KUNM

Zombie Video Game Draws Inspiration From Real Fungus

Aug 5, 2013
Originally published on August 5, 2013 4:59 pm
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You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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Just what we need, another pop culture zombie apocalypse - more desperate humans fighting against mindless creatures that used to be humans, until they were transformed into soulless monsters. In this case, the particular apocalypse is in a video game called "The Last of Us."

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "THE LAST OF US")

CORNISH: But this fight isn't against your everyday zombies. The designers of the "The Last of Us" base these creatures on some actual science. Beth Accomando of member station KPBS tells us about this imaginative leap from science to science fiction.

BETH ACCOMANDO, BYLINE: If you consume a healthy dose of pop entertainment, you might feel as though humanity is in constant peril from zombies, infected people and even a good, old-fashioned biblical apocalypse. But that felt like old news to Neil Druckmann, creative director for "The Last of Us." He wanted to find a fresh way to wipe out humanity, and he found it in the BBC "Planet Earth" documentary and its depiction of what the cordyceps fungus does to ants.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PLANET EARTH")

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

ACCOMANDO: Ew. That sounds like the horrific plot of a science-fiction tale.

MICHAEL WALL: Yeah, right, exactly.

ACCOMANDO: That's entomologist Michael Wall of the San Diego Natural History Museum.

WALL: The insect world, I think, very often inspires science-fiction writers and moviemakers and clearly, in this case, video game producers.

ACCOMANDO: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "THE LAST OF US")

ACCOMANDO: Players trek through a post-apocalyptic United States encountering the creatures in various stages of infection.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "THE LAST OF US")

ACCOMANDO: Michael Wall quickly became infected by the game's premise.

WALL: 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. I mean, they're lurking around. I mean, they're talking about them now using echolocation to find other people.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "THE LAST OF US")

WALL: 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.

ACCOMANDO: The loss of freewill 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, but he's not worried about cordyceps burrowing into his brain.

WALL: Jumping from the insect world to human world is highly unlikely. 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.

ACCOMANDO: 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 insect stories involving mind control, behavior modification and strange exoskeleton designs. For NPR News, I'm Beth Accomando. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.