Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us introduced us to an apocalyptic world, memorable characters, and an emotional storyline. It has become one of the most beloved games of all time since its release in 2013. It’s dark, gritty, and heartfelt. Even the enemies, various forms of “the Infected,” are iconic. However, while The Last of Us and its sequel are commonly thought to be set during a zombie apocalypse, these infected aren’t actually zombies.
The world of The Last of Us has given us terrifying creatures like Runners, Stalkers, and Clickers, all of which were humans who became infected. Their infection causes them to be aggressive and attack any uninfected humans they come across. After coming in contact with an Infected, a human then becomes infected as well. They shamble, growl, and attack in hordes, looking to infect anyone in their paths. Okay, they do sound an awful lot like zombies on paper. It’s pretty evident why many people frequently refer to them as zombies when talking about the games.
Zombies are members of the undead. They are people who have died and have been reanimated. The reanimation can be caused by either magical or scientific means, but either way, they were once corpses. Sure, there are often sci-fi stories that involve a “zombie virus” that spreads with bites or scratches, but those bites or scratches kill the victim and then reanimates them. Zombies may frequently differ; some may be slow and shamble along while others gain super speed and strength, but being reanimated dead is what ultimately makes them zombies.
The Infected in The Last of Us are humans who have been infected and mutated into horrific forms by the Cordyceps Brain Infection. Cordyceps is a parasitic fungal infection (which is real, but only infects insects in the real world). In The Last of Us, the fungal infection began affecting humans and devastated mankind. The fungus took over people’s brains and mutated their bodies.
Those infected individuals are still alive and were mutated. It’s even been stated in the game that the fungus is unable to infect the dead; it can only infect living beings. They are quite literally not undead like a zombie is. Therefore, it would be more accurate to refer to The Last of Us’ Infected as mutants rather than zombies, even though their behavior does match that of a zombie’s in a lot of ways.
Having the Infected still be alive when forced to fight and kill them makes for even harder ethical choices for the survivors in this world. In zombie media, survivors often have a tough time killing something that was once their loved one even though they’re already dead. Here, they’re not dead, and the survivors are actually the ones ending their life. It’s enough to make an already-emotional game that much more emotional.
If anyone refers to The Last of Us as a “zombie game,” the proper (and hilarious) response is “nah, they’re fungus mutants.”