"Web-throated, stalked like triffids, racked by drought
And insomnia, only the ghost of a scream
At the flash-bulb firing-squad we wake them with
Shows there is life yet in their feverish forms."
—Derek Mahon, “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford”
As you crawl over the jagged partition of a derelict pub littered with the paraphernalia of the apocalypse, the familiar, bloodcurdling click will etch itself into your brain, ticking sporadically and violently like a long-broken but semi-functional grandfather clock. You will inch your way forward, made timid by a blend of fear and suspicion, and your espionage will sometimes fail—on these occasions the wretched contortion will wrench its form around a disturbingly rigid axis, and its face will blossom into a fungal flower teeming with teeth.
Perhaps the most eerily pervasive aspect of The Last of Us Part II’s Clickers, Shamblers, and Bloaters is their atrociously natural forms. Although humanoid in stature, they are a mycological monstrosity, fungus flaring from their bodies like gaseous eruptions of natural miasma. They have been inoculated by an unsettlingly earthly substance, and have themselves become unsettlingly earthly.
The subject of Mahon’s poem is an armada of starved mushrooms, whose craving to photosynthesize is foiled by a locked door. Confined to live out long, stretched years, they begin to coagulate into a body too messy for individual distinction, while the once-tended-to shed they call home becomes liminal in its departure from practicality. They are alive, breathing—in the poem’s personification, even vaguely feeling—and yet they are abandoned, broken, and sentenced to a lifetime of darkness and isolation.
"Deep in the grounds of a burnt-out hotel,
Among the bathtubs and the washbasins
A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole.
This is the one star in their firmament."
It is not unreasonable to suggest that the above quote could describe a scene from The Last of Us. Consider a Clicker-infested cafe with cracked windows, smashed glass, and a small legion of humans whose own nervous systems rebelled against them, their mushroom faces grotesquely malformed into floral blooms of blood and bile. Light pours in through the slight slits carved into the building’s rough exterior—light that is disturbed by your entry, upon which the single star in their firmament explodes into a supernova of fervor and noise.
What is deeply unsettling about the ensuing confrontation is that you are the invader, as opposed to the supposedly antagonistic Clickers. These decadent ruins of the old world have been tailored to suit them, spores spewing sanguine serums too deadly for the non-Infected to inhale. Their botanic bodies are a testament to nature’s reclamation of humanity’s stolen spaces, as entire cities crumble beneath the weight of a mutated mushroom strain. Said strain is the catalyst for the man-made world’s implosion, forming a bombastic crater of viciously natural order—and yet, the primary violence visible in The Last of Us Part II exists between multiple human factions, as opposed to being instigated by the supposedly monstrous Infected. That humans resort to bloodshed and brutality amongst one another only further underscores one of the most essential facts of The Last of Us’ world: That these cities no longer belong to those who constructed them, but instead to the corrupted humans over whom nature regained control. The latter, in fact, make for far better tenants, living in harmonious societies that are entirely averse to divisive conflict.
It’s visible everywhere. Consider the scene in which Ellie goes hunting with Tommy and snipes hordes of Infected from across an abyssal chasm, despite the fact that they are far away and, as a result, almost entirely harmless. As she views them through the scope, their forms magnified but silenced, she bears witness to a chaotic flurry of erratic movement. The barns and buildings they inhabit are no longer fit for her—or for anyone but them. They stumble around in nonsensical circles, adhering to some unknowable natural rhythm. Watching the crazed frolicking of their small, silently shrieking masses reminded me of a line from Wordsworth, in which he describes 10,000 daffodils “fluttering and dancing in the breeze.”
Oddly enough, when you are not forced to listen to their bloodcurdling clicks, or sufficiently close as to be legitimately in danger, watching the Clickers isn’t unlike watching flowers on a breezy day—they move with the wind, following no discernible pattern, their floral heads held high and open beneath the beating sun. And like a field of flowers can exist in a sense of harmony that The Last of Us Part II deems to be immiscible with humanity, these Clickers can subconsciously and constantly recognize their loyalty to one another. In Mahon’s poem, the mushrooms cry out for “elbow room” in their abandoned, overcrowded shed, and yet they do not rebel against one another—instead, they crave release, but collectively.
One of the most prominent cases of this phenomenon occurs much later on, when Abby fights the odious Rat King in the hospital basement. Entire walls are composed of putrescent fungus, while narrow passageways are lined with bulbous bubbles on the verge of eruption—once a parking garage, this previously practical space has been completely reclaimed by the will and decay of the cordyceps virus. In contrast to its function as an old world utilitarian structure, it has become a far more natural landscape than any of the ruinous cityscapes you visit throughout the game—which is ultimately what makes it uncomfortable. Spaces spoiled to serve a human purpose have now been reclaimed by nature, and we cannot recognize them for the places they once were, steeped in comfort and familiarity. It’s actually comparable to High Charity from Halo 3’s penultimate mission, “Cortana,” which transpires on a rogue spaceship that has been completely infested by similarly fungal lusus naturae—freaks of nature because they are emphatically preternatural.
It might seem like a bit of a stretch initially, but comparing Halo’s Flood to The Last of Us’ Infected is a genuinely worthwhile thought experiment. Not only are they aesthetically similar—their entire mindless community is something endemic to the inhumane humanoid. They don’t celebrate birthdays, or arrange road trips, but they emphatically stick together, assembling in tight-knit groups devoid of conversation, and yet impossibly steeped in societal commitment. On the flipside, Ellie, Joel, Dina, and Jesse will drain drinks in a bedazzled ballroom, before consciously waking up at the crack of dawn and donning military boots to scale crow’s nests with bullets to burn.
In fact, The Flood even collectively display the ability to recognize the benefits of partnering with you in the original Halo trilogy, being able to understand the appeal of mutual gain from facing a common enemy. As a result, what distinguishes the Flood—and by extension the Infected—from the WLF, or the Seraphites, is that there is no in-fighting amongst them. They are far more deliberately and undyingly loyal to one another than any of the warring splinter factions that comprise The Last of Us Part II’s last bastions of humanity, largely because they lack the deeply human capacity to wage war for war’s sake.
The Clickers and Runners of The Last of Us Part II are not quite as lucid as the Flood, but the further along the infection goes, the more intellectually capable the hosts become. Just compare the Rat King’s ability to fight strategically to the mindless flailing of a recently Infected Runner and you’ll see that the more ostensibly horrifying a cordyceps victim becomes, the more they begin to resemble their original human selves beneath the shrooms—except for the fact that they no longer target each other.
This is where The Last of Us Part II goes one step further than games with similar enemy design—its evolutionary infection complicates what it means to harm once-humans who are becoming more and more resemblant of non-human nature with each passing day. The Rat King in particular is an uncannily natural looking atrocity: despite being fantastically imagined, it looks abominably organic. Its entire composition testifies to this, in that it is able to detach individually conscious sections of its body in order to fight as a group, despite ostensibly appearing as a disturbingly awesome cohesive whole at the beginning of the encounter. It is horrifyingly harmonious in a way that is irrefutably intertwined with natural order, and that is why it is disorientingly disarming.
All of this plays into why fighting Clickers, or Bloaters, or Shamblers never feels quite right. The Last of Us Part II—and The Last of Us before it—are renowned for their harrowing depictions of violence, and humanity’s tendency to be drawn to it in crises. But despite being literal monsters—at least by our definition—it’s sometimes tempting to leave the Infected alone, to allow them to live out quiet, pointlessly ignorant lives in their small, unsound troupes. Because ultimately, why would you deprive something so inherently naturalistic the right to live in its own home—particularly when said home has been rendered uninhabitable and actively dangerous for humans? You wouldn’t—or at least you shouldn’t—and yet you so often do. We attack the Clickers not because we must, but because we can, and are rewarded with trading cards, or vintage coins for our collection—man-made trinkets with no post-apocalyptic value, which are far less contemporarily natural than the petalled mouths of a Clicker, whose face will usually so neatly resemble Plath’s Poppies in July: “wrinkly and clear red, /like the skin of a mouth /A mouth just bloodied.”
In these instances, it’s almost like picking a fight with a wild predator, not because you are in danger, but because you want to prove to yourself that you are more capable than it is. There is no concern for the fact that it is immoral and unnecessary to attack a conscious, breathing being simply for living its life, for abiding by its nature in a way that has no influence on you unless you consciously and with great effort place yourself in a position whereupon it can impose one.
This is because the cynical view of perpetual violence is emphatically human in The Last of Us—it has absolutely nothing to do with the Infected, aside from the fact it is willfully inflicted upon them. Sometimes, this is necessary—more often, it serves as a justification for the violence that festers outside of life-or-death encounters, which are exaggerated in order to make the destabilization derived from Infected-ravaged areas seem like far more of a threat than it actually is. Within strongholds like Jackson, things are relatively familiar: generators, medical tents, even grade-A booze lovingly brewed to be as pungent as it is potent. But when residents step foot outside, their desire to inflict violence against the natural world overrides the sensibilities they temporarily learn behind blast doors. The cordyceps mutation is not the only infection festering in The Last of Us Part II, nor is the violence directly begotten from it. The most dangerous and vile plague in The Last of Us is the infection-derived justification that humanity is entitled to brutality, regardless of whether or not it is imposed on a mindless Clicker or an unfortunate nomad who happens to forage the last tin of beans from the suburban condo you’re raiding.
“If the first game was about the dangers of living on the outside, the second one’s POV shifts within the walls of the settlement,” wrote Yussef Cole in last week’s piece. “It’s about keeping out, through force, anyone who might present a threat, whether real or perceived, to the nascent communities which have since developed.” This is largely a result of the infection being far less dangerous than it was in the first game. Several years have passed, and we can see that the residents of Jackson, the Seraphites, and the members of the WLF no longer seem concerned about becoming infected. Even “masks on” becomes a blasé mantra uttered before venturing into a spore-laden area you know you’ll likely emerge from unscathed. Meanwhile, said venture is usually just used as a means of perpetuating the excuse necessary to maintain the false perception that violence is a mandatory evil in contemporary society.
The Last of Us’ violence is often polarizing—some critics think that it is thematically intriguing and serves as a valuable examination of humanity, while others find it to be overtly gratuitous. The thing is, neither side ever really lingers on the Infected, and instead focuses on the violence that exists between those who are still human. The Infected, however, show us more about humanity’s capacity for supposedly justified violence than any conflict between warring factions—because when something is deemed to be below them, Ellie, or Joel, or Abby assign themselves sufficient entitlement to act as they see fit, even if it means taking the life of an innocent, stupid, and harmless-when-left-alone Clicker. And then they pat themselves on the back, proud not of the fact that they have protected themselves, or anybody else, but of the fact that they are the apex predator, clever enough to know better and yet vain enough to ignore that.
It’s not necessarily the clearest connection, but as I played The Last of Us Part II, and looked at the floral, mycological masses lumbering around its dilapidated buildings, I couldn’t help but think of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.
“It is said there are flowers that bloom only once in a hundred years,” Zamyatin writes. “Why should there not be some that bloom once in a thousand, in ten thousand years?”
“Perhaps we never know about them simply because this ‘once in a thousand years’ has come today.”
And perhaps that ‘once in a thousand years’ flower is the mycological strain that humanity will destroy simply because it looks like something upon which destruction is, by our own vain ruling, admissible. So long as that remains the case, division, hostility, and tumult are inevitable, until flowers bloom in meadows sprawled across our self-razed ruins.
Cian Maher is a writer from Dublin, Ireland. Find him on Twitter @cianmaher0