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How society’s reaction to polio inspired Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us

How society’s reaction to polio inspired Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us

Poliomyelitis – more commonly referred to as polio – is a disease that can lead to partial paralysis and atrophied limbs. It is a disfiguring disease, one that inspired fear and dread throughout much of the early 20th century. It's also a major source of inspiration for Naughty Dog's upcoming “survival action” title, The Last of Us.

A game about polio?

“It's fear of the unknown, right?” Eric Monacelli, community strategist for Naughty Dog asked the Report at PAX East 2013. “It's familiar, it's a human, but now they're walking with a limp, it seems very strange to them, they don't know how to deal with it.”

Monacelli makes a good point. Families with confirmed cases of polio were singled out by the press, quarantined, and marked with placards placed on their houses. Panic spread as doctors tried to figure out how the disease was spread; public meetings, pools, and theaters were routinely shut down. Immigrants were blamed for bringing the disease, and hate crime rates spiked.

People simply didn't know how to deal with the problem.

“Doctors, when they were first trying to treat it, they just put people in crutches and let them live out the rest of their lives in suffering. They didn't really seem to want to try and help things too much. As time went on, they realized there are certain things, there's certain ways they could help people progress and get better from this disease,” Monacelli said.

Even those who survived the infection and attempted to return to society faced many challenges, not just from the disease, but from how society perceived those infected by it. There was no public transportation at this period in history that accommodated wheelchairs. Children were sent to separate schools for “crippled” individuals. Those stricken with the disease were labeled terrible names.

The good news is that the lack of accessibility and poor treatment of those infected by polio inspired survivors to help push forward legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against an individual based on their status as a disabled person. Those with polio paved the way for many others to be treated with respect and care.

From polio to fungus-zombies

The enemies in The Last of Us are likewise suffering from a disease, albeit one that turns them into aggressive, cannibalistic monsters. The infection is a fungal one, inspired by the real world ophiocordyceps unilateralis, commonly known as the “zombie-ant” fungus.

“This effectively shuts down your nervous system, your neurological functioning, it just goes away. So ants will respond… the healthy ones will go and carry the sick one away, and that's a natural tendency,” Monacelli told the Report. “What if this spread to humans? What would that mean? How would humans respond?”

Monacelli stressed that he wasn't referring to the physical changes when he asked what such an infection would mean; the development team is more interested in how people react to the infected, not painting the infected as vicious monsters. “It's more about that fear of the unknown and that fear of not being sure what… how to cope with the situation you're in and responding on a very visceral level. When you're in these situations, it's almost a study of crisis management. You're in this very tense, nervous situation, how do you react?”

Monacelli said players will have to decide if they'll see the infected as something they want to save as they progress through the game, but the decision won't be an easy one. “They're infected humans, and you know that if they infect you and something happens to you, you run the risk of decimating the population even further,” Monacelli said. “You know you have to take care of humans, but you also know you have to make sure the infected ones are sort of weeded out.”

Monacelli teased that, while Joel, the game's player character, tends to solve his problems with the infected through violence, not everyone you come across will think the same way. He reiterated that many doctors and people in society simply wanted to shut those infected with polio away. Had it not been for people who believed in treatment, rehabilitation, and equal rights, who knows how things would look today?

Perhaps The Last of Us will answer that question when it comes out for PlayStation 3 on June 24 of this year.