A Look At Science and Society In The Post-Apocalypse

So I've played about two or three hours of The Last of Us. I'd like to talk about what it gets right that not many other zombie/apocalypse/zombie apocalypse media gets right, and the things it gets wrong like all others.

1. Dogs and Cats Living Together, Mass Hysteria

The core tenet of virtually all post-apocalyptic stories is "What will you do when society crumbles?" The problem is is that society has never really crumbled, it is states and sovereigns that decline and disappear, societies continue as long as there are people within them. Fiction has this habit of assuming that the rule of law is based on a state's ability or desire to enforce it, and not the people's desire or ability to see it enforced. What most post-apocalyptic fiction is actually asking is what happens in a low-technology nation without a sovereign government that conforms to social mores. There are already plenty of examples of this, but even the bleakest of them continue to be societies. Communities in the Sudan continue to be communities, even if they are preyed upon by roving warlords. The desire in all apocalyptic fiction is to drive people into tribalism, the smaller and pettier the better.

This is one area the Last of Us succeeds, at least early on. While the government appears to gone extremely totalitarian and ruthless, it remains. As opposed to other games like the Walking Dead, where they immediately leap to the idea of every person for themselves, the Last of Us' society has currency, they have rules that are followed and rules that are bent and rules that are broken. There's ideological differences, there's human drama happening in which they are not involved, it reflects reality better than most. Apocalypse fiction wants to believe that human civilization is one bad day away from barbarism and tribalism, but the truth is less dramatic. As a species we've understood the concepts of reciprocity, of civilization for tens of thousands of years, we built civilizations and empires that stretched continents in a time when to carry a message meant to physically carry it, and when information could only be kept by being written on paper. Of course it would continue even after a major world event. Why? It's in the currency.

Currency is more than a shorthand for what you get to have; it's a representation of what positive community production you've accomplished. States issue currency in order to have people complete necessary tasks, to have them produce and use the gains of their production to purchase the production of others. It exists beyond bartering as to better evaluate the worth of any production, whether its goods or service. The Last of Us succeeds in showing a people not just surviving but presumably working. Which leads to my next point.

2. Scavenging The Post-Apocalypse Is Not A Full Time Job

Play a game of Sid Meier's Civilization and look at the early agricultural technologies you research; farming, animal husbandry, irrigation, forestry, mining, metalworking, pottery (which is to say, food storage). What is missing from almost every post-apocalyptic story? And what is always present? Scavenging. No one builds anything new, no one appears to have any idea how to use the natural resources of the earth, and everyone's main source of sustenance is searching incredibly dangerous areas for common items we can build from scratch. It's the idea that you would go to an active warzone to try and find food rather than growing some. Imagine Minecraft where you didn't chop down trees, mine earth, build tools, mine more, build houses, put up lights and roads, you just wandered around hoping you'll stumble onto a working diamond sword. Last of Us appears to have this mostly settled; food ration cards exist, and there's loose talk of stealing from resupply shipments, presumably from farming communities.

Remember that I said that Rome erected city borders in a time when wildlife was scared away with sharp sticks, zombies are nothing more than wildlife. To think that we will be unable to set up a mine, a farm, even safe, defensible cities against roving zombies is to think that a pack of wolves could shut down a mine or that Toronto could be overrun with bears. In the post-apocalypse you will not have to scavenge The Deadlands Of The Long, Long Ago trying to find gasoline, so that other scavenger groups can fuel the Road Warrior cars to carry more gasoline to .... No, instead you will be a part of an organization that refines gas from whatever sources are available (Alberta tar sands? Alaskan crude? Texas still has oil, right?) and ships it to areas that want it. Just like now. Barring that you might be a mechanic who works on coal burning trains, or a miner who digs the shit out of the earth, or a security guard who patrols the worksite to deal with any encroaching wildlife. Hell, maybe you're a stable master. But scavengers of zombie infested ruins are like the modern example of guys with metal detectors searching beaches for nickels and bottlecaps instead of working real jobs. Only this time the beaches have man eating lions on them.

3. Weapons Ban In Effect

The reality of bullets is you either none or you have more than any situation could ever possibly require. We do not store bullets the way it's depicted in video games, with five bullets in this ammo case and two in this guy's pocket and seven in this trash can and four in this desk so now you have 18 bullets. The reality of bullets is you find none in the trash, none in the desk, none on that guy's body, and then you open a door and there's 60 untouched, manufacturer sealed cases of 50 bullets each sitting on shelves. Now you have 3,000 bullets. Or you open the door and there's nothing. Now you have 0 bullets. There are A LOT of Goddamn bullets on this planet, they are not going to be a rarity. There may be some control, sure, but it's not going to leave people with rusty revolvers and four bullets to their name; people will either have a functional, cleaned and fully loaded firearm or they won't have a firearm at all. You hear 'ammo shortage' happening in war where covering and harassment fire is common, where 25,000 rounds are fired in containment and indirect fire strategies, not in what amounts to a series of direct, limited small arms confrontations. This is something I would actually like to see way less of in games. The idea of small constant rewards actually devalues them for me, I don't look at finding 48 transistors (Dead Space 3) or 1 repair part (The Last of Us) or 8 dollars in a toilet (Borderlands) and react at all. If I completed some section and opened a cabinet that had a fully functioning new gun, or improvement, or enough bullets to last until the end of time, I would react. Interestingly enough, in games where it seems society no longer builds anything, you often are told to craft your own weapons from collecting parts.

4. Mushroom Blues

Here is the science portion of this blog. Now, I'm not a biologist, but I am capable of reading Wikipedia and understanding the core tenets of biology. I will applaud Naughty Dog's awareness to some level for including the very interesting case of ophiocordyceps unilateralis and applying it to humans, but they miss out on a key part; the ants in question die. They die, and stop moving and do not become the undead. Movement of any organism requires energy, calories, joules. We ingest plant and animal matter, our vital organs convert it to energy, and then we burn it off through motion and operation of these organs. This is a core problem with all zombie fiction, as our favorite image is the zombie with the guts and intestines hanging out, non-functioning... But there's rarely if ever any description of how it keeps producing energy without use of these organs. It's clear how the mushroom spores work, much like the ant, they absorb the host's tissue to generate fruiting bodies and create more spores. They do not in fact corpse ride the creature forever, because eventually the creature has no more tissue. Furthermore, it doesn't explain intense aggression or hunger for uninfected hosts; the host only exists to be consumed and to park itself in such a manner it can fully develop fruiting bodies and then spread them over the area. Wandering around in uninhabited areas, sometimes deep underground, miles away from your food source is completely counterproductive to the reproduction of the species. That might have worked briefly but the thing is is that humanity is the ultimate adaptor, we're the only species that can comprehend our own selection and adapt immediately. Unless this spore plague figured out how to adapt to our adaptations, it would find itself non-viable within a couple generations. Look at our invention of the gas mask; no other species can consciously choose to not breathe the air of their environment and continue to live in it. Which leads me to...

5. Transmission Fluid

Here's what I can tell about this human version of ophiocordyceps unilateralis; it can find hosts through inhalation, as evidenced by the gas mask sequences, but not cutaneously, as they can pass bare skin through the clouds. This breaks down though as it doesn't play by its own rules. Immediately after passing through spore infested areas, the characters remove their gas masks and breathe freely, despite their clothes and skin now being covered in the deadly microbes they took such precaution to avoid. Second is they assert that subcutaneous infection happens; apparently these spores are bloodborne as well, as scratches and bites infect the host as well. Where this doesn't work is that the characters pass through the spore clouds with cuts and scrapes when this clearly would MORE effective at transacting the infection than the monsters biting or clawing you. It's here where the writers can't seem to decide whether they have a bacterial virus or a fungal infection, and it does turn what could have been an interesting twist on the old classic into simply more of Check For Bites While I Train A Shotgun On You. This also leads into the zombie's behaviour; an inhalation vector should suggest their behaviour would be commuted to developing the next generation of spores and spreading them over as wide an area as possible, a subcutaneous vector would be the classic zombie. Of course then there's the problem of how the zombies are growing mushrooms on their heads for seemingly no reproductive or evolutionary purpose, if nails and teeth are the primary transmission vector.

6. A Fungus Among Us

That little machine they plug to people's heads and it somehow detects presence of the infection is frustrating. I'm impressed with science's ability to do tests that don't require skin, hair or blood samples, and processors that can identify the specific type of fungal infection against the known varieties in a mere second. And apparently have no record of false positives or false negatives. But then I'm baffled by their inability to create even the simplest of treatment procedures. Of course then again I know of exactly zero incurable fungal infections. Maybe it's caused by a lack of good testing data, since positives are always immediately remedied with executions. You'd think they'd put these people in cells and test various antifungals and chemotherapy courses. Unless these mushrooms can't be killed by radiation. Nuclear mushrooms.

7. He Can Hear You Not Moving

When the clickers are introduced you almost feel the game mechanic popping up like Clippy; Move Slowly Or They'll Find You. The only problem is that they aren't using passive echolocation, they're using active echolocation. What this means is they actually do have line of sight to you, they actually can see you regardless of how much noise you make. The idea of 'sneaking up' on a creature actively echolocating requires not that you be as quiet as possible, but that you stop refracting sound for a couple seconds. Maybe they could map that to Select. I tried investigating further into this, but I'm pretty sure most animals with tuned echolocation can actually hear around corners and obstacles as well, due to secondary refractions, which means they can hear you behind cover and walls as well. Could have been a really terrifying enemy, something that knows where you are almost no matter what you do. Instead it's just a motion sensor.

As I said, I've only played about two hours, so hopefully some of this will be answered. I am pretty confused at the idea (Early, early spoilers) that a single person carries the antigens that can fight the infection. AFAIK that kind of development occurs in wider population sets, or simply does not occur naturally. It seems weird that single person has the genetic data for an immune response but none of her immediate or extended family does. If it's not a genetic thing, then what environmental factors are there? But I'll just assume they get into this later. Thanks for reading, have a great day!

7 Comments Refresh
Edited by Tennmuerti

One of the reasons I like the original Fallout games (1 & 2) is because they handle the first two issues you mention much better then most other post apoc games, with organised societies, farming, mining, trading quickly getting reestablished and later being quite stable and networked, something that Bethesda really dropped the ball with Fallout 3 and fell right into those tropes.

As far as any zombification "science" goes it's all silly nonsense as a rule.

Edited by Brodehouse

@tennmuerti: Exactly, it was such a relief to see them come back in New Vegas and basically pants Bethesda. Goodsprings was a revelation that let me know that the masters were back behind the helm. Communities, farms, stable electricity (it's not magic, it's electricity!), political ideology, people living lives rather than just maintaining them.

When I think deeper on it, Bethesda's villainous political faction wanted everyone to admit the Enclave is in charge... and then to kill everyone for no reason. Presumably in that order. Because I think the guys at Bethesda take their ideas about oppressive governments from Sith Lords rather than the tyrants of history. At least Obsidian and Naughty Dog appear to realize that what sovereigns want is access to the production of the people.

Edited by ZombiePie
Edited by Scampbell

Kinda reminds of when people argue that without the ten commandments people would just go around killing each other.

Also I want a game based on the world of Cormack McCarthy's The Road.

Posted by Brodehouse

Kinda reminds of when people argue that without the ten commandments people would just go around killing each other.

Also I want a game based on the world of Cormack McCarthy's The Road.

Exactly. Because of the supernatural element many people believe the Ten Commandments were handed out and then society followed them, rather than that the society held the morals found within and then the Ten Commandments codified them.

Also I've heard other people compare the Last of Us to The Road.

Posted by alwaysbebombing

It must really suck to watch movies and play games without the ability for willing suspension of disbelief.

Edited by Brodehouse

@alwaysbebombing said:

It must really suck to watch movies and play games without the ability for willing suspension of disbelief.

There's a difference between suspension of disbelief and verisimilitude. Suspension of disbelief is recognizing this is fiction and not reality. Verisimilitude is the quality we identify in fiction as having a reality that is internally consistent. If suddenly gravity changes in Bayonetta 2 due to 'the effects of Paradiso' we go 'alright, that aligns itself to what we know of the world'. If suddenly gravity changes in The Last of Us we go 'what is this bullshit, a hallucination?' I'm pleased that the social side of the game is actually internally consistent, I believe humans would behave the way they do. However, almost everything with the zombies makes so little sense so as to break verisimilitude in ways that could have been avoided.

QUITE EASILY in fact. All they had to do was establish that this human cordyceps mutates the host body to 'flower' rather than grow mushrooms. You know how all these zombies could survive 20 years without food and keep moving around? Photosynthesis. Having them just keep going independent of anything going in breaks reality more than "how does Nathan Drake kill this entire platoon of troops?" or "how do I fit this all in my pack?"