Somebody once rightly pointed out that often, it is fact that is stranger than fiction. Human imagination may be unlimited, but it still pales in comparison to the elaborate interplay of nature, sentient life, and the social psychology which creates a rich and confusing tapestry that is life as we know it. An example of that lies in our recent past. Could the common man have imagined that the world would be brought to its knees the way it was? The worst we had probably been taught to fear was nuclear warfare, but at the end of the day, it was something as simple as human greed and their disregard for nature that turned the tide. However, the saddest part of the ordeal is that we don’t seem to have learned anything. Greed trumped over memory. During the pandemic, it was said by experts that this isn’t the last or the only pandemic to have affected human civilization. There were others before, and there will be others after, unless and until we learn to reprogram our society as a whole. But that is not likely to happen, at least until the far future.
Everything in nature is designed to co-exist, and any disturbance of the balance has devastating consequences. In the interview with the scientists that we see at the beginning of Episode 1 of “The Last of Us,” they say as much. While describing the dangers that are out there, we can sense a note of resignation in their voice and demeanor. They know that humankind is close to a fatal pandemic, but they are also aware that we will not be taking any steps to stop or avert it. The capitalistic principles that the world runs on do not leave any room for environmental harmony. And that is what happens.
Dr. Neuman, the epidemiologist, says at the beginning of “The Last of Us” Episode 1 that he believes that the threats we should be worried about are something we probably don’t even see coming. He is worried about a fungi infection taking over human brains and controlling us. Come to think of it, this should be the threat that we understand the best. Humans have always believed in the survival of the fittest, haven’t they? Is it really so far-fetched that fungi evolve to withstand the increasingly harsher climate of the planet? What is to say that evolution does not come with a degree of sentience? When the fungus starts taking over the human body, it acts parasitic in nature, but when it starts taking over the human race, it acts with a desire for dominance. Think about it: the fungus releases hallucinogens into the brain that force the host to act according to its will. But what is its will? Is it just the satiation of hunger, or is there something more sinister at play? The fungus is obviously not as evolved as humans, who have thousands of years of history behind them and the social intelligence that they have built, which allows them to act as a community. But who is to say that, given some time, the fungus won’t learn to group together? If it is just a fast-acting thing that develops into a powerful entity, it would still be possible to defeat it with some intelligence and strategy by human beings. But if it starts showing signs of active intelligence, we are doomed as a race.
The Cordyceps Brain Infection (CBI) is inspired by the zombie carpenter ants. According to our research, what makes “The Last of Us” different from other zombie films and series is that it seems to have gotten its science right. The infected are not just the undead; they are people who are still alive but have lost their agency to the fungus controlling them. The CBI infects people either through the air (as suggested in the video game) or through the exchange of bodily fluids with the other infected. If we look at it from a bird’s eye view, we realize that fungus has designed its function to grow in numbers and quantity. When it first gets into someone’s body, the person goes through five stages of transformation: runners, stalkers, clickers, bloaters, shamblers, and the rat king stage.
Runners are the recently infected who operate with a singular intention to attack. The stalkers are a bit more intelligent with their hunt. They wait for their prey to go into hiding and attack when they least expect it. The “clicker stage” is when the fungus has spread to all parts of the body. These creatures are blind and use echolocation to narrow in on their target. But the fungus had also made them strong, which makes them dangerous. Bloaters are the hosts who have been infected for many years. Despite being incredibly strong, they are slow due to the weight of the infection. However, they can throw spore bombs to enable their spread to other humans. As more years pass and the bloaters progress to the shambler stage, their singular goal is to spread the fungi as much as they can. The spores they release can cause their prey to have acidic burns. In fact, at this stage, it becomes dangerous to even kill them as they end up releasing a huge burst of spores into the air, enough to put an entire population at risk. There is a fifth stage, and this is the one that convinced us that something like the Cordyceps could become a reality. It is the “rat king” stage, in which several infected combine into one entity that can survive massive damage and still continue to attack others. It is an example of evolution at its fastest, and we believe that there is some intelligence involved in the process, one that has aligned the fungus’ priorities of attack, survival, and reproduction. This is something very close to how humans’ function. Unlike other zombies who are blinded by hunger, the Cordyceps fungus moves with a goal, and that is scary to us because it is behavior we recognize from our own species. It is easy to dismiss this as a conspiracy theory, but it cannot be denied, especially after the events of our recent past, that there are forces in nature beyond our comprehension, and humans are not as invincible as we would like to think. Unless we establish harmony with the environment, there are going to be worse calamities for us to face in the world than what a game could imagine.