The Last of Us Creators Discuss HBO Series Expanding Cordyceps Plague
Craig Mazin & Neil Druckmann discuss how HBO's The Last of Us expands the Cordyceps plague beyond what we know from the video games.
While The Last of Us creators Craig Mazin & Neil Druckmann have no intentions of doing the ambitious world-building that George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones or AMC's The Walking Dead franchise, the duo wanted to take the opportunity to tell a more complete story regarding the Cordyceps fungal plague from the original Naughty Dog PlayStation videogames. The HBO series, like the video games, focuses on an apocalypse brought on by the fungus that infects its victims, leaving them as ravenous zombies. As it lingers, it mutates, changing the infected into… something worse. The duo spoke with Collider about building the narrative.
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"Well, we wanted to ground this show in as much science as possible," Mazin said. "The game did it pretty darn well, especially for a genre where it would be easy to say, 'Oh, there's zombies, but the zombies come out of the ground.' Cordyceps is a fascinating concept, and it's absolutely real. We wanted to push that a little further. We wanted to give as much reality as we could because the realer that is, the more we connect to the characters that are in that space playing around." The game starts with Joel and his daughter Sarah right before the outbreak, as players are almost immediately thrust into the chaos when it shifts from day to night.
The public's reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic also helped shaped the HBO series' narrative. "It was also important for us to acknowledge that the audience is smarter about pandemics than they were five years ago. We don't wanna pretend that they don't know things," Mazin explained. "And in fact, a lot of the reason this show begins the way it does, with that scene in the '60s, is to say, 'Look, the context is, there are viral pandemics, and they are quite dangerous, but there's something out there that's worse. And it may sound funny to you, but let me explain why.' And then, you start to realize, 'Oh, that's not good.' And also, it's been there all along. So, when the outbreak happens, it's not happening suddenly or capriciously. It's finally happening. It was always gonna happen. We just happen to be there today to see it."
The duo also dove into how the infected are connected. "I will say that there is a character from the game that has a very interesting point of view about the fungus and his observation of Cordyceps that ties into some of the larger themes about what the show is about, and strangely enough, that ties into the notion of the beauty and potential danger of love," Mazin said. "And so, part of what Neil [Druckmann] and I wanted to do was just make sure that everything in our story that we built here, as it was inspired by and adapted from the work that he did on the game, ultimately feeds back into the thing that matters the most for us, and that is Joel and Ellie's relationship."
Druckmann, who directed both Naughty Dog games, credited Mazin for helping to expand other threats of the plague like the Clickers. "Craig is right; there are certain additions that we made to the show, which I really liked. We wanted to avoid making a zombie show. We have the Clickers, which help separate us by grounding them in one way. But also, they're such interesting, weird beings, and they use echolocation to find their way around. But with the more recently infected, we had a lot of conversations about what that vector could look like because there are certain things from the game that we took away. The game had spores in the air, and people had to wear gas masks, and we decided early on that we didn't wanna do that for the show. Eventually, those conversations led us to these tendrils. And then, just thinking about how there's a passage that happens from one infected to another, and like fungus does, it could become a network that is interconnected. It became very scary to think that they're all working against us in this unified way, which was a concept that I really liked, that got developed in the show."