IV drips pulse, carrying anesthetic down the tube, through the needle, and into the bloodstream of your wife. She lies beneath lamplight, her breathing slightly irregular, but it should be okay, her vitals are stabilizing. You have to put her under, again, to get through the study. In the two beds besides hers are your other subjects and colleagues. One an archeologist, the other the neurobiologist whose research brought you here. On the monitor, the process fills progress bars as sense-data flutters along the wires, cris-crossing between workstation and subject.
In Ice Water Games’ (@IceWaterGames) The Absence of Is, you play as Talan Malhotra, a researcher leading the charge in trying to understand what it is that awaits us after our lives come to an end. Breakthroughs in technology have given humanity a chance to finally pierce the veil and peer into the minds of those undergoing a near-death experience. The ultimate question lays before you: are we seeing a glimpse of the beyond or simply misfiring neurons as the lights turn off?
To complete the experiment, your first task is to induce a state in which your subject’s vitals are dropped to an “optimal” level. You pump them full of anesthesia and adrenaline, striking a balance where they aren’t quite dead, but definitely no longer alive. Between the three subjects you work with, you’re presented with entirely difference experiences as you pour over the data.
Resolving the data, you find yourself thrust into their experiences. In the instance of Myo MaeRi, the aforementioned researcher, she is plunged into a flurry of memories. She wanders the yard of her parents’ house and a forest being researched by someone she once met beneath its canopy. As you move through these environments, she comments on how strikingly off everything feels. Colours are wrong, scale and shape constructing a blurry simulacrum of what actually is. Her final time under brings her to an alien landscape, a place foreign to her that looks nothing like anything mankind has ever seen.
For archeologist Aleth Asylos, he is brought back to rioting in Greece. His first memory fades as the police arrive to a scene of pure pandemonium. His second, a recollection of a false reality, sitting handcuffed to a table as the room fills with water. A woman peers in the distance, and he cries out for her help; this isn’t what happened, he was let go in the end. But his innocence provides no sanctuary as the last time under places him beneath a massive eye, its watchful gaze an omen of his coming destruction. He stands in an encircling mass of gravestones, one bearing his own name. Overhead, a hand closes its grip on this place, and we’re shunted back to the living world.
Finally, your wife, Angie, presents the mind of a woman trapped between her decisions. First, she comes back to your kitchen after you had thrown a plate at her. Keys and doors fill her hazy dreams, making her wonder what they say of her choices; you were a drunk before, and after you stopped drinking things improved between you. But was she right to stay? Her second experience has her wandering a field outside of the house, a lake of a liquid smelling like wine alongside it. Around a bend, a massive skeleton rests eternal with a door between its legs. Upon entry, you induce her once again, and are brought to an island littered with smashed dishes and keys. Behind her looms a monolithic door, swung open to bright light. The end comes all too abruptly as she enters.
Between the three, we’re given a look into what may be an afterlife, but what does that mean for us? The implication of these places, of errant memories, of altered ones that present the worst of a situation, of having to contend with regrets, is one of uncertainty. The afterlife differs between most religious descriptions, but typically revolves the idea of it being a haven for us, a place to find peace after the chaos of our lives. But, if what we’re exploring is the afterlife, is this Hell? Ghosts of our past haunt us here, and the idea of this being our eternal resting place is terrifying.
The worst of the three is possibly Myo, her final reward being a darkened cave hosting an alien city, a stark contrast to the two natural settings she found herself in before. Nothing anchors here; but why does it show itself to her? Is Heaven for her a new world, possibly housing a new species for her to examine? Then what does that say of Aleth? For him, perhaps absolution is to be punished for the guilt he feels over his participation in Greece’s upheaval. In the case of Angie, she finds solace in moving across the threshold to a place where her past decisions become background noise in her life, a place where they no longer need to matter. Maybe her regrets dissolve as she leaps into the ever after.
In the end, it’s not clear whether or not there are any answers in our research. We’re no closer to understanding our reality or what lies beyond it. But, for these people, their participation illustrates that whatever may lay past the barrier of life isn’t an escape. If nothing else, fleeing our lives gives us little more than closure, but not in any real sense, as it’s only closure created by our own minds, not the real thing with all of its messy physicality. We can come to realize that our time here is transitory, fleeting, and we have to make the most of it. We have to grip our destinies, make do with the cards we’re dealt, and come to terms with the things that plague us. Salvation may not lie in the next life, but we have ample opportunity to make it ourselves in this one.
The Absence of Is is currently available on itch.io.
Catherine Brinegar is a trans game developer and filmmaker who explores the surreal and abstract in her work. Beyond her creative endeavors she enjoys losing herself inside other worlds, interactive and not. Finding inspiration in everything, Catherine aims to see all the world has to offer, through the continual conversation of art. You can keep up with her on twitter @cathroon.