(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.