I have gotten sidetracked this week by the new video game The Last of Us, which was released last week. I had not planned to buy it, but with its glowing reviews (some have compared its potential effect on video games to what Citizen Kane did for movies) and the fact that much of it takes place in my ancestral home of Pittsburgh, I broke down and bought it. I’m not all the way through the game yet, but I have to agree with the glowing reviews.
That said, The Last of Us is not for everyone. The game takes place in a post-apocalyptic United States. In that respect, it is similar to the popular Fallout series, in which you run around the mostly depopulated, anarchic, post-nuclear wasteland of the US, crawling inside ruins of famous monuments, avoiding mutants, bandits, and high-radiation areas, and generally just trying to survive. While I like the Fallout series and find it to be an interesting game, it is very depressing. And I do not understand why many fans of its publisher Bethesda were excited when Bethesda cut off further development of downloadable content for its hugely successful Skyrim title (with its story still unfinished) because they thought it was putting resources into the next Fallout game.
But The Last of Us makes the depressing Fallout look like Disney World by comparison. While Fallout tempers its grim story with an acknowledgment that it could never happen, largely because before the nuclear war the United States as depicted in Fallout was some weird 1950’s-style creature with futuristic technology – in short, a country that never existed – The Last of Us goes out of its way to explain that what was destroyed was the United States as you know it now, as well as at least 60% of the world population.
The apocalypse that forms the basis of The Last of Us’ world is not a nuclear war, but an almost overnight biological pandemic. A mutated strain of the fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis (“cordyceps”) infected much of the population, turning them into zombie-like creatures. In that respect The Last of Us is like the Resident Evil series and other survival horror games (though regrettably Resident Evil seems to have abandoned that genre as of late). The zombie apocalypse has always been a mainstay for horror. It can be far more frightening than nuclear attack inasmuch as while a nuclear attack is devastating to life and property, once it destroys, kills, poisons, and irradiates, that’s it. There are devastating after effects, but once it happens, it’s done and steps can be taken to start some sort of recovery. By contrast, the zombie apocalypse is ongoing. What it does not kill it turns into more zombies. Their presence puts anyone at risk of becoming a zombie and makes large areas uninhabitable. You can’t start recovery because you can’t stop the zombie outbreak.
Which is exactly what happens in The Last of Us. The cordyceps is initially spread through spores. You inhale the spores and the fungus starts growing inside your body and gradually taking over and destroying higher brain functions. Removal of the cordyceps without killing the host is impossible. In the case of the most hated enemies in the game, the “Clickers,” the fungus has taken over them entirely. The cordyceps has taken over their bodies entirely, warping them physically, growing over the top of their heads and through their eye sockets, destroying their eyesight. They can only see by “clicking” for echolocation. Their humanity destroyed, the Clickers only goal is to spread the cordyceps fungus, this time by biting.
The very limited backstory to The Last of Us indicates the cordyceps outbreak spread almost overnight. With removal of the fungus impossible and all attempt at vaccination ineffective, the US government tried to set up “quarantine zones” around major cities where the uninfected could live relatively safely behind walls and barricades. But as the uninfected population continued to fall and as many of the remaining uninfected were wracked by despair and privation, many of the quarantine zones were abandoned or fell to bandits, civil war, and the cordyceps itself. The government of the United States still exists in The Last of Us, but it controls only a few cities of the continental United States, under a state of emergency, its security forces hypervigilant and at times corrupt.
It’s a horrifying picture, a horrifying story, made much more uncomfortable by the fact that the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungus is an actual real-life infectious fungus.
So, can The Last of Us actually happen?
It probably helps and is very comforting to know that while the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungus is an actual real-life infectious fungus, it only affects ants, grasshoppers, spiders, and other insects and arachnids. In fact, it’s considered a good thing to help control these populations. Given the differences in physiology and biochemistry between insects and humans, the possibility of cordyceps spreading to humans is minimal.
Even if it did spread, the possibility that the cordyceps would spread the way it does in The Last of Us and affect human behavior is almost zero. While the cordyceps has been known to wipe out entire colonies of ants, it is not known to turn infected ants into attacking mutants. What it does do is, as the fungus grows within and on the ant, it turns the ant into a zombie who climbs to an overhanging leaf and clamp down on a major vein with its mandibles. Then the ant dies and the fungus turns the corpse into a fruiting body to spread the spores. What it certainly does not do until the ant’s death is destroy physical abilities of the ant, such as its eyesight, which would seem to actually inhibit the spread of the fungus. Obviously and quite understandably, Naughty Dog, the developers of The Last of Us, took some liberties for purposes of putting together a gripping story.
The portrayal of the collapse of civilization in The Last of Us is chilling but history strongly suggests a major pandemic would play out much differently. If one examines what is believed to be the worst pandemic in human history, the Black Death, which killed an estimated 75 million – 200 million people across the Eastern Hemisphere in the 14th century, one can find few similarities with The Last of Us. The Black Death (still not fully explained but often believed to be a form of bubonic, pneumonic, and septicimic plague spread by the rat-spread Yersinia pestis bacterium) wiped out an estimated 30-60% of Europe’s population, including entire towns. It caused major socio-economic upheaval across Europe (check out Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, for instance), but government (albeit government a lot more limited than it is today) never ceased functioning, never retreated into walled, barricaded cities, never abandoned large portions of the territory it ruled to the plague. And that was when the cause and spread of the Black Death was entirely unknown and government’s response to it almost totally ineffective.
The US government’s response to disasters is not always stellar (see, eg, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy), but it is far, far better than is the norm across the globe, and it is far, far better than is portrayed in The Last of Us, in which the government response is actually worse than the response to the Black Death more than six centuries ago. Tools for fighting the cordyceps infection, such as gas masks, ingress screenings and bleach (to kill the fungus itself), are shown in The Last of Us and would in real life form the basis of a much more effective response than the one seen in the video game.