The load screen for Naughty Dog’s latest PlayStation 3 release The Last of Us confronts players with an inexplicable image: against a blank, black background, tiny yellow particles emerge from an unseen source to waft on currents of air. Having read little about the game beforehand, I guessed at what these particles represented: dust motes, I first thought, recalling the unkempt, long-abandoned window of a home featured on the title screen. That plants overgrow the window also suggested the specks were pollen: Atlanta-residents and allergy sufferers such as myself are well-familiar with the thick, suffocating waves of the stuff emitted by local trees every spring. My second guess inched me closer to an explanation, but it wasn’t until I encountered the infected–the game’s zombie-esque creatures–that I recognized the particles for what they were: spores.
And not any old spores, either, but spores from the real-life species of fungi Cordyceps. If you’ve watched the BBC series Planet Earth, the Cordyceps fungi is the part of the show most likely to have given you nightmares, and for good reason. The fungi propagates itself by quite literally turning ants into zombies: it enters their bodies, takes over their minds, and eventually grows out of the ants to form some truly creepy protrusions I for one often wish were only science fiction. Ants infected with Cordyceps pose such a threat to their colonies that non-infected worker ants will eject them from the group to save themselves: think the quarantine zones in The Last of Us. A recent Scientific American article praises the game for developing a zombie iteration inspired by good science; as the article explains, “the fungus that brings down humanity turns a host into a drone to eventually do its bidding. And like the species of Cordyceps that turns tarantulas into art, the fictional fungus creates elaborate sprouting bodies off the host.”
In The Last of Us, humans are no more removed from the threat of this fungal infection than ants. Such a demotion in our species’ status from beyond the natural world to thoroughly immersed in it disorients as much as it frightens. The Cordyceps fungi already unsettles us when we see how it infects creatures as evolutionarily dissimilar from us as ants (not to mention something as far removed from our normal range of sympathy as insects): when we think about this fungus evolving to invade our bodies, the horror quadruples. The Last of Us, then, asks that we imagine ourselves as like ants: vulnerable, embodied, and animal. As in other thoughtful post-apocalyptic texts (Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road, to which Naughty Dog’s game is frequently compared, strikes me as an apt example), The Last of Us tells us as much about the present world as it does about a fictive future. Does the “us” of the title refer to a set of pure, uninfected humans, either in the present time or in the game? And in our current reality of carbon emissions, particulates, and yes, viruses, pollen, and spores, who could count as uninfected?
Timothy Morton provides some helpful insight when he writes that, “The insides of organisms teem with aliens” (The Ecological Thought 36). He further explains that, “When you sneeze, is it because a virus manipulated you to propagate its DNA? After all, rabid animals (even gentle ones) are possessed by an urge to bite. Some parasites and symbionts are so intimate you can’t tell where one starts and its habitat stops, all the way down to the DNA level” (35). The permeable boundaries of living things mean that humans are not so “human” after all: we comprise and are comprised of a vast number of nonhuman, living and nonliving, things. As the game’s spores float across the black loading screen–an anonymous, anywhere space–The Last of Us invites players to fill in this blank with familiar locations, to imagine spores floating through known towns, streets, and neighborhoods before arriving in living rooms and lungs. Some particles drift off screen while others glide too near to us to stay in focus. Watching the spores, I can’t help but wonder what lingers in the air of my home, what might be invading, even infecting, my body with every breath. The game imposes an uncomfortable awareness of one’s own breathing body, sustained by an atmosphere at once nourishing and injurious. The spores remind me that my body is not, as Morton might say, “complete in itself” (33).
Like animals struggling to survive as their habitats disappear beneath their feet, the environment players occupy in the game is not hospitable. A quick scan of any catalog of zoonotic diseases or a peek at this recent article on the human behavior-modifying parasite spread through cat poop (no, really!) drives home the point that we are one kind of animal among many. To my mind, the corporeal vulnerability and permeability shared across species need not evoke horror alone. As The Last of Us teaches, the importance of surviving creatively in a hostile world cannot be overstated, and what’s more, creative survival often means supporting the survival of others. Ultimately, the game is not about the triumph of the human-as-individual: much of its intrigue derives from Joel and Ellie’s awkward but mutually beneficial partnership. They help each other stay alive, and the game thus facilitates an awareness of how one’s animal form connects to the immediate environment, to the atmosphere, and to other vulnerable bodies. Instead of responding to our immersion in the world with fear, we might use it as an invitation to extend concern to other vulnerable beings like “us,” however varied, multiple, and animal the forms of “us” might take. Mutually at risk in the world, humans and ants often share common ground, figuratively and literally.