Another piece on The Last of Us?
I know, I know... I keep going back to the well, but it is a veritable gold mine in terms of content. It's not all fluff either, which is rare these days. This time I'm going to be focusing on the real threat in The Last of Us, and it's not the Infected, or other humans, but the spores.
Just by way of the structure of zombie stories, the zombies are usually not the real threat. Sure, they're something dangerous that the characters have to avoid, but they're more akin to a force of nature than actual antagonists. The faceless masses of a zombie horde might as well be replaced with a tidal wave, or radiation, or a cloud of poisonous gas - the individual constituents don't matter, it's the collective whole that you've got to worry about. This is a point I'll swing back to at a later date, but enough of that for now.
Typically, it's the other humans that the characters have got to worry about in a zombie story. This isn't just based upon the idea that they're as individualistic as the protagonist are, enough so that they're able resist joining the faceless masses of society that the zombie hordes often represent. No, there's a pretty basic underlying logic about why humans are the true enemies, and it's because that any human that has lasted as long as you have is roughly as tough as you are. You can outrun a mindless horde of zombies or bash their rotting brains out if one is trying to give you a hickey, but a thinking, feeling and reactive antagonist that has set their sights on you is a much tougher opponent.
This is what it's set up to look like in The Last of Us. The military are willing to kill anybody who doesn't obey their strict commands and you're straight up screwed if they even think you're infected. The Hunters target other humans specifically so that they can take their gear, they've shifted from a herd mentality to a pack mentality... the Infected have less chance of having what they want, so they don't bother with them, it's specifically humans that they target. David's group is willing to hunt and farm to get by, but then they're also more than happy to kill and consume other humans. The Fireflies are willing to sacrifice any and all individuals for their idealistic devotion to the greater good, so even if you're with them they're likely to get you killed. All of these groups are more than happy to kill you under the right circumstances, but they're still not the most dangerous thing in The Last of Us.
The spores are the true threat in The Last of Us, and it's just a shame that the game doesn't reflect this. The thing is that it's also understandable, because Naughty Dog painted themselves into a corner in regards to the spores. Overall the spores basically make sense, the real world cordyceps fungus has spores that infect insects once the fungi begins to bloom. Besides this one-of-a-kind infection method for a zombie virus, the spores allow for unique game play situations where your characters are forced to put on gas masks and enter an area with reduced visibility. Finally, for as deadly as the spores are, they're actually a strangely beautiful sight to behold.
The problem with the spores is that, realistically, they're a near-impossible threat to combat. A single spore can be carried on the wind, or in the water, or on an animals skin, and it can easily infect a human within a Quarantine Zone. Considering each Infected sends out hundreds of thousands of spores when they start blooming after death, those are really shitty odds. If the spores in The Last of Us were acting at their full potential, then humanity wouldn't stand a chance.
How do you even begin to stop something that spreads on the wind? You'd need to incinerate every Infected that you kill, which means that you couldn't just kill them and leave them where they fall because they'd still be an active threat. You'd have to go into the spore-infested underground areas with flamethrowers and burn them out, then dispose of the blooming corpses down there as well. Good luck if you run into a Bloater while you're down there, because they can toss around spore grenades for some reason.... which just makes things so much worse.
The military tried their best to stop the spread of infection, and so they carpet bombed the area outside of the Quarantine Zones in order to kill as many infected as possible. Which makes sense, if it were just the Infected that they had to worry about. The problem is that explosions tend to push air away as they expand. Some spores might get fried by the heat, but a lot of them are just going to get pushed up and away... say, straight into the Quarantine Zones?
The Infected themselves even make for inferior vectors for the infection while they're alive. They're constantly trying to chew peoples necks out or rip their jaws off and they're generally going for kill shots, which is a bad way to spread an infection. The idea is to keep the host alive so that the infection has enough time to do its thing and infect the host. Cordyceps is parasitic in nature, so it needs a living host in order to grow, and if the host dies before it has time to take root then it dies as well. Why don't the Infected just nibble on fingers or forearms, the bare skinned limbs that people are more than happy to thrust towards them? One bite is all it takes, after that the Infected can just scamper off and wait a day or two for the infection to make them a new fungi-buddy. The problem is, they're too dumb for that.
And why aren't humans taking advantage of the spores? Why not walk into a spore-filled area with a gas mask on, get a garbage bag full of spores and then toss them into the soldier's barracks? Or leave spore laden food and drink as a trap for some Hunters? Why not hook a barrel of them up to a building's air conditioning unit and infected everyone at once? Seriously, these spores have a million uses and nobody is taking advantage of them.
This is a similar situation to what I was talking about in my piece on Radiation over at Post Apocalyptic Media (go check them out). You can't realistically expect people to combat spores, or radiation, and it would actually make for a pretty boring game if they were portrayed accurately. It's why the spores are confined to underground areas, when in reality they'd be drifting all over the place, infecting anyone and everyone. People want to play a game where they're forced to fend of zombies and cannibals, not run around with a can of anti-fungal spray.
I wouldn't mind seeing this play out as it should in future games, with billions of spores being released from collapsing tunnels that infect thousands of survivors across the United States. It would actually give weight to Joel's choice to save Ellie over making a vaccine - all those people could've been immune if they'd had a vaccine, but instead they got infected. So now he has to face the consequences of his choice.
It would make one hell of a closing scene for The Last of Us series, with Joel and Ellie standing with the literal last of us, fighting off an entire continent of Infected. Half of the survivors probably have the infection already, they're just trying to maintain their sanity long enough to take out some of the Infected before they go. Joel's decision to save Ellie would come back to bite him in the arse, literally, as the Infected storm the stronghold and the final remnants of humanity are wiped out for good.
It's a bit too action orientated, and a downer ending, for The Last of Us - but a man can dream.
Naughty Dog painted themselves into a corner with the spores in The Last of Us, they're the real threat, but they're an unmanageable and boring threat. They really add something unique to the game, but they're just that bit too powerful to be allowed to work the way they really should. Whatever path Naught Dog take with the spores, I'm sure the sequel/s to The Last of Us will be amazing.