The Genius Behind The Last of Us’ Infected

I have a confession to make: I’m burnt out on post-apocalyptic stories.

If you knew me personally, you’d take this a bit as a shock. Ever since playing through Fallout 3 nearly six months ago, I’ve been on a total end-of-the-world kick, playing anything with the setting in it, reading books about post-apocalyptic worlds, and watching any good zombie/apocalypse movie I could get my hands on.

Seriously. It got to the point where I began envisioning what life would actually be like were an outbreak to ever occur.

Since then, however, I’ve kind of cooled down on the whole thing. And any new games with the feature of zombie-heavy combat has left me for wanting somewhat. Sure, the idea of fighting enemies in an end-of-the-world setting is fine, but I want something new.

Enter The Last of Us, the highly anticipated Sony exclusive coming this summer from Naughty Dog, the minds behind the Uncharted series.

In The Last of Us, players take control of Joel, a scoundrel type who’s taken up work as a courier in a nightmarish world where the living are partitioned into military districts and few brave the outside world ridden with dangerous scavengers and the infected.

But there’s something different about The Last of Us’ infected enemies that piques my curiosity rather than squashes it. And it’s the fact that, while they are infected, they’re not zombies.

Developers have made this quite clear, especially in the latest expose of The Last of Us focused on the role of the infected in the game. They’re grotesque, they’re brutal, and they’re dangerous. But don’t consider them the undead.

Despite what the name suggests, the infected themselves aren’t actually infected with a typical virus or bacteria. Instead, they’re plaugued with a mutated form of the  Cordyceps fungus, a parasitic life form that inhabits the brains of insects and bursts forth from them like something out of science fiction.

Game creators at Naughty Dog were fascinated with the idea of the fungus and what impact it would have if it ever spread to humans. What sort of choices or decisions would be made if you were competing with both your own instincts and those of the fungus itself? How would an infected person behave? How would they survive? What would they look like?

Again, they’re not zombies. But they are feral creatures, driven mad by the second life form inhabiting their psyche. As the fungus grows and begins to sprout from the person’s head, they will have their senses diminished and possibly  made no longer functional. It’s my guess that because of this, the infected in The Last of Us use echolocation to get around, making clicking noises to gauge the layout of a room and any enemies in it.

Because of that, there’s a heavy emphasis on stealth to avoid any unwanted encounters with the infected. While they may be dying, they’re still highly agile and capable of causing serious bodily harm to others.

Much like the life cycle of the insects, the infected in The Last of Us will eventually find a place to settle down and die. When this occurs, the fungus will grow rapidly, spreading to not only the outside of the body, but also the environment around it. It’s during this time of rapid growth that the deadly spores of the infected are released into the air, raising the risk of infection in others.

While the circumstances and actions of the infected are terrifying, possibly the most striking and unique thing about them is their actual aesthetic. Developers went through various stages of visual design for the infected, ranging from creatures looking like the Necromorphs from Dead Space to traditional, Romero-style zombies with rotting flesh.

But instead of going the conventional route, they settled on an all-new design that combined both the elements of the fungus and the horror of a destroyed human body.

The result is a unique look that is both terrifying and oddly beautiful in its execution. Designers wanted to make something that looked both organic and natural. They succeeded.

So, why do I call their idea of the infected genius? Because it’s innovative. We’re used to the look and lore of an apocalyptic world inhabited by infected humans. It’s bleak, terrifying, and decrepit, with hordes of shuffling and rotting corpses roaming the earth in search of the living.

But with The Last of Us, we see a green, lush world that has been abandoned by civilization as we once knew it. Survivors fight for precious supplies, and this horrific merger of man and fungus serves as one of the more terrifying prospects in the game itself. On top of that, it’s ripped straight from real life and preys on the “what if?” possibility that successful horror thrives on.

While they may not be zombies, they’re still an interesting and creative enemy I can’t wait to encounter. And who knows? Maybe a romp through this apocalyptic world is exactly what I need to get excited about the setting again.