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Last of Us (I & II): Honest Apocalypse & Real Killer Mushrooms

Ghouls are starting a series on Ecological Horror. This week we're talking apocalypse video game series, the Last of Us. Kat discusses how in this game world, you are given characters that aren’t heroes, who have spent their time in the apocalypse as brutal as anyone else and make decisions that are incredibly human. Gabe also explains her fear of mushrooms and the very real parasite that inspired the monsters in the game.

Sources in this episode: Why the story of The Last of Us Part II is maddening and fulfilling (spoilers)

The Zombie Fungus in the Last of Us Is Actually Real

Zombie Fungus Enslaves Only Its Favorite Ant Brains | Live Science

The Inspirations for The Last of Us

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The Last of Us (2013)

20 years after a pandemic has radically changed known civilization, infected humans run wild and survivors are killing each other for food, weapons; whatever they can get their hands on. Joel, a violent survivor, is hired to smuggle a 14 year-old girl, Ellie, out of an oppressive military quarantine zone, but what starts as a small job soon transforms into a brutal journey across the U.S.

Developer: Naughty Dog

The Last of Us: Part 2 (2020)

Five years after their dangerous journey across the post-pandemic United States, Ellie and Joel have settled down in Jackson, Wyoming. Living amongst a thriving community of survivors has allowed them peace and stability, despite the constant threat of the infected and other, more desperate survivors.

When a violent event disrupts that peace, Ellie embarks on a relentless journey to carry out justice and find closure. As she hunts those responsible one by one, she is confronted with the devastating physical and emotional repercussions of her actions.


The Last of Us: A Brutal & Honest Apocalypse We Deserve by Kat Kushin

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.

Gabe and I have switched roles today, primarily because my special interest and hyper fixation is almost always video games. I am a gamer, and spend the majority of my spare time doing so, so what better an opportunity for me to geek out over one of my favorites. Today we’ll be talking about The Last of Us, which is known for its effective display of intense emotion, and instilling in the player a complex understanding of the human experience. This game does an amazing job of showing the layers of humanity, and the ways in which people are COMPLICATED. I had played the first game when it first came out, and again somewhat recently for “research”(totally not just because I wanted to play it again). The use of stealth in these games, which has always been my favorite play style, made the gameplay of the Last of Us series really satisfying. When Playstation added the Part II to Playstation Now, I felt especially motivated to play it, because every so often I feel the apocalypse itch. This. Game. Ruined. Me. It was so unbelievably emotional, and made me feel for almost every character in ways that I never would have expected. The storytelling was so impactful and effective, and shifted who you were rooting for throughout. For those who have never played either title, this game is stressful, the monsters challenging, and the world realistic in ways that are visceral and uncomfortable. Both games do horror well. If you are not a stealth style player though, this game might be very frustrating to get through.

What makes these games great:

They are honest, even when you don’t want them to be. The Last of Us really shines as a game not because it’s especially unique in the premise or story, but it’s approach to gameplay and story development. You are given characters that aren’t heroes, who have spent their time in the apocalypse as brutal as anyone else. Characters who have lost most of the people they love, and desperately cling to those they have left. Like any apocalypse narrative, the people in the game are scarier than the monsters, although the monsters are still pretty darn scary.

First Game:

The Last of Us 1 starts the player as Joel’s daughter, pre-apocalypse, and you get a background on how Joel ends up the way he does 20 years later. What you learn is that Joel’s daughter does not make it on this journey, and the 20 years after that loss has left Joel somewhat numb and callous. Since the story centers on the first 20 years post apocalypse, the remains of government and society are still pretty prevalently the “problem” that the in-game character must face, at least at the beginning. There are government run soldiers that over-police the remaining population, a guerrilla organization that rises up against them, and the other people who find themselves outside of both spheres either living nomadically and day-to-day, or trying to rebuild where they can. The group they highlight throughout the game that preach the goal of helping rebuild what they classify as a more humane society are called the fireflies. The methods of the fireflies are like that of any revolutionary force. The government in this world is familiar, handling the situation terribly, mismanaging supplies, acting brutally and bureaucratically. The first game sets you up with Joel and Tess, who in an attempt to recover guns that were stolen from them, they meet up with Marlene, the leader of the fireflies who asks them to take Ellie, a 14 year old kid across town to other members of that group. You also get an introduction to the spore based monsters, in their various stages of development, that are both visually and auditorily scary. The monsters themselves are pretty unique compared to other zombies, and Gabe will get into whether or not they could really happen.

**Spoilers for first game**

Once you get a bit further into the game you learn a secret about Ellie, that she is immune to the bites, spores, and monsters. Ellie must get to the Fireflies base across the country to work with doctors on a possible cure. The middle of the game is filled with Joel and Ellie bonding and building a father-daughter like kinship. In an effort to really talk about the second half of the game, I’m going to rush through the explanation of what happens in the first one. There are many impactful, emotional scenes that happen throughout this game that hit you hard. Characters that you don’t want to see die, that do. This game is as brutal as I think the actual apocalypse would be. While it’s fun to think of what would happen in some wacky scenario in which society collapses, this game is quick to let you know how harsh and unforgiving that world would actually be. As you approach the end of The Last of Us 1, Joel, faces an ethical dilemma that would make Chidi from the Good Place head explode. It’s one that I think many people would struggle with. When given the choice between an uncertain cure and the life of a child who you’ve begun to love as your own, there is no good answer. The fireflies doctor inform Joel that to even attempt to find a cure, Ellie will have to die. Why? Idk, but that’s what the game tells you. The player doesn’t really get to deliberate on this decision, as it’s made by the game, but you feel for Joel and understand his choice. It’s arguably a selfish choice to save Ellie, but one that I personally don’t blame Joel for, specifically for how it goes down. Essentially the fireflies are willing to achieve this end by any means necessary. They don’t tell Ellie that they would die in the procedure, and plan to not even tell Joel this, or give either the option to back out.

Second Game:

The second game is what I