Thursday, November 28, 2013
1. I went into Last Light braced for disappointment. Metro 2033 had been one of those games that I loved for its roughness, from its personality that came precisely from not being polished to within an inch of its life. It had this jagged silhouette that if it walked into the room, you knew exactly what game it was. That kind of roughness can only come from a team with a big heart and a small budget. When that kind of game does good, and a larger budget is given to a sequel, that roughness rarely survives. It almost is impossible for it to survive. So I went into Last Light excited for more Metro but ready to accept that more of what made Metro good might be impossible.
I was ultimately surprised, then, to find that Last Light, largely held onto much of what made Metro 2033 feel so good. The oppressiveness, the bleakness, the kind of stand-off-ish design that will just dump you in a place with no clear waypointing or objectives and just let you figure it out. Some parts of the game have been polished up, but only selectively and to the game's benefit. Guns in 2033 felt jangly like you would expect a gun built from scrap to feel, but they lacked a punch. Last Light's guns are punchy enough that skirmishes are enjoyable, while still feeling super messy. It feels like they tried to polish the jags into being more pronounced, not just polish them away to a curved nothing. So that is nice. It still lacks some of what made Metro 2033 special, but it is about as good as a sequel to a rough game could hope to be.
2. Which is not to call the game perfect. Last Light still seemed to lose focus on what made 2033 so special. In particular, the sense of life in the metro the first game evoked. There was this real sense of being a commuter, fittingly enough, of just passing through this towns that were other people's entire lives. The people in the bunks on old carriages, or the way a station is sectioned off into small houses. It was always amazing to stop and look at these places, but always fleetingly as you were always on your way to meet someone. Last Light still has a bit of that, and when it does, it is terrific. A moment near the start of the game where you are dashing through a nazi station under fire and you get this faint glimpse of everyday life as you dash past. The theatre station and the flooded station of Venice are particularly strong highlights of just 'life on the metro'. As is the refugee train.
But, for the most part, with the story focusing on WAR and militaries and all that, we don't get the same diversity of lives and lifestyles 2033 gave us. We have army bases and prisons and dead towns and army dudes and more army dudes. It feels less like a place and more like a serious of videogame levels at times. It felt more like a videogame story than an adaption of a novel this time, essentially.
3. Related to that is the sheer number of men in the game (or the lack of women, more accurately). It's just a bunch of gruff dudes and the occasional woman (they all look the same) sobbing in the background. 2033 was largely men doing things, to be sure, but the places felt alive with children and grannies and dogs and all kinds of people. Now we just get soldiers. The two women who speak in the game are a prostitute (whose nipples you can see while she offers you sex) and a sniper lady (whose nipples you can see while she offers you sex. Also she has your son, of course). How to sap any atmosphere from your world: homogenise the people you populate it with.
4. I really enjoy the stealth of Last Light. It's that kind of stealth that goes really good until you screw up, and then you pull out your shotgun and improvise. That kind of stealth works in very few games, because usually there is some fictional context that makes that kind of stealth feel very wrong, even when it is mechanically possible. Some games get it right. Splinter Cell: Conviction always presented contexts where the enemy knew Fisher was around somewhere, so if things devolved into a gunfight, it felt natural. The same goes for Last Light. I never felt like I needed to reload the game when I was seen, just change my tactics.
5. That grittiness of 2033 remains. The constantly pressure of needing to recharge your batteries, needing to replace your oxygen mask filters, needing to pump your airgun. All these little things always taking up your attention just to stay alive. It's incredible effective here as it was in 2033. It is weakened, though, by a timer giving you the exact number of seconds of filter life you have left. It is strengthened, though, by the need to press a button to wipe water or blood off your oxygen mask to see clearly.
6. I really like the subtly of both 2033's and now Last Light's approach to the supernatural. Not so much with the 'dark ones' who are just some generic alien monster things, but with the shadow-ghosts that disappear if you shine a light directly at them, or hallucinations of a thousand arms stretching out to get you. They never really try to explain it; they just do it and it's kind of cool.
7. Last Light's ending is terrible. There are two endings, to be sure (like 2033, Last Light has this very subtle series of choices through the game that never tell the player they are about to make a choice, and I really love that), but the ending I got was terrible, and I don't doubt the other one was just as bad. The game has this slow steady build up of 'war is coming' and needing to find answers and needing to make peace and all of that. Then, while there are still all these loose narrative threads unresolved, the 'war' happens, and it is just a terrible stand-your-ground turret section, and then some dude tells you, by the way, I rigged the place to blow, and you blow the place up, making the Ultimate Sacrifice. Then you find out Sniper Women Who You Had Sex With was telling this whole story to your son because of course if you have sex once you are going to have a child.
It is actually the most terrible ending I've experienced since Far Cry 3 (Far Cry 3's endings (both of them) made me laugh at my television they were both so terrible). It is the most generic, bullshit, 'oh I guess we should wrap things up now' kind of ending. It's the kind of ending of the fantasy stories I wrote in my teenage years with absolutely zero planning about how they would end. One day I'd just get bored of all these action sequences I was ripping right out of Dragon Ball Z and stick an ending on them. That is how Last Light ends and it is appallingly bad, to the extent that it damaged my overall feelings about the game.
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
1. I have played Doom 3 before. It was new; I was 17; our family's computer could hardly run it. It was the most terrifying thing I had played in my life (unless I had already played Project Zero, but I think that might have been a few months later). I would play it in the study, in the dark, with headphones on. Every jump-scare would be followed by several moments of lag even as the Imp's scream continued to loop. It was oppressive. I tolerated it as far as your first steps into hell, at which stage it became both too intimidating and too intolerable. So when I started playing the BFG edition on the Playstation 3 recently, I was entering it with a half-memory of the game: a memory of being terrified but not really remembering any of the specifics (except Delta Labs 1, but we'll get to that).
2. Doom 3 is intense. Not in the way we just throw that word at games as a synonym of 'fun', but in the way that it has this remarkable level of intensity, an absurd level. On the surface, it is a horror game: demons and foreboding and dark corridors and all that. But horror is all about what you don't see, about the suspense and the atmosphere and the 'what if?'. Doom 3 has very little downtime, and instead attacks you with one scripted scare after another. An invisible sensor opens a trapdoor behind you with an Imp in it. The floor collapses in front of you and drops you in a pit of zombies. A previously empty hallway is now filled with waves of spider creatures. It is a constant barrage of frights that is, ultimately, exhausting. Like sitting on a rollercoaster for an hour. You just feel this strange sense of dread if you play for too long. You just want it to stop. It's unorthodox or heavy-handed, perhaps, but a game that has me thinking "please, stop" must be doing horror somewhat successfully.
3. Doom 3 feels like Doom. Or, rather, it is possible to play Doom 3 in a way that feels like Doom, and I believe that is the way it was intended to be played. I played through the original Doom just before starting Doom 3, and it felt the same. The things I was doing with my hands in Doom 3 (always moving, always strafing, squiggling out from behind a wall to fire a shotgun blast then back behind the wall between shots, spinning in circles looking for traps) were the things I do with my hands playing Doom. On the surface, though, they could not be more different. Doom is more 'arcadey', with maybe a dozen monsters attacking you in a hallway. Doom 3 rarely throws more than two or three enemies at you at once, and every encounter feels like a Big Deal. There is the fanfare of a single Imp teleporting in, or the screech of a Cacodemon.
It is strange to me that a game where you fight a single enemy can feel the same as a game where you fight a dozen. I think it is that each games make me play in a very 'twitchy' style but through different means. Doom does it by giving me a dozen targets at once I have to pay attention to. Doom 3 does it through that oppressive intensity that makes me utterly paranoid as I move through it. I am twitchy because I do not know what this game is going to do to me next. So I am spinning in circles and putting my back against the wall and then refusing to trust that wall because it feels like at anytime there could be a dozen enemies coming for me. So Doom 3 feels like Doom, but for very different reasons.
4. More on that. I said Doom 3 'can' feel like Doom if you play it a certain way. When I played Doom 3 as a teenager on the PC, I played it incredibly slowly, creeping forward slowly, trying to pre-empt every jump-scare. This time, I ran headfirst into every room then dealt with what the game threw at me. Because I had just played the first Doom, I approached it like Doom, and this required me to be more twitchy. It is possible to play different games in different ways, and those different ways are going to drastically change how you approach it. I hate it when people say the player is always right and there is no wrong way to play a game. There is. There is a way a game is intended to be played and ways it is not intended to be played (I watched a student this semester play 30 Flights of Loving like he was playing Counter-Strike and it was the most surreal thing). No one is going to stop you from playing a game the 'wrong way', but personally I prefer getting out of the game what the game wants me to get out of it. Anyway, what I'm saying is I think Doom 3 wants to be played like the original Doom, and I think playing it in that way makes it a vastly more enjoyable (and exhausting) experience.
5. An aside to this: I think the significant change that the BFG Edition allows you to hold a gun and have your torch on at the same time greatly encourages the 'just run forward' approach, while the original was much more standoffish, since you knew the moment you pulled your gun out you would be thrown into darkness. Which, I guess, means that I am saying that I think being able to hold your gun and your torch at the same time is actually better. Though, many of the game's greater moments of lighting design are still ruined by this change.
6. One more note about Doom 3's relationship with the original Doom. I really enjoy watching longrunning franchises evolve. I like playing a revamped entry to an old franchise and seeing how they re-imagined certain things. Or, related, I like playing new entries in a longrunning franchise and noting the design decisions of previous games that are lingering and influencing the current game. Like the way the more recent Call of Duty games cannot escape that series' origins in World War II cinematic battlefield simulation. Or the things that continue from one Final Fantasy to the next. I love how Doom 3 reimagines all of Doom's bizarre demon/alien/monsters. How it has 'updated' them all while still clearly grounded in this mid 90s masculine adolescence of Robocop and Marilyn Manson. Of course there are zombies and robotic demons and squirming torsos used as torches and some random reason for there being chainsaws on Mars. This is Doom. Those things have to be there.
But it is more subtle than that, too. Doom 3's most obvious inspiration beyond its own predecessors is, quite clearly, Half-Life. Like Half-Life, it tries to build a convincing world out of very directed levels, rather than the very distinct levels of early Doom games. It wants to tell a story environmentally. For the most part, it achieves this. The Mars Labs feel like actual places on Mars. But then, suddenly, the Doom is back as panels suddenly open up behind a piece of body armour and a demon runs out at you. There's often no attempt to justify why these monster closets exist: they are there because this is Doom.
So there's this clash of design styles in the environment. Just moving through this game is like peeling off layers of old wallpaper of a centuries-old house. They all just mash together and create this weird thing that is Doom 3—glorious on its own terms, absurd on any others.
On this note, there is a moment late in the game where the player encounters some ancient stone tablets from the long gone Mars civilisation. One of the tablets, quite clearly, is the cover art of the original Doom, making a clear nod to the game's own pre-history that can't help but to pervade every aspect of the game.
7. I guess I've already covered the monster closets, but they seem to also deserve their own note. They are Doom 3's most often criticised moments. I guess people like to feel like they can master a game, or pre-empt it. They don't like games that cheat (see also: Limbo). I love games that cheat. I love games that are jerks to the player. Doom 3 has so many sudden jump-scares and monster closets, but each one is so deliberate, so considered in its layout and timing that it is hard not to appreciate them. Each time, the developers have clearly thought about what direction the player is going to be looking, and use that to their advantage. Sometimes lighting or a sound will direct you to look in one direction, then something will jump at you from the opposite direction. The game is always one step ahead of you, always (often literally) laughing at you. So it gets to a point where you are double-guessing the game, where you no longer trust it. You become paranoid. You begin expecting every wall to peel back and throw zombies at you. It gets to a point where the game has trained you so well that it doesn't need any monster-closets. You begin filling the closets yourself.
8. Doom 3's monitors are still some of my favourite monitors in any game. It was a big deal when the game was new, that these computer monitors within the world were of high enough resolution to display real information without having to open another screen. I love the seamlessness of moving close enough to a monitor for your camera to start controlling the on-screen cursor, pressing buttons and controlling devices. It's such a small, subtle thing, but just so well done.
9. One section of Doom 3 I remembered clearly from playing it as a teen was the Delta Labs. I was actually a little nervous as characters started mentioning that I was getting closer to them this time though. I couldn't remember why I dreaded the Delta Labs, but I did. When I got there (and I recorded it when I did), I discovered one of the few times Doom 3 exploits downtime to terrorise the player. You are walking through empty corridors for what must be the longest uninterrupted segment of the game. You are constantly waiting for the next thing to jump out at you. There are demons crawling on the outside of the facility, throwing long shadows over the walls. There is an automated robotic woman's voice on loop for the entire section telling you about the power outage. Once the fighting does start again, there are some masterful jump-scares and misdirections. It's just a very well designed part of the game.
10. I really enjoyed Doom 3.
Friday, November 8, 2013
(With thanks to my girlfriend Helen Berents, who is all over South American politics and conflicts, for helping me think through some of these ideas, and giving me the words for them.)
(I don't play Call of Duty multiplayer and am only discussion the campaign here.)
1. People remain perplexed whenever I mention my interest in Call of Duty games. They don't understand what of value one could possibly get out of a franchise that pumps out a nearly identical game every year or so. To be sure, there are all kinds of valid reasons to dismiss the Call of Duty series out of hand: the hypermasculinity, the military-entertainment complex (as the credits rolled on Ghosts, Remington Arms Company Inc. were on the list of people Activision "would like to thank"), the fact that the only way to engage with the world and others in it is by shooting them. These are all, without a doubt, valid reasons to never touch a Call of Duty game.
But there are a whole lot of other reasons often cited that, to me, highlight these uncritically accepted values at the core of games culture: the idea that Call of Duty is bad because the player has no freedom and can only do what they're told (as though the only games that are valuable are those that offer unparalleled freedom), the idea that Call of Duty is not 'innovative' enough (as though games always have to do 'something new' to be worthy). This is going to sound super weird and I fully acknowledge the irony of this statement, but I feel the measuring stick people use to dismiss Call of Duty out of hand is the same measuring stick they regularly use to sideline games by marginalised creators as 'non-games' or some kind of 'low culture'. This is not to say that Call of Duty requires the game critic's energy to defend it as much as Dys4ia, but simply that there is totally some kind of high/low culture divide being implemented by those critics who turn their noses at such a popular franchise.
Even if I didn't enjoy the core feedback loop of Call of Duty (and I would be lying to myself and to you if I tried to pretend I didn't enjoy it), as a critic I don't want to ignore those games that a huge proportion of our culture engages with. I want to understand them. I want to understand how they work. I want to understand the cultural values that emerge from them. I want to understand what is happening here and why it is happening. Dismissing a game out of hand makes it much harder to be meaningfully critical of that game.
And, yeah, I enjoy the core feedback loop.
Anyway. That is why I played Call of Duty: Ghosts.
2. Ghosts narrative is fascinatingly nonsensical. It is nothing but the condensation of North American paranoia of South Americans crossing the border. 'The Federation' (which is just all of South America as one, homogenised nation) hates America and wants to destroy it. One of the first levels, you are literally patrolling a 10-story wall to make sure no South Americans have made it into the country. Of course, the most popular media of a culture is going to highlight just who the imagined, antagonist Other is in the contemporary cultural imagining. It was Russians and then Middle Easterns as America's power spread across the word. Now, as it recedes on itself, the most terrifying enemy is the one at the front door, sneaking in to take our jobs and destroy our way of life. That is Ghosts entire story: the South Americans want to destroy us.
3. Okay, that's not the entire story. There is also one American who wants to destroy us. One American who had his own Kurtz experience in "the heart of the Amazon" where "natives" have mastered the art of torture to break a man. The South Americans have the magic voodoo power to turn Us into Them. South America is the new Africa, where its own history of colonialisation is demolished as all South Americans are branded as 'natives'. These are the two narratives of Ghosts: South Americans want to destroy us, and this American dude with Marcus Fenix's manrag wants to destroy us so we should probably kill both of them.
4. Ghosts is the first Call of Duty I've played not contextualised in a fictional version of a real-world conflict (I never played Black Ops 2). the Modern Warfare games and Black Ops didn't need a whole heap of time spent contextualising the world or politics because you already knew them. In Ghosts, nothing makes sense. America is simultaneously a post-apocalyptic ruin and a burgeoning army. One mission simultaneously deploys "our last remaining carrier" and a space shuttle launch. 'The Federation' is a homogenous evil blob with no clear commander or dictator (the Evil American's connection to this army is never fleshed out). There is no discussion of life beyond either army. No one ever mentions what the rest of the world is doing while these two continents battle it out. This is a world reduced to a battlefield between two purified armies detached from any socio-political body or nation. There is only war. The world makes no sense, and you are never given a reason to care about it or its characters.
5. "It's Call of Duty, did you really expect a good story?" Yes, actually. The Modern Warfare trilogy and Black Ops did not tell good stories per se but they told stories well. For a series derided for churning out the same thing over and over, it experiments with storytelling in a whole heap of fascinating ways. Most significantly, through the constant swapping of perspective. Loading screens aside, you are never looking at the world of a Call of Duty game from a disembodied nowhere; you are always embodied in a particular subject's point of view. Call of Duty doesn't have cut scenes; it has a small level from another character's point of view. I think this is fascinating, the confidence to just take the player out of one character and insert them into another. You can trace this historically to the early games desire to show that World War II was won by "countless men, not a few heroes" I think it was the box said. The multiple POVs are meant to give the player a sense of this networked, intersubjective military. That is gross for a whole heap of reasons, but the purely formal mechanic of only using bodies to let the player see the world is a fascinating one I would like to see more of.
Tellingly, Ghosts rarely swaps your point of view (with the exception of the end of the game). For the vast majority of the game, you are one blank slate character following his brother (his literal bro) around the battle field. Where the Modern Warfares could show a large, complex, (absurd) network of war spreading across the world, Ghosts is restrained to a boring, head-to-head conflict of the Americas and is forced to ignore the rest of the world.
Also, for all that military shooters embody this jingoistic love of American militarism, it was always refreshing to spend so much of the Modern Warfares not as an American.
So, yes, I do expect to enjoy the story of a Call of Duty, but I didn't this time.
6. The story was claustrophobic. I felt restricted being trapped inside Logan's boring body for so much of the game, on the same goddamn continent the entire time. But even interpersonally, you spend the entire game alongside your brother and your father. The army-as-family is literalised. One mission gives you the objective "Get to dad". It's weird. It's really, really weird. I don't care about this blank slate white bro family. What the hell even is this?
7. The dog. The dog is the most boring, embarrassingly forced story component ever. Special effects always have a dual spectacle, as much in games as in film: there is the spectacle of the cool thing happening in the fictional world, and the spectacle of the technology that allows that cool thing to be produced as a real thing. Neo dodging bullets in the Matrix was cool because he was following bullets, and it was cool because a camera spun in a circle. Infinity Ward are so excited about this damn dog they spent a whole lot of money on. You spend the first few levels forced to look at this dog do its dog things. You are riding a tank and its head is popped out of the manhole in front of you to force you to pay attention to its 3D many-polygon model. If someone from Infinity Ward had telephoned me once per level to remind me how they animated this dog to put in this game, it couldn't have been much more pathetic.
8. There are a few levels in the middle of the game that stand out, that made me think, okay, this is why I bother playing Call of Duty games. These are the levels that aren't just this one, constant, boring gunfight, but a well and deliberately paced script of down-time followed by up-time followed by down-time. The levels that don't feel like filler.
The first one is in Caracas (of course the capital of Evil South America is the capital of Venezuela). The level progresses from abseiling down skyscrapers to parachuting while that skyscraper is falling on you. Every moment of the level feels considered and there for a reason, like Infinity Ward actually, deliberately built this level with a certain goal in mind—like they did with most of the Modern Warfare levels.
Another one is when you are attacking... I don't know... some lab in the snow. You steal uniforms and sneak into the lab quietly. You have a massive stand-your-ground gun fight. You escape on a lift and head out the same way you came in: blending in. You are forced to walk slow through the wreckage you caused as the injured you left behind are helped. It's this seamless escalation from just walking down corridors to explosive action and back to just walking down corridors and then, to end it, you drive a jeap across a frozen ocean, sinking other jeeps with a grenade launcher, and drive your jeep onto a submarine. It's a wonderfully paced stage that hits a high level that the game never again achieves.
9. You've probably seen the video of how the intro of Ghosts uses an identical animation sequence to the end of Modern Warfare 2. It's the most explicit example of it, but the same animations and moments are used throughout Ghosts. It's either intended as laziness, apathy, or deliberate intertextuality—it functions as all three. The entire game feels like a collage of moments from the previous games. Not just the same mechanics or the same features but literally the same moments. The moment your bro looked into the distance then helped you up. The moment your bro was fighting the bad dude while you were crawling towards a gun. The moment an explosion knocked you off your feet in slow motion.
Where these because interesting is where Ghosts is clearly, deliberately using these to subvert expectations. At one point, a tank bursts out of a carpark wall to save you, exactly as it does in Modern Warfare 3. Except, instead of saving you, it gets blown up as well and you have to run for your life. At another moment you are about to breach a door like you have done a million times when your bro tackles you to the ground a moment before a hail of bullets splinters the door. There are these little snippets where the copy-pasted moments feel cleverly used.
But even if it is just laziness, I still find that fascinating. Like peeling back layers of wallpaper from an old house. I kind of like that you can see the history of this series and these studios in the game.
10. Towards the end of the game is this absurd tank level. You are driving a tank at super high speed in a battalion of tanks in a bizarre sandbox-y level. It felt like I was playing Tokyo Wars. It was weird.
11. A reason most people can't tolerate Call of Duty is a reason I can't tolerate most AAA games: because it takes itself too seriously. When you spend millions of dollars on a game and you need to make millions in return, you have to be bombastic and absurd and ridiculous. When that bombastic, absurd ridiculousness gets painted up as GRIM and SERIOUS, there is this weird jarring that doesn't always work. I am increasingly convinced that AAA games can not, and perhaps even should not, be 'serious'. At least, they can't be serious for as long as their primary goal is to just be 'fun', and they're primary goal isn't going to stop being 'fun' for as long as they need to make millions of dollars.
But I think this is exactly the reason I am able to enjoy a Call of Duty, despite everything: because they are so absurd that I don't think anyone, not even Activision, really takes them serious. Medal of Honor takes itself serious, with all its bullshit 'Lest we forget' quotes around its 'real' battles told by 'real' soldiers in a self-gratifying fellatio. Call of Duty, though, with its commercials that quite explicitly note that it only sees itself as a 'fun game', and its partnership with Eminem has me convinced that it doesn't take itself seriously. Or, perhaps more justifiably, makes it impossible for me to take serious. I don't take Call of Duty serious. I take it as I would take a Michael Bay film. I think that is how I can tolerate all the shit of each Call of Duty to explore the things I find fascinating: by only ever taking it at face value, as nothing more than a ridiculous, military-themed story for a little while.
Of course, that is not a reason to excuse or justify the many issues I've stated with the game.
12. The loading screen animations are really great.
13. Although the world has finally reached a level of technological advancement that Infinity Ward is able to animate a 3D model of a woman, there are still next to no women in the campaign, with the exception of one significant companion for a single mission towards the start of the game. Unsurprising, but still disappointing. Notably, the game's marketing was no better.
14. People like to say that Call of Duty studios just tack on the campaign as an afterthought to the multiplayer that is their main consideration. Ghosts is the first time that I am anywhere near convinced of that argument. Infinity Ward doesn't care about this story or these characters.
Saturday, November 2, 2013
(Proteus spoilers below)
The other night I dreamed that I died. It was super weird.
I was aware I was dying. I knew it was happening. Other people were there. Maybe I was elderly and fading. maybe I was ill. I don't remember being in pain, so I don't think it was an injury. I was pretty calm at first, but as I closed by eyes and saw only black, I started to think. Thinking made me panic. It dawned on me what was going on. Wait, I'm dying. I really am dying. Not at some abstract point in the future but right now. What happens next? What is it going to feel like? Is it going to feel like anything? Will I know I'm dead? Will I have a moment where I sense the world continuing on without me before I dissipate? Each question made me more terrified that the last, and I continued to die with each thought I thought.
Then the blackness slowly, gradually changed to nothing. I don't know how nothingness looks any different from blackness, but it does. It was a tonal difference, I guess. I knew I wasn't looking at the inside of my eyelids anymore; I just wasn't looking anymore. Then there was a silent 'ping', like a very specific moment. A snap, like that moment the kid gets electrocuted in Limbo and stops being a living body and starts being a sack of silhouette meat. And then I felt like I was floating in Space inside my own head and I felt the network of my own consciousness kind of stretch and fade like water spreading too thin on a flat surface. Then from the edges of my non-vision the nothingness slowly shifted to a white that took me over.
Then I woke up.
"Yes," I thought to myself. "That is probably what dying would feel like."
Several nights later, Proteus was released on Playstation 3. I sat on the couch with my girlfriend and we played through it together. We chased squirrels and frogs (she thinks they are rabbits) and stood under the castle ruins (she thinks they are tree stumps). We watched the mushrooms trumpet in Spring and the owls fly in front of the stars on a Summer night. In Autumn we stood in the circle of Deer Gods, as we decided they were called, and the sky turned red.
I've played Proteus several times before on computer. I knew how it ended. You rise into sky and close your eyes, returning back to the main menu. It never really struck me as particularly emotional or powerful on my previous plays, just a timely end to a beautiful experience.
But my dream left a mark on me. Not in a particularly scary or depressing way, but I remembered it. I have what I think is a pretty healthy fear of the inevitability of death if I dwell on it too much, so perhaps that is why I remembered my dream so vividly.
When our Proteus game reached Winter, I suddenly felt the tiniest pang of panic. This would all be over soon. This play session, our character's life: over. I suddenly regretted voluntarily progressing the seasons. Why didn't we just sit in Autumn forever? Why did we come to Winter? Now there was nothing we could do.
I had to see as much of the island as I could before it ended. The Deer Gods, the house by the sea, the forest beyond the mountain. I had to see them all one last time.
But then, walking down a hill, I never reached the bottom. Our character had started to lift. It was coming to an end and there was nothing I could do about it. We were among the tree tops. Then we were in the clouds, the ground obscured beneath us. Then we were passing over the mountains.
I remembered my dream, there with my character's legs dangling feet above the tallest mountain, with the Deer Gods turning into little dots in the snow.
It was my dream. The inevitability. The sense of 'shit this is happening right now'. The strange sense of floating in nothingness. The sense of wanting to extend my connection with this word for just a moment longer.
And then, looking down at the island, the maximum draw distance the game could render began to suck up the mountain peaks in whiteness, disappearing them. No land left beneath me, I looked up at the moon and stars, trying to take it all in as quickly as I could because in any moment--
--my eyes closed, and I returned to the main menu.
And, yeah, that is probably what dying feels like.
Proteus is really lovely on PS3. Play it with someone you love.
If you were wanting a real essay on Proteus, you could do a lot worse than Dan Golding's piece on Meanjin.