The team at Naughty Dog took a few artistic liberties when creating this new strain of cordyceps for “The Last of Us.” However, there are some striking similarities between this fictitious infection and the one that is all too real. For starters, the loss of bodily control is a big factor in both versions of the disease, although the Cordyceps in the video game and show attacks the brain in a way that the real Ophiocordyceps unilateralis doesn’t. The physical decay of victims also differ between fiction and reality — while ants stricken with Ophiocordyceps unilateralis will grow spores on their bodies and eventually decay, they won’t look nearly as gnarly as the runners, stalkers, clickers, or bloaters of “The Last of Us.”
However, arguably the most important similarity between the two versions of the fungi is how their infection spreads. Much like how ophiocordyceps unilateralis exhumes spores from the deceased ant’s body to sicken others in the colony, the infected in “The Last of Us” do the same, both when the host body is “alive” and when it is “dead.”
The fact that “The Last of Us” relies heavily on a real-world phenomenon makes its depiction of an apocalypse much scarier than other similar stories. Of course, we shouldn’t immediately panic about Cordyceps in the real world. That said, if these past few years have taught us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t discredit the potential for pre-existing diseases to evolve. Sleep tight, everyone!
“The Last of Us” airs Sunday nights on HBO.