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)
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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.
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.
The second game is what I’m really excited to talk about. Being 5 years after the firefly incident, you see Ellie coming into early adulthood in a stable environment despite growing up in an apocalypse. In Jackson they have security, electricity, somewhat normal home living arrangements, kids and playgrounds and nice times behind giant gates. The adults who live in this town go on patrols for supplies, and to remove infected that stalk the areas outside. Joel and Ellie have had some kind of falling out that you explore throughout the entire game that ties back to the ending of the first game. They have built a somewhat normal life here, and while many of the population are still very traumatized by the world outside, there’s something beautiful about the little haven they’ve created. The second game really does an amazing job showcasing the impact of this trauma that the characters are dealing with, and how mental health in the apocalypse is complicated because even with the veiled comfort of suburbia, there is no real safety in the apocalypse. The big theme for the second game is vengeance. There is this cycle of pain that had me feeling naruto shippuden pain arch level sadness. There are so many threads that are happening all at once, so bear with me as I try to express everything.
For me, the second game hurt, but like in a way where you’re glad you played it but you’re just really sad for a while afterwards. I think it hit a lot of players hard for that reason, both cause it’s like so long, and content that arguably could have been spread across two games is crammed into one. THERE IS SO MUCH OUCH IN THIS GAME that really leaves you feeling emotionally tired and just regular tired once you FINALLY get to the ending. The biggest thing that really shocked me about the way this title took the story, is that by the end I was really irked by Ellie, and the INSISTENCE on continuing to pursue vengeance when love and support were waving their arms dramatically in front of her begging her to stay. It’s also one of the things I actually really appreciated about the game though, because it was honest when you didn’t want it to be, much like people are. I recognized the honesty of that feeling, and that people are as frustratingly stubborn as the story forces the player to be when it comes to processing loss and seeking revenge. This was not lost on me, albeit very draining.
**Spoilers for second game**
So why Ellie wanna revenge murder so bad? In the second title, Joel is brutally killed by a newly introduced character, Abby, and supported by a group of characters that we later learn are former fireflies. After watching a video from the creators of the game, they achieved what they were trying to do in my opinion. They set out to create a game about this cycle of violence and the consequences of that choice that are both good and bad for the characters. The Last of Us Part II - Inside the Story | PS4 There is this cyclical sacrifice that takes place throughout that if you’re coming from the first title is hard to swallow. Many players who may have come to the second title looking for a story centered on Ellie and Joel growing together through the apocalypse, might be disappointed by the sequel that forces you in the shoes of Joel’s murderer for a bulk of the game. There are many critiques of this choice, and specifically of the level of exposition that takes place where we follow Abby, the child of the doctor that Joel murders to save Ellie from the fireflies. I feel these critiques, many of which are valid, as that gameplay was A LOT, and I felt some of the frustration as well, where at the beginning of that story development I kept waiting anxiously to get back to Ellie’s revenge arch. I felt myself getting really conflicted with my in game choices, not wanting to sympathize with Joel’s murderer, because that made the first half of the game where I’m tasked with revenge murdering a lot of people feel significantly heavier than a fake world video game time has ever forced to feel. And I thought that was a really brave choice for them to make, as it is way easier to commit atrocities when you dehumanize the enemy. That is literally how and why the country is the way it is. So for this game to challenge that and force the player into this feeling of uncomfortability and accountability was really cool to me.
The critiques of the game also highlight the lack of subtlety the new game has, the lack of nuance, and the shift from character development to theme pushing, and I get those critiques, but I also really enjoyed the characters that direction allowed us to meet. I think this was maybe the game a lot of people didn’t want to receive, but was the game a lot of people may have needed to experience to force an empathy shift that is heavily applicable to real life. I welcomed the nod back to the fact that Joel and Ellie were never supposed to be heroes, and that they had done really f’d up things that realistically should have had lasting consequences. I understood by the end why they weren’t gonna get a happy ending, cause honestly they didn’t deserve one, or at the very least not any more or less than a lot of the other characters were introduced to. This game showed us why being in the apocalypse is only fun in theory, and why the reality is harsher and more brutal than anyone would actually want to experience.
Game Accessibility features
This game had a lot of great accessibility features! Apparently over 60 according to the naughtydog website! The website even has a configuration of these presets based on the need. In hindsight I realize I utilized ALL the hearing accessibility presets because of how my brain processes sounds on a sensory level usually makes it very challenging to to place sounds directionally, and impacts my ability to process what I'm taking in visually at the same time as auditorily. This game helps with both of those things, allowing players to activate directional arrows to give sound cues, vibration cues in the controller, AND the size and detail for subtitles. There are also vision, and motor accessibility presets, and extensive variations in control options to customize the experience to fit the needs of the player. Considering how amazing this game is with representation as well, it is not surprising to me that they would also take the time to make this game accessible for as many differently abled players as possible. To get the full rundown of all the accessibility features, I recommend checking out the NaughtyDog website in the description of the video.
Representation in The Last of Us 2
This game did some pretty amazing things with representation! NaughtyDog has expectedly received hate for it’s positive portrayal of Women, Lesbian, Bi, Trans and BIPOC characters. Especially for integrating those characters so heavily into the world and story, creating complex, emotional, and human characters instead of caricatures and fodder. In an article from VentureBeat titled Why the story of The Last of Us Part II is maddening and fulfilling (spoilers) by Dean Takahashi, the creators claimed this as a badge of honor.
“What’s happening is what we wanted. People are having conversations,” said Halley Gross, narrative lead at Naughty Dog, in an interview with GamesBeat. “This is inciting debate about good and evil, about how far games can get pushed narratively, about what makes a redemptive person, what makes a redemptive story. As long as people are asking those questions I feel like we’ve accomplished what we wanted to accomplish.”
Where many fantasy and Dystopian future novels fail, the last of us does an amazing job
As a Pan Jewish Genderfluid human, I loved the representation in this game. I felt seen in a lot of the characters, including Dina, and Lev and Ellie frfr. These characters were amazing, and their capacity to be both good and evil, and cruel and compassionate was so realistic that while I was exhausted by the end I was also thrilled the game did what it did. I felt the frustration initially by how long you had to walk in Abby's shoes, since at the beginning I really didn’t care for her, but my feelings around Abby’s character transformed exponentially as I went. I was so excited about the introduction of Lev, a trans boy dealing with so much in addition to a whole apocalypse. While that line of the story made the game significantly longer, and is where many pointed the bulk of their critique, it was one of my favorite parts of the game. Could they have made it a whole other game? Probably, but that’s what it honestly had me hoping for in the future, a sequel that unpacks that part of the world further. I honestly left the game hoping there would be a third game focused more heavily on Lev and his sister Yara’s backstory, and this really interesting cult-like community that developed on an island free of infected. As well as genuinely wondering where Abby and Lev go after they leave Ellie on that beach. While many critiqued the introduction of Lev, and argued the connection between him and Abby was not comparable to Joel and Ellie, I WOULD DISAGREE. I thought it was amazing, and set the game up for a sequel that I would absolutely be here for, where Lev and Abby take on the MOTHERFUCKING WORLD together finding the fireflies, and MAYBE even a MTOSIHRIUSEAHISURGHJOEFA cure with Ellie, now that Ellie has lost everything and learned revenge is fruitless. There is apparently a plot pitched for a Last of Us 3 which is confirmed by a gamerant article and I am here for it and ready to give them my money. I think they achieved something here that surprised everyone, and did so in a way that was raw and painful and necessary for people who usually don’t see themselves in games. The people who don’t get that, might need to put their media analysis glasses on and recognize that maybe they weren’t the target audience for this game.
Cordyceps Fungus: The Real Parasite That Inspired Clickers by Gabe Castro
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
I am not a fungi-ologist but I am terrified of them and the millions of truly horrifying things they are capable of doing. Did you know, my dear Ghoul scouts, that fungi are genetically closer to humans than plants?? Some fungi can even move on their own! They are alive and real in a way that we wish our house plants were and 100% wish fungus weren’t. I have seen many horror-adjacent content related to fungi that have stayed with me forever including an episode of Hannibal (beautifully disgusting masterpiece of a show).
In the Last of Us universe, as Kat explained, there is a post-apocalyptic wasteland full of broken people trying to survive and who are seeking revenge for wrongs that had been done to them and those they love. This apocalypse, like most others, questions what it means to be human and how strong our connections are to our societal expectations and duties. But further than that, Last of Us offers us a truly horrifying premise that unlike zombie films, is possible. In the incredibly early days (like ep 5 or something) of Ghouls we discussed zombies and how there could be zombies. Though not to the same level as our cinematic monsters, this idea of a parasite taking over as host of your brain and reducing humans to their basic instincts for survival is unsettling and pure horror but also based on the real effects of parasites. The infection in the Last of Us Universe is similar to that of a zombie infection where we are turned into creatures driven by instinct and a need to spread the infection but instead of a vague what if scenario, this infection is based on a real life fungus.
According to the Last of Us wiki page, the mutant infection began to spread in the United States in late September 2013. In just several months, roughly 60% of humanity was either killed or infected by the cordyceps fungus, referred to as Cordyceps Brain Infection. Superspreading infections sound a bit too real right now but the one silver lining to COVID and its OMICRON variant is that it is NOT this fungus. I’m going to explain the very real Cordyceps fungus and why you should be afraid but first let’s go over the progression of the game’s infection. The infection evolves through 4 stages, each one increasingly more horrifying than the last.
Stage One: Runners The fungus grows while the host is still alive, taking away their higher brain function (and with it, their humanity), and causing the infected host to become hyper-aggressive and incapable of reason or rational thought. Runners have terrible eyesight but other than that remain somewhat human looking and sounding. This first stage shows the fitful resistance of the body but ultimately fails.
Stage Two: Stalkers As the infection progresses, the infection begins altering their sight as a result of progressing fungal growth over the head and corruption of their visual cortex. This stage takes anywhere from a week to a year. The stalkers are still vaguely human-like but are more rabid. This is where you begin to see the growths on their heads. Because cordyceps are capable of bioluminescence, some of the stalkers glow.
Stage 2 is also when they begin to use their echolocation - leaving behind their human groans for odd croaking sounds used to locate their prey.
Stage Three: Clickers. The infection will eventually scar their face completely, causing them to lose their sight, resulting in them developing a primitive form of echolocation to compensate. This stage occurs after a year or so. They rely entirely on their echolocation since they no longer have eyes at all but instead have disgusting and haunting growths where their eyes once were.
Their echolocation comes in the form of unsettling clicking sounds that will haunt your dreams. These infected folx are even less human, their bodies are overrun with the growths and fungi.
Stage Four: Bloaters. Over a very long time, they will eventually develop hardened fungal plates over most of their body. If the fungus kills the host, the host's body will grow stalk-like fungal projections which release infectious spores. The infection can also be spread through bites from living hosts. Hosts can only be infected while alive, as the fungus is unable to infect dead bodies due to its parasitic nature, though dead Infected can release spores regardless of stage. The Bloater stage can occur after decades of infection. Unlike the clickers and other infected, the Bloaters aren’t as mobile or sophisticated enough to use their echolocation but instead fulfill their need to spread the infection by releasing Mycotoxin.
So that little explanation is just to help you sleep tonight. Let’s get into the non-fiction, real life, and truly horrifying real fungus that really exists. As I mentioned, the Last of Us Cordyceps Brain Infection is based on the real Cordyceps fungus. The inspiration behind the Infected came to the directors, Bruce Straley and Neil Druckman, after watching a BBC Planet Earth clip. (You may recall a Ghouls episode in which Kat was adamant that any underwater coverage in Planet Earth is considered a horror movie.) The clip in question features the infection of an ant by this Cordyceps fungus. I’m not big on science but I remember learning about this in school and it’s one of the few science/biology facts that haunts me.
In the clip, we hear Sir David Attenborough as he explains the progression and horror of the parasitic infection. First, the infection occurs. The Zombie Fungus in the Last of Us Is Actually Real A foraging carpenter ant walks through an area of the tropical rain forest floor infested with microscopic spores dropped by a mature fungus. The spore excretes an enzyme that eats through the ant’s exterior shell.
Once infected, fungal cells in the ant's head release chemicals that hijack the insect's central nervous system. The ant will latch onto a tree stem in what is called a Death Grip. After two days, the ant leaves its tree colony and climbs down to a spot where humidity and temperature are optimal for the fungus to grow. The ant crawls onto a stem or the underside of a leaf and bites into its main middle vein so it won’t fall. Then it dies. Here you can see the body of the Cordyceps fungus growing out of its head. The clip shows the haunting progression of the fungus stem extruding from the head, growing and reaching out. This is the fungal growth stage where the fungus eats the ant’s internal organs, using its shell as a protective casing. The fungus’ main stem (the stroma) erupts from the back of the ant’s head and grows. At the peak of infection about 40 to 50 percent of the ant’s body is made up of fungus on the inside.
After about 3 weeks, it will begin releasing spores from the tip that seek to infect other ants and turn them into fungus heads. The mature fungus releases spores from its stroma. The spores fall to the ground, creating a 10-square-feet “killing zone,” which will attack new ants. Sir Attenborough lets us know that the infection is strong and could wipe out entire colonies of ants. This is why if an ant is discovered with the infection, they will be cast out. Even more excitingly, there are thousands of different types of Cordyceps fungi and each focus on one species.
In an article on LiveScience, Zombie Fungus Enslaves Only Its Favorite Ant Brains | Live Science, helpful and positive writer Joseph Castro explains, A parasitic fungus known to manipulate the brains of ants doesn't make slavelike "zombies" out of any old host. Instead, the microorganism is somehow able to recognize the brains of different ant species, and releases its mind-controlling chemical cocktail only when in its preferred host, new research shows.
So, it has a mind of its own! It’s not a mindless, purposeless infection spreading wherever, it is aware of its evolutionary needs so it strategically chooses which species of ant to infect and when. *nervous laughter*
In an interview with Game Informer, The Inspirations for The Last of Us, creators Straley and Druckman were inspired not by the gruesome video but rather by Sir David Attenborough explaining that the more numerous the species, the more likely it was to become infected. So they asked themselves, “What if this thing jumped to humans?” Yeah, what if?!
The terrifying thing about the Cordyceps fungi is how it evolves to best suit each of its specific intended targets. The different types and the results of the infection can be oddly beautiful, the carcuses of its prey blooming with new life. Others are simply horrific. There’s one type that’s specific for tarantulas and if you’re listening please look it up, it’s called Cordyceps ignota. This one sprouts several buds from its victim and doesn’t aim to spread but simply kills its prey. Just for giggles.
The way the infection spread was a bit similar to our current COVID situation in which humans ate things and spread things unknowingly. A newspaper clipping in The Last of Us that can be found at Joel and Sarah’s house reveals the infection began spreading after a series of crops became infected in South America. "The Food and Drug Administration’s investigation of crops potentially tainted with mold continues across the country,” the article reads. “Initial lists distributed to vendors nationwide warned against crops imported from South America, but now the scope has extended to include Central America and Mexico. Several companies have already voluntarily recalled their food products from the shelves." [How The Last Of Us' Cordyceps Infection Started (& How It Spreads)] When googling the fungi, I found that many people take Cordycep fungi for medicinal purposes.
But here’s some good news: It is unlikely that we’ll see this fungus infection in humans. There are currently no species of Cordyceps that target humans or mammals of any kind. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t evolve to one day do that, just more likely to take thousands of years for that evolution. If there were a Cordyceps fungus-like infection then, after the years (plural!) of the pandemic we’ve had for a respiratory infection, I have such little doubt that we as humans would be able to maintain and halt the spread of an infection like this. Also, who’s to say that one of these medicinal purpose-drugs made with Cordyceps don’t alter the timeline and speed up the evolutionary process?