When I was 17, my best friend Mike kept a YouTube channel for Let's Plays. He was a fan of old and not-so-well-known games, most of which he played on a pSX emulator on his laptop.
The channel wasn't particularly popular; he had about 30 subscribers, most of which were just his friends. I used to watch his videos for a few minutes when I got in from school to raise his views and help him out. He was as entertaining as any game commentator, I guess, but some channels just don't lift off.
We took the same chemistry class and sat next to each other in it every morning at school. One day, he asked me if I had heard of a game called LSD: Dream Emulator. I hadn't. He concluded that if I hadn't heard of it, it was definitely obscure enough for his channel.
He had uploaded some videos of it that night. It was a very peculiar game; the objective seemed to be only to walk around various Japanese environments, colliding with things that transported the player to other environments. Various animals and people glided through the game, usually taking no notice of the player, although there was one NPC known as the Grey Man.
He was, as the name would suggest, a grey man, in a hat and coat. He tended to appear without warning, and slide sullenly towards the player. If the player got too close, the screen would flash white and he would disappear. Each time this happened, Mike would gasp, then nervously laugh it off and continue playing.
The gameplay was divided up into days. Each day lasted only a few minutes, after which the player would be taken back to a menu and prompted to start a new dream. Mike played up to Day 12 over the course of a week, and had clearly enjoyed the game, as it was apparent in his videos. He seemed immersed in it, almost captivated by it. However, one night, he posted a bulletin on his YouTube channel stating:
"You know its time to stop when the grey man pops up in your real dream :L what should I play next?"
I wasn't phased by this casual joke, and he told me in chemistry the following morning that he was mainly stopping because he just wanted to play something new to him. I'd have recommended something, but an exam was nearing and I wanted to concentrate on my work. I suggested that he take a short break from YouTube and do the same. He agreed that this was a good idea, and we arranged to meet at his house that evening to revise.
Saddled with several chemistry textbooks, I walked through town that evening to his house. The lights were on, but there was no reply when I knocked. Out of politeness, I waited a minute before I knocked again. This time, it opened instantly. Mike stood in the doorway, his hair wet, looking extremely shaken. Without saying a word, he led me to his room, where various papers and books were spread across his desk. He seemed surprised to see them. After a few minutes of pretending to read while actually curious as to why he was so anxious and jumpy, I finally said "What's wrong?", to which he mumbled some incomprehensible response. My efforts continued until he finally confided in me.
He said that about ten minutes before I arrived, he had fallen asleep in the bath, and had a dream. He said that in the dream, he was drowning under the bathwater, completely paralyzed and unable to lift his head for air. The quivering silhouette of the Grey Man towered over the water, watching him. I sympathised that this may have caused a few seconds of distress when he woke up, but could not understand why he was still petrified. I tried to comfort him, but he sensed that I didn't understand, grabbed my shoulders and screamed at me, "It lasted for weeks! Ten minutes I was asleep, I was choking underwater in that dream for weeks and I wouldn't die!"
Mike grew increasingly distant after that. We exchanged no words in our chemistry lessons, and he began to look extremely unwell. His eyes became pink and sunken into his head, surrounded by purple rings. Over a week, his neat writing deteriorated into a careless scrawl, until he stopped writing completely and instead spent the duration of the lessons with his head buried in his hands.
Occasionally, he would accidentally fall asleep in this position, and wake up several minutes later shrieking furiously and pounding the table with his fists. After two instances of this, he was removed from the lessons and taken to be educated in private, but after his refusal to sleep made him too tired to be angry, he returned to normal lessons and sat through them, completely motionless. I found new friends, and he existed as a shell of a human being.
It was around this time that a new brand of graffiti began to appear frequently throughout the town on walls and such, resembling a Japanese word or phrase: "バイオレンス街". The placement and colour of the paintings varied greatly. I didn't think much of it at the time; new artistic vandals were always trying to get themselves reputations this way. However, one night, I was walking home from a party with half a bottle of vodka and noticed the moonlight glowing on the fluorescent red of fresh paint, down a thin alley to my left. I walked down it and found a half-finished piece of graffiti above Mike, who was slumped on the ground, weeping, with a can of spray paint rolling away from his hand. I sighed, sat next to him, and offered him a drink of my vodka. He drank a very large amount of it and handed me back the bottle, wheezing. His eyes were closed. I don't think he knew where he was.
"I can't rest."
"I go to sleep and wake up in another version of where I was. It's exactly the same except he's there. Torturing me."
"What does that mean, Mike?" I indicated the Japanese symbols above him, but all he did was hang his head lower.
"The pain doesn't stop when I wake up."
Mike didn't speak again for half an hour, and I eventually persuaded him to go home. He stood up and stumbled into the night. I found a completed piece of graffiti on the next street and took a picture of it with my phone, then went home myself.
The next day, I Googled "list of japanese symbols", and matched letters of the Japanese alphabet to the image on my phone in order to get typed symbols I could search for. This took a good while, as the Japanese alphabet is extensive and the symbols all look very similar to me.
After I finished finding the symbols, I entered them, "バイオレンス街", into Google. It turned out to be the Japanese name of the "Violence District", a region in the LSD game consisting of dark city streets littered with graffiti and corpses lying on the ground, hanging by the neck from lampposts or headless. I had seen Mike encounter this area many times in his videos.
I woke up in the middle of the night to find Mike standing in the corner of my room, a hood hiding the stone dead face I had grown to associate with him. His laptop was under his arm, and he placed it on my bed, telling me to delete the game, delete the videos and delete the YouTube channel.
I asked why he couldn't, and he replied, "I don't want to touch them", before climbing out the window he had entered through. Too bewildered to get back to sleep, I opened his laptop and did what he had said. I deleted all the videos from his documents folder and cancelled his YouTube account, which was signed into automatically.
I then noticed the file "psxfin.exe" on his desktop.
I double-clicked to run up the PlayStation 1 emulator and opened the LSD: Dream Emulator CD image into it. I then loaded his file, which was still at Day 12. Mike was clearly unstable, I had figured. Many people had played the game and been unharmed; I could easily do the same.
I continued where Mike left off, and wandered aimlessly through the dream worlds as he had done. The game was very strange, as I remembered from the videos, perhaps even a little unsettling, but after I shut off the laptop, my state of mind was completely normal. The one thing that had confused me somewhat was that I had played another 6 days of the game and not encountered the Grey Man at all. Regardless, I drifted off to sleep.
I dreamed that night. I was on the brown mountain that I had seen in the game, against a dark green sky with thick fog. Nearby was a poorly-rendered figure facing away from me. It was difficult to tell through the fog and simple graphics, but it appeared to be wearing a green parka and blue jeans, like Mike. I was unable to move, and it slowly glided towards me, though facing away from me. Finally, it turned around, and I saw a still image of Mike's smiling face plastered across the sphere of the figure's head, before I woke up.
Mike wasn't at school the next day, or the day after, or the day after that. I had started my own file of LSD: Dream Emulator, and continuously seen the Grey Man, concluding that there was no issue with that copy of the game, and yet he never appeared on Mike's file. I frequently searched the internet and asked fans of the game why the Grey Man would stop appearing. Each of them insisted that this wouldn't happen, and that at that point in the game, the player should expect to meet the Grey Man at least once per dream.
The police knocked on my door that weekend, asking if I knew anything of Mike's whereabouts, or if I knew what had been troubling him. I calmly replied that we didn't talk much anymore. Putting the whole situation out of mind, I started thinking about my future and concentrating on getting a good chemistry grade.
A couple of weeks later, they found him in the woods a few miles out of town. Forensics concluded that he had bludgeoned himself to death with a rock very soon after the day he went missing.
I dream about him sometimes.