The Last of Us is a game that presents a world infected by a fungus (based loosely on the real-life Cordyceps fungus, which affects ants) that turns people into mindless zombie-like creatures. Just last week, I got a chance to sit down with Naughty Dog and play some of the game (check out my hands-on impressions), and one of the things they were quite excited about was the unveiling of two of the infected enemy types that players will encounter.
See, Naughty Dog is adamant about making this infection a very real, believable part of the game rather than some goofy B-movie zombie plot. Jacob Minkoff, Lead Creative Designer on the game, told me, “Well, in general, we want to make the infection plausible, right? We really want to say, ‘Okay, well, if Cordyceps really did jump to humans, what would it be like?’”
So Naughty Dog’s version of Cordyceps works in stages, and throughout The Last of Us, you’ll encounter enemies at various stages of the infection.
During the first stage, hosts will go through this nightmarish phase where they still have some sense of self-awareness, but they start losing control over their bodies. This means they have retained a good portion of their humanity while being cursed with the living hell of knowing they are infected but being unable to do anything about it. Minkoff explained it to me like this: “Well, there’s this moment where the infection is taking over, and you’re starting to lose control of your body. You’re still in there; you’re still conscious of what’s going on, but this fungus is controlling your body, just the way it does the ant when the ant is forced to climb up the blade of grass and then shower spores all over the colony.”
So putting them down in this stage can be seen as an act of mercy, since there’s no known cure, and the later stages of the infection become pretty awful. But that doesn’t mean these guys won’t attack you on sight. In fact, they’ve been given the name “Runners,” since they still retain most of their motor skills (though those skills have been hijacked by the fungus) and can attack with speed and precision.
But there’s a bit of a psychological toll that comes with killing these things. Minkoff explained further: “So, even with the sounds of the Runners, we want little whimpers and cries, and the expressions on their face to be like, ‘I don’t want to do this, but I have no control over my body.’ And it’s that almost element of empathy or compassion… That’s what we really want to push there, is to understand, through the Runners, ‘Oh my God, this person was just a human, and they don’t want to be doing this. Holy crap!’”
Eventually, the fungus will cause disturbing growths on the head (and, disgustingly, out of the eye sockets), making the creatures blind and hindering their movement. In the third stage of the infection, they have gigantic heads and are known as “Clickers,” since they make a clicking sound so they can navigate the world in their blindness. As the game’s Ellie points out, they’re kind of like bats in this sense, as their sense of the world around them comes from this sonar-like ability.
I encountered both types of infected during my play time with the game, and both were terrifying. But I wondered what other sorts of enemies we could expect during our time with The Last of Us, so I asked Minkoff about it. His response: “Well, the Runners are Stage One, and the Clickers are Stage Three, so there’s at least one more hanging out in there.”
Even aside from the various types of infected, there are several human factions that play into the soup of the game’s conflict. Minkoff explained it pretty well: “It’s an interesting element of contrast. When you have this pressure of this difficult world and these incredibly dangerous enemies, the infected who have destroyed civilization, how do people choose to survive in this world? What sort of civilizations do they try to build? Is it everyone grab something for themselves, survival of the fittest, like you saw in [the Pittsburg section of gameplay that was shown off at E3 last year]? Or is it people trying to rebuild society, and get a hydroelectric dam working, and get electricity again? You’ll see… this kind of rainbow of different ways humanity tries to survive in this world.”
Minkoff continued, “The game has a lot of content. There’s a lot of variety in this game. We’re not ready to talk about other infected types, but you can rest assured that you will be going through many environments, meeting many different allies, and seeing all sorts of different enemies—not only different types of infected, but different enemy factions on the human side. Different people who have chosen to survive in this world in different ways. So far you’ve only seen the Hunters. You’ve still got the military, who run the quarantine zone. And, of course, they’re opposed by the faction of the Fireflies, the militia that we’re trying to smuggle Ellie to. And those aren’t the only factions; there are other factions.”
It’s becoming clear to us that The Last of Us is set in an incredibly complex world, a world Naughty Dog has thought long and hard about. The various ways you interact with this world—and the ways the denizens of the world interact with each other—offer this very real, detailed environment that should prove unforgettable when the game launches in May. We can’t wait.
Editor / Social Media
Date: February 5, 2013