I have a cold. In three days time I will be on a 14 hour flight to Los Angeles where I will cough, sniffle and splutter into air that will be recycled hundreds of times over. Who knows how many people I will infect. Who knows how many passengers will take the germs in my system onto connecting flights. Too many to count.
When I sneeze into my sleeve, Ricky Cambier from Naughty Dog becomes visibly nervous. Understandable. He knows too much.
For the past two or three years Ricky Cambier has been working on The Last Of Us. The Last Of Us is a game about survival, a game about how much we have to lose. But it's also about disease. In The Last Of Us it isn't zombies terrorising our protagonists, leaving the world in tatters, it's other people. Human beings in various states of physical and mental degradation.
Buried in Naughty Dog’s servers in Santa Monica, California is a folder. In that folder a host of random files: images, music, video clips, ideas. Anything that has the potential to inspire. Anything that might stir discussion. In pre-production anything goes.
But it was the above video, a three minute clip about jungle ants, that captured the imagination of a group of developers in the studio. This video would galvanise the team’s vision for The Last Of Us.
“We just put stuff in there. At one point the ant sequence went in there and people were like, this is amazing.
“Then you get into the mode of, okay I think we have something here.”
The video depicts the otherworldly cordycep fungus; an incredible example of the incredible terror and violence that exists in nature. An infection that has the potential to affect the behaviour of its host, and encourage that host to behave in a manner that will preserve and spread the fungus, cordyceps have the potential to affect more than just ants. Cambier tells us the story of crickets throwing themselves into large bodies of water, basically committing suicide as the cordycep attempts to spread itself to the largest amount of hosts possible.
“The ability that parasites have to manipulate their host is fascinating,” he says. “It can make a cricket feel thirsty to the point where it would commit suicide and jump into a water source, just so the parasite could more easily breed — just through chemical manipulation of behaviour.
“Go planet earth! Yay!”
As I involuntarily sneeze into the armpit of my jacket, I wonder openly — just how possible is it for this fungus to affect humans? It was the same question the team at Naughty Dog asked all those years ago.
“There was this line in Planet Earth that really resonated with us,” explains Cambier. “There is a string of insects that become more susceptible to this fungus the larger their numbers. So it wasn't too hard to connect that idea to humanity rapidly approaching 10 billion people. Our exposure to one another is increasing.
“We just asked the question, what if this moves to mankind? That was our starting point. We hadn’t even started making stuff up yet!”
Towards the tail end of development, Naughty Dog invited an expert to visit the studio. In Cambier’s words this expert has spent the majority of his life “hanging out in trees”, observing the effects of the Cordycep fungus. The team wanted to make sure they’d got the details right. Was the video game and its representation of this strange fungus accurate to the point of plausibility?
“It was kinda funny. He was a little impressed slash curious,” says Cambier.
“I learned a ton from him. I learned that 60% of human diseases that we experience as humans actually come from humans.”
So yes. Plausible. Absolutely.
But what Cambier is particularly proud of is not necessarily how realistic The Last Of Us’ depiction of cordyceps is, but the way the fungus has been re-imagined, building unique gameplay moments that fit in with a grounded ‘what if’ depiction, whilst remaining engaging, building moments of genuine intensity into encounters.
“We've managed to take this idea and apply it to different types of gameplay,” he says.
In The Last Of Us the fungus has three steps. Stage 3 is when the fungus is most evolved, when the humans become ‘clickers’.
“They make this terrifying sound that just raises the tension. And they can be powerful because they have this shell.”
At stage one, however, enemies retain a dimension of humanity, which creates an added layer of dramatic irony.
“Stage 1 are newly infected and they are making this trend towards madness, towards losing their humanity, but you can still hear their cries. They are more human and just on the edge of completely losing control. I find that fascinating.”
Like most truly terrifying science fiction, The Last Of Us endeavours to embed a strain of science in its fiction. Remaining grounded is paramount. Our sub-conscious reacts in weird ways to depictions of terror that resound with our perception of reality. Ridley Scott’s obsession with strange insects resulted in Alien. A YouTube link about the strange behaviour of ants resulted in The Last Of Us.
“It's beautiful to explore the fantastical,” says Cambier, finally, “but when you're looking at something that's just a notch above reality? That gives you a creepy feeling where you're like, looking over your shoulder.”
I sneeze again. A semi-autonomous expulsion of air from the lungs. We sneeze when our nasal mucosa become irritated, but sneezing is also a major factor in the spread of disease. Here I am, involved in a completely involuntary action that helps facilitate the propagation of a viral infection.
I get on a plane in three days. A 14 hour flight to E3. At E3 I will meet dozens of people; brush shoulders with thousands. I wonder how many people will catch my flu? I wonder how likely it is that I’ll catch another?
A creepy feeling indeed.