“Mary had a little lamb,
Little lamb little lamb,
Mary had a little lamb,
whose fleece was white as snow.”
— Assassins’ Redoubt, Final Transmission
The Dream Twister is based on The Will To Power. In addition to having a pretty awesome name, it has a single, simple mechanical effect: it grants a bonus to all the faction’s units when on the attack in psi combat. In essence, the effect is the inverse of the previous Neural Amplifier secret project, which provided a similar bonus to psionic defense.
This symmetry should explain the reasoning behind Reynolds’s choice to reuse many of the images from that previous video here. The terrified screaming person, the snake, and the spider are all reprised. But there are a few key changes that flip the valence this time around.
First, notice that there’s no voice reading a quote over the action. The only sound effect is this eerie, tinny pulse which repeats over and over as the images bombard the viewer. Neither is there repeated interjections of that trio of human faces as there were before. This time, nothing stands between the viewer and the madness.
Second, there is a new image of a cot in a bare room with what appears to be a rat. This is mildly creepy on its own. But I believe that it was chosen here as a reference to George Orwell’s 1984. In that book, Room 101 was the regime’s most diabolical torture chamber, in which they would use the victim’s deepest fear in order to break his mind. And our protagonist’s deepest fear – the one the reader sees them use in the book – just so happened to be rats.
Third, as the imagery escalates past what we had seen before, we are treated to a couple of repeated shots of a pile of skulls. These are interspersed with what appears to be a shot of a burnt corpse. There’s nothing too explicit here. But the implications are pretty horrifying.
Each one of those bleached, stacked skulls was a person. Hundreds upon hundreds of people, if the pile extends back into the room. Which happens to be just enough to be maximally creepy. Any more than that would get processed as a statistic. But there’s just enough here to give the imagination a handle to start to humanize each victim. Then the viewer is encouraged to attempt to multiply that out to all the skulls in the shot. Then once he tries to take into account all skulls that are implied to be behind the ones we see, and it just becomes impossible to process.
Then the video ends with what is, in my opinion, one of the very best quotes in the game. Which is quite the trick, given that on the surface, the quote doesn’t seem like it should be anything special. It’s just the first four lines of a traditional nursery rhyme.
Part of the genius is that it breaks the established pattern for these videos by refraining from reading it out loud. Instead, it’s just printed out in stark white text on a black background.
The rest of it comes from the context. Assassins’ Redoubt is a default Spartan base name. Why was this, of all things, their final transmission?
The beginning of the answer has to be that they were under psionic attack. Presumably by a faction employing the Dream Twister to overcome their Neural Amplified defense. We know that the Gaians have been associated with psionic attack up until now, and we know that they’ve been at war with the Spartans, so it is a safe bet that this was from the Gaian conquest of Assassins’ Redoubt.
Given that, why the nursery rhyme? Ever since the discovery of Secrets of the Human Brain at the beginning of the game, the player has been aware that hypnotic trances can serve as a defense against psionic attack. By now, even if they can’t afford to teach every unit to slip into a deep, collective trance, similar techniques must be part of standard army training. On the defense, you’re taught to repeat a calming, repetitive, safe mantra to keep yourself on your gun.
Nursery rhymes are therefore a natural fit. So it would seem a typical late-game psionic battle is made up of a collection of powerful cyborg-psychics on one hand, and a bunch of soldiers trying to hold fast to their weapons while desperately chanting nursery rhymes to themselves on the other. And the guy who made this last transmission is doing so as he’s feeling the last fraying threads of his sanity slip away.