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A Zombie Horror Game, Inspired By ... A Nature Documentary?

In <em>The Last of Us</em>, a fungus called <em>Cordyceps</em> that commonly infects insects has jumped over to humans, creating a fungal zombie apocalypse.
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In The Last of Us, a fungus called Cordyceps that commonly infects insects has jumped over to humans, creating a fungal zombie apocalypse.

The Last of Us is a new survival horror video game and it features — no big surprise — zombie-like creatures. But these are not the same old zombies that have dominated movie and TV screens in the past few years.

Neil Druckmann, creative director for The Last of Us, says he wanted a fresh new way to wipe out humanity — and he found it in a BBC documentary series called Planet Earth, which depicts the scary effects of the Cordyceps fungus.

The <em>Cordyceps</em> fungus invades its insect hosts, replacing their innards in order to reproduce itself.
/ Getty Images
Getty Images
The Cordyceps fungus invades its insect hosts, replacing their innards in order to reproduce itself.

"It's this fungus that burrows its way into insects' minds and completely alters their behavior," he says. "And you know, right away the idea popped in our head of like, 'What if it jumped to humans?' Cause you could imagine this fate worse than death, that your mind is still there but something else is controlling your body."

Sounds like the plot of a horrific science-fiction tale, right?

"Yeah right exactly," says entomologist Michael Wall of the San Diego Natural History Museum. "The insect world I think very often inspires science-fiction writers and movie makers, and clearly in this case video-game producers."

Taking its cue from Mother Nature's darker side, The Last of Us presents a mutated strain of the Cordyceps fungus that turns human hosts into rabid, ferocious killers. Players trek through a post-apocalyptic United States encountering the creatures in various stages of infection.

Michael Wall quickly became infected by the game's premise. "It's not just like all of a sudden these are normal folks who just happen to have really weird fungal growths coming out of their body," he says of the Cordyceps zombies, called "clickers" because of the way they use echolocation to find new victims. "They're definitely tapping into this idea that parasites can change the behavior of their hosts and make their hosts do things to the benefit of the parasite."

The loss of free will might be the most terrifying thing humans can imagine. But it's common in the insect world. That's one of the reasons entomology got under Wall's skin — though he's not worried about Cordyceps burrowing into his brain.

"Jumping from the insect world to human world is highly unlikely," he says, reassuringly. "Several thousand of these species of fungus can occur on lots of different insects, so you might think, like, 'Oh, wow. Then why couldn't it jump over to us?' But in terms of the evolutionary family tree, humans and insects are really far apart."

But close enough to stimulate someone's imagination. In fact, Wall might want to put a bug in the entertainment industry's ear. He knows some bug stories involving mind control, behavior modification and strange exoskeleton designs — in other words, box office gold.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Beth Accomando

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