You’ve probably already noticed that the mushroom on HBO The last of us show works a bit differently than it does in the games, particularly in how the Cordyceps fungus, based on the real-life mushroom of the same name, spreads between humans. The spores are out and the fungal web is in.
The spores in the games serve the atmosphere of the game: in the right light, you can see the spores coming out of the broken doors, a warning of the danger that lies within. It is the signal that the characters, usually Joel, should put on the masks to avoid infection, although Ellie’s immunity means that she will only need the mask to go undetected. But there’s no way for gas masks to work on the show. You can’t hide the faces of your main characters behind a bulky mask; this is not the mandalorianafter all.
“The show [is] taking a more realistic approach to history and the world.” The last of us writer and creator Neil Druckmann told Polygon. “If we wanted to treat it realistically, and there are spores around, the characters would wear gas masks all the time. So we lose so much, that perhaps the most important part of the journey is what is happening behind his eyes, in his soul, in his being. For that logistical reason we were like, Let’s find another vector.”
The Druckmann vector and The last of us‘ writers chose was the mushroom network. It’s a concept based on the real-life science of fungi: we see fungi when they burst out of the ground. The pieces we see are the fruiting bodies of the whole organism, the rest hidden beneath the Earth’s surface. That part is called mycelium, the threads that spread underground and connect fungi and trees in a “mycorrhizal network,” a natural network not unlike the Internet; some mushroom experts call it “wooden web.” Trees, fungi, and other plants use these networks to transport water and other nutrients and to “communicate” in different ways, often stretching out for miles and miles.
Fungal webs, made up of sprawling tendrils, work the same way in The last of us on HBO, but instead of transferring information about where the nutrients should go, it alerts the infected network to a potential host: humans. Individual infected individuals join the “web” as slender tendrils grow out of an opening in their body, often a bite. (In episode 2, we see a more unique method of spread: an infected body leans toward Tess to kiss her, her tendrils sprouting from her mouth into hers.) The fungus spreads rapidly and surpasses all functions except the need to propagate.
“[We wanted] feel that these things are interconnected. They can come out against us en masse,” Druckmann said. “But also how they pass it from one person to another, it just became a really disturbing thing, which was like, Oh this is delicious. we have to use this.”
The change from spores to tendrils and the fungal web adds another layer of tension to the way the infected work. It’s no longer enough to stay stealthy and silent: one false move could mean activating a network of monsters that move en masse and know your exact location.
It’s a nice change: in the video game, the spores themselves don’t pose a threat. You can’t choose when to put on a gas mask or when to take it off; the developers made that decision for you, and the player is ready for the journey in that regard. If you remove the gas masks, the game wouldn’t change much. It’s just something that happens: gas masks on and then gas masks off.
There’s also the consideration of framing the show around an on-air pandemic, as gaming website Kotaku wrote after the first episode premiered. The last of us may be a difficult observation in that regard, and potentially one reason why the concept of spores was dropped in favor of a fungal web. After all, there’s still that same sense of mystery with the tendrils, but with the added tension of communication between the infected. Mushrooms have a map of the world that is invisible to anyone else; their only goal is to spread the fungus.