As HBO’s The Last of Us goes on, the show is starting to deviate from its source material in some pretty significant ways. Much has been said (and will continue to be said) about those changes, but it’s important to note that the show also raises new questions about the lore of the games. That’s especially true of the origins of the Cordyceps brain infection.
In both The Last of Us show and game, the spread of a mutated (and largely fictionalized) form of the Cordyceps fungus effectively causes the end of the world as we know it. Both the game and show revolve around the aftermath of that infection’s rapid and deadly spread. Where the two differ slightly is in the details of the origin of that infection, exactly how the infection spread, and the greater timeline of that apocalyptic event.
Interestingly, it was pretty difficult to talk about the “differences” between how the game and the show treat the infection’s origin until the spectacular third episode of the HBO series was recently released. In that episode, Ellie asks Joel about how the infection started. Joel speculates that it probably started via a contamination of the global food supply. Specifically, here’s what he has to say about his understanding of the matter:
“Probably a basic ingredient like flour or sugar. There were certain brands of food that were sold everywhere, all across the country, and across the world. Bread, cereal…pancake mix. You eat enough of it, it’ll get you infected.”
The key word I previously used that you’ll want to keep in mind is “speculates.” Joel admits that he doesn’t know the exact answer to that question and that nobody who is still alive likely knows all the answers for sure.
However, as we previously discussed, Joel’s explanation does support a popular fan theory that the infection in The Last of Us series likely has something to do with bread/flour. Fans of the games had previously shared variations of that theory (more on that in a bit), but the show’s pilot really sent that discussion into overdrive. After all, that debut episode curiously emphasized scenes of Joel and his family avoiding various types of flour-based products in that episode (including biscuits, birthday cake, and pancakes). The clues certainly seemed to be there.
The opening of The Last of Us‘ second episode seemingly offered a bigger piece of the puzzle. In that opening scene (which was created specifically for the show), we watch as a doctor in Jakarta is informed that there has been a breakout of an unidentified infection near a massive flour and grain factory. The implication certainly seemed to be that the outbreak started somewhere around there and spread via the products produced at that factory that were then shipped across the globe.
There are some questions about that version of the outbreak that will likely never be answered, but the very basics of the outbreak’s origins in the series seem to be pretty clear. So, is that also how the infection spread in the games? Well…not exactly.
For the most part, The Last of Us games also remained intentionally ambiguous regarding the origins of the outbreak. One of the biggest hints we get regarding the origins of the infection is found in an in-game issue of The Texas Herald which contains an article about the early days of the outbreak. Specifically, here’s what the article says:
“The Food and Drug Administration’s investigation of crops potentially tainted with mold continues across the country. Initial lists distributed to vendors nationwide warned against crops imported from South America, but now the scope has extended to include Central America and Mexico. Several companies have already voluntarily recalled their food products from the shelves.”
As you can see, the game does not identify Jakarta as the specific breakout point as the show seems to do. Indeed, the game seems to imply that reporters/researchers in The Last of Us game universe seemed to believe that the infection may have started in South America. That article also identifies “crops” as the believed source of the infection’s spread, but it doesn’t identify bread, grain, or flour specifically.
As we also previously discussed, it should also be noted that the way the Cordyceps infection spreads from person to person was changed slightly from the game to the show. Most notably, the version of the Cordyceps infection we see in the game commonly spreads via spores that the infected hosts can release after certain stages of infection (or after they are dead). It’s possible that variations of those spores are actually what spread via those tainted crop shipments in the games. Again, though, some of the details remain unknown and intentionally ambiguous. Furthermore, the fictionalized version of that infection is different enough from its real-life counterpart to make it difficult to use that real-life infection as the basis of more detailed speculation.
There’s also the matter of certain timeline differences. As you may know, HBO’s The Last of Us alters the game’s timeline by suggesting that the initial outbreak occurred in 2003 and that the “present-day” sequences occur during 2023. In the games, though, the outbreak occurs in 2013 and the “present-day” sections take place during 2033.
Interestingly, it’s also implied that the infection also takes a little longer to spread in the games than it does in the show. After all, that aforementioned sequence set in Jakarta occurs on September 24, 2003, in the events of the show. Two days later, we see that it has caused widespread destruction as far as Austin, Texas. Radios in Austin also share reports of unrest in Jakarta at that time, which seems to imply that the outbreak spread across the globe incredibly quickly.
In the game, though, that aforementioned Texas Herald article (which was dated September 26, 2013) seems to suggest that the FDA had been monitoring potentially infected crops for a little longer than that and that some companies were already recalling their products. Again, the implication seems to be that there was at least a little more awareness of the outbreak itself but that the speed at which it spread (and the violent nature of it) ultimately caught everyone by surprise.
At this time, it also doesn’t seem like the showrunners intend to rewrite the infection’s origins as they are presented in the game or suggest that the show offers an expanded version of those events that directly applies to the games. The Last of Us series co-creator Craig Mazin previously stated that they “wanted to give a little bit more of an origin story [to the Cordyceps outbreak]” and “how also that it was global, that this wasn’t just happening in America. This was the world.” Still, there are enough differences between the origins to suggest that they belong to that “parallel universe” the showrunners talked about creating. In any case, some of the most important details remain largely the same.