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1:43 am
Tue July 9, 2013

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

Originally published on Tue July 9, 2013 9:20 am

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.

"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 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Beware the zombies. That's what you need to tell yourself if you're playing a new video game that's called "The Last of Us." It is described as a survival horror action-adventure. The game has a mature rating for good reason - things get violent and gory with zombie-like creatures everywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME)

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAM)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as hero) At least they're predictable. It's the normal people that scare me.

GREENE: Sounds lovely. Well, as it turns out, these are not your average onscreen zombies. These creatures are actually based on some science. Here's Beth Accomando from member station KPBS.

BETH ACCOMANDO, BYLINE: If you consume a healthy dose of pop entertainment, you might feel as though humanity's 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 a fresh new way to wipe out humanity and he found it in the BBC's "Planet Earth" documentary and its depiction of what the cordyceps fungus does to ants.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "PLANET EARTH")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Like something out of science fiction, the fruiting body of the cordyceps erupts from the ant's head.

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 of like what if it jumped to humans? Because 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 movie makers 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)

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

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as hero) What's wrong with his face?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (as hero) That's what years of infection will do to you.

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 are lurking around. I mean, they are talking about them now using echo location to find other people.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as hero) Like bats?

UNIDENTIFIED #2: (as hero) Like bats, if you hear one clicking, you gotta hide. That's how they spot you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLICKING)

WALL: They are 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 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. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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