No, that’s not a title alluding to just how gorgeous The Last of Us looks for a game created on a now ageing console – I can say that now the PlayStation 4 has been announced. Instead I’m looking at just how plausible Ellie and Joel’s adventure really is, how Naughty Dog took realism into account when seeing the Cordyceps fungus spread to humans and just how fast the world could succumb to nature.
I imagine your first reaction will be one of derision, guffawing as you say “not very” in answer to my question, pointing to the fact that it’s a highly-exaggerated look at the possibility of a parasitical outbreak across humanity. But would you be surprised to know that Naughty Dog actually went all-out on ensuring that their PlayStation 3 swan song was really grounded in reality? So much so that they took biologist Dr. David Hughes on to help create a plausible fungal outbreak in their world.
Having already started fleshing out the storyline and the world after having been inspired by that clip from Planet Earth where the Cordyceps fungus kills and roots an ant to help spread its spores of infection further, Naughty Dog wanted Hughes to help plan out the pandemic. In a half-hour presentation Hughes detailed the diseases and funguses of the past that have taken over the world bit by bit, showcasing just how plausible it would be for Cordyceps to achieve zoonosis – allowing it to jump from species to species.
Historically human’s have always gone up against viruses in a fight for survival, the Black Death wiped out a huge chunk of the population and the Bird Flu outbreak shortly after World War I nearly killed as many as those who died in the war. HIV made the jump to humans after Africans began eating our distant cousins the ape. Bird Flu made the jump once more when Chinese workers were subjected to the poor conditions in chicken farms so the world could have cheap meat. Essentially we’re our own undoing.
But what about a parasitical fungus? Could that burrow itself into our society? Well, worryingly it already has taken a hold upon the world. Fugal spores float around us all the time. Our bodies are largely used to them, but some do cause a reaction and the more we become involved with them and encroach upon their territory the more they’ll jump across to us. And we will be encroaching onto their turf soon enough as population numbers continue to increase. Since the ’70s population has risen by 4 billion people, it’s projected to reach 10 billion in just a few more years. Already villages in Brazil are being affected by fungal infections that latch onto humans transforming their bodies by deforming bones or creating growths – just look at the man who looks like a tree (long video).
A parasite known as Toxoplasma has also managed zoonosis as they’ve jumped from cats to humans. While their infection has brain-altering implications in mice, generally leading them to actively seek cats to be eaten – so the Toxoplasma can move into a cat – they also cause mental effects in humans. It can also be transferred in raw meat or fecal matter. Infection can lie dormant or have no active symptoms at all, but those infected genrally have lower inhibitions, take more risks and are more susceptible to mental disorders. It’s interesting to see that the rate of infection of Toxoplasma is generally higher in males than in females – in the US it amounts to around nine per cent of the population are infected, with it being more common in South America.
So, even though The Last of Us isn’t about the spread of a virus, nor does it feature zombies, the threat is still quite plausible – if not exaggerated for the sense of entertainment. As population increases and densely populated cities become larger and busier, the spread of infection will only be made more likely, with something like Cordyceps making the jump to humans. All it would take is one person flying from half-way around the world to begin the spread, just like SARS did ten years ago.
The lush and leafy world of The Last of Us is also rather believable as the disaster that struck the nation isn’t nuclear, a pollutant or a bioweapon, it’s entirely natural meaning the natural order of things won’t have be affected. But is it really believable that nature has reclaimed what was once its in just the short space of time since the outbreak? Well, yes.
In the twenty years since the outbreak nobody has been there to reign in nature’s growth. The Naughty Dog team was given The World Without Us by Alan Weisman to read so they could really understand what the landscape may well look like without the continual human pressure about. As Neil Drukman, creative director on The Last of Us, pointed out, as soon as the presence of water is introduced into an environment, life thrives. His example comes from the New York City subway system where much of it has pumps keeping water out of the system, the moment those pumps fail the subway quickly floods. It’s an example of just how hard it is to fight back against nature and how humanity has been doing it for years. Given 20 years, it’s hard to imagine it not happening.
Given the effort they’ve put into the realism factor of The Last of Us it’s hard to imagine them creating something that doesn’t manage to entrall and inspire. Luckily we don’t have too long to wait to find out, you can even take a look at our The Last of Us hands on from an event on Thursday.