ravaged the human race. We see the man and a young woman battling against what appears to be normal humans over supplies, as well as terrifying humanoid creatures who seem have some sort of fungus growing from their heads.
We know the world can’t have been in ruin for too long. Ellie, the young girl in the trailer narrates the end by saying, “He tells me how these streets were crowded with people just going about their lives.” If the older man has memories of a normal world, then whatever changed everything for the worse could not have been very long ago. This potential narrative structure is reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road. That book and its film version features a man protecting his son, who was born before an apocalyptic event occurred.
There are few concrete details that can be drawn from the trailer, but there are many educated assumptions and that can be made based on the few hints offered to the internet before the reveal, and even a few Naughty Dog confirmations.
This is where the Cordyceps fungus comes into play. According to Planet Earth, the Cordyceps fungus has all kinds of terrifying effects on insect life, and there are even some positive effects on humans. The ant featured in the above video is a bullet ant. When these ants become infected with the Cordyceps fungus, they go crazy and their infected brains force them to climb and attach themselves to stems. Once they have reached the appropriate height, the fungus takes over killing the ant and grows over the course of three weeks. The fungus will grow from the body of the ant, and explode into infectious spores that have been known to wipe out entire colonies of ants. The ants begin exhibiting very specific, recognizable behaviors when infected with the fungus, and if noticed, healthy ants will remove these zombie ants from the colony placing them far away in a sort of quarantine in order to prevent widespread infection. Zombie ant is the actual term used to describe the infected ants, and not one I made up because it sounded awesome.
In nature, this fungus is in place to prevent any one insect species from overtaking the others. There are thousands of types of the Cordyceps fungus, each focusing on one species of insect and keeping it in check just in case things were ever to get out of hand like us human beings have. The fungus looks radically different for each species, which means there is already a built in visual identifier for the video game purposes of creating different enemy types afflicted with the Cordyceps fungus.
The fungus does not affect humans in this way, at least not in the real world. In fact, the Cordyceps fungus has been shown to possess health benefits for humans. In 1993, a group of female Chinese athletes broke five world records in distance running at the Olympics. The athletes were taking doses of caterpillar fungus (another name for the Cordyceps fungus) according to their coach. There is no scientific proof that the fungus was directly involved in increasing the physical prowess of these women though, and many were found guilty of other illegal substances. I’m guessing it was the Cordyceps though, because that would be awesome.
The Cordyceps fungus is used medicinally as well. It has been shown to help with protection from liver damage, used as an anti-depressant, may benefit people with an insulin resistance, and recently have even been used to help fight cancer. This brings us to the movie I Am Legend. In the film adaptation of the novel, the plague infecting the world leaving Will Smith to be one of the last humans alive was the result of a cancer cure gone horribly awry. That film and this game have been shown to share a similar art style, and the Cordyceps being used in the real world as a possible cancer cure definitely could lead to similar storytelling.
So, what does this all mean for The Last of Us? An infection of some kind has ravaged the world, and you are one of the few survivors. The plague is fungal and spreads via airborne spores as opposed the typical viral infections seen in other zombie games. We can also assume that if the fungus in the game is not the Cordycep itself, it's something that acts in a similar nature. Well, similar to how it affects jungle insects, anyway.
There are thousands of different types of Cordyceps fungi, meaning there will probably be all kinds of different types of enemy infected. We can also assume that all the enemies will be very happy (anti-depressant), super human (we saw what it supposedly did for those Olympic athletes), strong livered (see above), beasts perfectly capable of eating sugary sweets (see above again). But in all seriousness, the varying ways the Cordyceps fungus manifests itself in jungle insects visually and mechanically could point to some intriguing game design. We've only discussed the fungus' affect on humans and insects, but there is also the possibility of the game including fungal-infected dogs, birds, fish, zoo animals, and all other sorts of mushroom-laden threats to combat.
In an interview with USA Today, The Last of Us's creative director Neil Druckmann and game director Bruce Straley confirmed a few other details about the game, and stated that the zombie ant from the documentary is in fact what inspired the first idea. "It would be a cool realistic back setting to a zombie movie where this thing jumped species," said Druckmann in regard to the idea of the Cordyceps fungus.
The interview also reveals that the game will play in the third-person perspective and that players will be playing as the older man named, whose name is Joel. Druckmann said that Joel finds Ellie at the start of the game. "[Joel is] a vicious survivor. When he meets the girl, she is his one chance at redemption," said Druckmann.
The only question that remains is, are Joel and Ellen Page look-a-like Ellie immune to the fungus? The older man shoots one of the spore-infected creatures at point blank range, and at least in the course of the trailer did not seem to succumb to the sickness. Maybe they are immune, or maybe that explains why they bolted out of the building at full speed. Perhaps they needed to avoid breathing in the spores.
At first glance, it seems like Naughty Dog is offering its own take on the zombie genre. However, if you dig a little deeper and look at the clues, we could be in for something very different.