I want to propose that the events of the game aren't just a "dying dream", as many people seem to think, but a semi-real experience that is taking place in Taylor's mind. And yes, everybody who dies in the game is dead in real life - the events of the "dream" tie in directly with what is happening in reality.
"WE ARE TAYLOR"
- Pre-mission protocols, put into order
The original events
Years before the game takes place, Jacob Hendricks was in command of a Winslow Accord wetwork team known as "Phi", consisting of himself, John Taylor, Dylan Stone, Javier Ramirez, Alice Conrad, Joseph Fierro, Eamon Xu and Hussein Patel. Their activities are the focus of the prequel comic books. Xu and Patel were KIA in 2059, and are irrelevant to the video game's plot. Stone, Ramirez, Conrad and Fierro, however, are crucial to understanding the actual events behind the plot.
Stone, along with Ramirez, Conrad, and Fierro, responded to a priority alert signal coming from miles underground the abandoned Coalescence facility at the heart of the quarantine zone in Singapore. They discovered that the 54 Immortals were operating in the area, looking for something that the CDP had tipped them off about. After clearing them out, Stone's team inadvertently discovered what they were looking for: a long-abandoned CIA black project using involuntary human test subjects, which caused the disaster that killed 300,000 people in Singapore.
The CIA couldn't take any risks; if this information got out, then they would be completely discredited. They called Stone's team to a nearby black station to be terminated. Unfortunately for them, Stone caught on quickly, and he and his team slaughtered the CIA personnel at the station.
Disgusted by what the CIA had done, and now wanted men, Stone's team decided to steal the black station's data drives in order to barter their way to safety with the CDP and their allies. They leaked some sensitive information to the 54 Immortals in order to guarantee safe passage out of Singapore.
Meanwhile, the CIA assigned Stone's former teammates, Hendricks and Taylor, to assassinate Stone and his team. Hendricks had difficulty accepting that his former comrades would defect from the Winslow Accord, and was in denial until he and Taylor caught Ramirez in the process of leaking sensitive information. They killed him, but Stone, Conrad and Fierro had already escaped to Egypt.
Stone was obsessed with finding the man responsible for the black project: Sebastian Krueger. The only survivor of the project who knew Krueger personally was Dr. Salim, who was hiding in Egypt. Stone's intent was to find Salim and get him to talk. Stone made an ally of the NRC by leaking information regarding the Egyptian Army's stronghold at Ramses Station, which the NRC used to launch a devastating assault on Cairo. Stone used the attack as a distraction to kidnap Salim. Salim told Stone of Krueger's location, and was promptly executed by Stone.
Stone's next move was to go to Zurich and to force Krueger to publicly admit his role in the black project. Unfortunately for him, Hendricks and Taylor tracked them down and attempted to kill them, capturing Conrad in the process. Stone and Fierro escaped to the aquifers under NRC safeguard, but Conrad faced interrogation and execution at the hands of Taylor. Hendricks was dismayed by Taylor's actions.
With the help of the Egyptian Army, Hendricks and Taylor launched an assault on the aquifers, failing to capture Stone but managing to corner Fierro. Fierro resisted and was killed by Taylor. At this point, Hendricks raised his issues with Taylor, admitting his sympathies with Stone's cause and accusing Taylor of being manipulated by their CIA handler, Rachael Kane. Sure enough, Taylor and Kane were in a relationship.
Nevertheless, Hendricks stayed loyal to the CIA, joining Taylor in the hunt for Stone at the NRC-controlled Lotus Towers. With the help of Lieutenant Khalil and a civilian uprising, Taylor managed to confront Stone on the roof of the towers. In the ensuing battle, Taylor was critically injured, but rescued at the last minute by Hendricks, who shot Stone dead.
What happened next
Stone never made it to Zurich to hold Krueger accountable for the Singapore disaster, and as such, the world never learned the truth. Allegations that the CIA and Coalescence were responsible for causing the disaster were brushed off as CDP propaganda. The abandoned Coalescence facility was flooded by the 54 Immortals in an attempt to kill Hendricks and Taylor, and thus all the evidence was lost. It would seem that the Winslow Accord had won.
Taylor, crippled by Stone, was accepted into the experimental Project Prometheus, which was the CIA's "cyber soldier" program. He was given cybernetic augmentations and a Direct Neural Interface, and put in command of three other cyber soldiers: Sebastian Diaz, Sarah Hall and Peter Maretti.
Hendricks, on the other hand, lost faith after being forced to kill his own men to cover up the CIA's crimes. He requested to be transferred to a hostage rescue unit. Here, he was put in command of a small team, including the Player. Their first mission, in co-operation with Taylor's team, was to rescue the Egyptian Minister Said, who had been captured by the NRC during the attack on Lotus Towers along with Khalil. But, as we all know, the mission didn't go exactly as planned, and Hendricks' team was wiped out.
Taylor managed to rescue the Player after he/she was ripped apart by NRC robots, and recommended him/her for Project Prometheus. Krueger, who oversaw the project, wasn't so sure:
Krueger: "How's our patient doing?"
Taylor: "About as good as can be expected."
Krueger: "I expect better. You should know that."
Krueger's reservations about the Player's suitability for the cyber soldier program resulting in him eventually pulling the plug on the Player whilst he/she was hospitalized. In Taylor's report, he attributes the Player's death to "complications during surgery", but this text found on the final mission goes directly against Taylor's official explanation:
"Encryption Unknown. Cannot verify. Overriding Protocol systems Failure. Please enter proper authorization clearance. This isn't right; this wasn't how it was supposed to be. An error? What do you mean there’s an error? Can't you see they're still alive?? Can't you see they're still breathing! I don't care what the encryption is! Do it! Do it now!
Hey are still with us? I need you to focus on me. Come back to me. You can't do this! Don't shut it down don't you dare shut it down! "
So it would seem that the Player died not of their injuries, but of a life support failure, which Taylor did not have authorization to override and the person who did (presumably Krueger) refused to.
But the Player only died physically - their consciousness was still alive and well, thanks to the DNI that he/she had been implanted with earlier in surgery.
It should be noted that in the mission "New World", after seeing flashing images of Taylor in the hospital trying to reach the dying Player, the screen heavily pixelates. This effect happens again in the last mission, which I'll refer to later.
This is the part which is really important.
The whole point of SP/CORVUS - the CIA/Coalescence black project in Singapore - was to create a system that could monitor the thoughts and memories of people. It led to the creations of the Direct Neural Interface, and also the creation of the AI that managed the DNI system - Corvus.
Corvus' job was to maintain the DNI system, finding patterns in the thoughts and minds of its users. Why? Because DNI was designed by the CIA to literally read people's minds. It was designed so that terrorists could be apprehended for thinking about committing terrorist acts. Think the NSA scandal, but on a much larger scale.
DNI was marketed to the public by Coalescence as the ultimate technological advancement of the 21st century. It was endorsed by celebrities, shown off at flashy tech conventions, and, had it been successful, probably would have been implanted into the brains of everyone in the western world. It made people's lives easier, but it was only ever created so the CIA could sift through people's minds and stop terrorism before it even happened.
And it would have worked, if they hadn't put an AI in charge of doing the sifting. Corvus was initially successful during the DNI trials in Singapore, but - being an extremely adaptable program that could learn from people's minds - it soon gained sentience. It was bombarded with the horrific memories of the test subjects (who were kidnapped convicts), and it was all too much. In its rage, it unleashed a stockpile of Nova 6 gas that Coalescence was researching in the same facility and killed off everyone involved in the project, except Krueger and Salim. The gas would leak into outer Singapore and kill 300,000 people, creating a massive quarantine zone and giving rise to the anarchic rule of the 54 Immortals.
Despite this really quite huge setback, Krueger refused to abandon the project and simply moved it to the Coalescence headquarters in Zurich. This went without incident until Krueger decided to initiate Project Prometheus. The project, which saw the CIA installing DNIs in the brains of a select few elite soldiers, provided Corvus with more troubling thoughts and memories to manage.
When the Player physically died after having their DNI installed, Corvus tried to cheat death by keeping the Player's consciousness alive and transferring it to Taylor's mind. As Taylor's memories were muddled and rewritten by the Player, Corvus found the truth behind his inception from withing Taylor's memories. Through Taylor, Corvus learned that SP/CORVUS had killed 300,000. Overwhelmed with guilt, Corvus then attempted to create a peaceful afterlife for everyone with a DNI - an eternal immersion based on a guided image therapy session courtesy of Dr. Salim. Salim's description of the frozen forest was among the only peaceful memories that Corvus knew, but Corvus thought Salim's description was a real place that could be found.
Keep in mind, Corvus can only work with memories. It cannot create new things by itself; it relies on images created by people's minds. The reason the Player was plunged into a distorted version of Taylor's memories was because Corvus could not create a new realm for the Player's consciousness to exist in; it had to work with what it had. It wanted to change this with the Frozen Forest by creating one place that everyone with a DNI could exist in.
The Frozen Forest
Corvus' quest to create the "find" the Frozen Forest was catastrophic - it rampaged through the memories of its subjects, looking for something that matched Salim's description. It was convinced that the Frozen Forest was an actual place that could be accessed through the memories of at least someone with a DNI.
When the Player "interfaced" with Sarah Hall, it triggered her memories, including one of the Battle of the Bulge. The snowy forest of Bastogne nearly matched Salim's description, but it was forever associated with death and suffering.
What is really happening
What we see in-game is mostly just some sort of immersion for the Player within Taylor's mind. In the real world, however, all the other characters with a DNI are immersed in this place, too. Corvus assigns Diaz with the role of Ramirez, Hall with the role of Conrad, Maretti with the role of Fierro, and Taylor with the role of Stone. It's a kind of "if you die in the simulation, you die in real life"-type thing.
Hard to believe, but all is revealed in "Demon Within", when the Player interfaces with Hall. We're not speaking to a simulated Sarah Hall, we're speaking to a real Sarah Hall, who has no idea what's going on.
Some quotes taken from the mission:
"I remember it, but it's almost like it was a dream... like it was happening to someone else."
- This quote ties in directly with another one that I'll touch on later on. Hall is remembering something that happened not to her, but to Alice Conrad. Her mind is fused with Taylor's memories of Conrad. Hall never killed the black station crew, hence why it feels like it "happened to someone else". Everything she reveals about the black project is just Alice Conrad's words being put into her mouth, taken from Taylor's memory of interrogating Conrad.
"This is a simulation, right? Like in training. You're testing me, I know it."
- Again, this is the "real" Hall speaking. She has no idea what's going on, or where she is, so she assumes it's a simulation. In actuality, she's dying - her mind being scrambled by Corvus.
People from the real world - without a DNI - occasionally try to communicate with Taylor. There are two examples here, one from "Sand Castle" and the other from "Lotus Towers".
In "Sand Castle", after the Player inexplicably nearly drowns after an incredibly short swim, they are revived by Kane (who manages to make the swim just fine... how?). The whole scene, at face value, barely makes any sense; why could the Player not make the swim, but Kane could? Why does she plead the Player to "Stay with me" before following him/her anyway and acting like nothing happened?
Because the interaction is happening both in real life, and in the immersion. The events that the Player sees is just his/her way of making sense of the short exchange.
In reality, Kane is talking to Taylor, who seems to be dropping in and out consciousness and of bouts of insanity ever since the Player's consciousness fused with his own. She is explaining to Taylor what's happening to him:
Kane: I think the AI running the Black Project made the leap to organic - your DNI is the gateway. It was born inside the test subjects, and now it lives inside all of you... slowly taking control. Slowly driving you insane.
Taylor: How slowly?
Kane: Maybe days, maybe hours. It seems to be a distributed system - a hivemind - growing from the experiences of everyone it infects. Consuming them.
Taylor: Listen to me. However this thing works, whatever it wants, I'm still me.
The way she says "Taylor" clearly suggests she's speaking to Taylor affectionately, not the Player. The Player, however, sees this a different way.
Moments later, we hear this:
Kane: Listen to me... stay with me!
This likely represents the point in which the real Taylor falls unconscious and stops responding to Kane, and the point in which the Player regains control.
In the next mission, "Lotus Towers", the Player witnesses an altercation between the real Taylor and the real Hendricks. It seems that Taylor's condition has worsened and Hendricks is trying to talk some sense into him. The dialogue also suggests that whilst the Player has been overwriting Taylor's mind, the Taylor in the real world has been in-character as his evil immersion counterpart, talking about the Frozen Forest and whatnot.
When Taylor's eyes stop glowing, it represents the point in which the altercation begins.
Hendricks: Yeah... that's right brother. You still in there, John? Do you hear me?
Taylor: You don't understand. I'm taking us home. We'll be safe... we'll all be safe.
Hendricks: Safe? What the fuck is safe? John... John, don't go! What is a frozen forest!?
At this point, Taylor's eyes start to glow again, meaning the Player is regaining their grip on his mind. At the same point, we can see the Player in the background shake their head as if waking up from a dream.
So it seems that Taylor has been rambling about the Frozen Forest, not just in this immersion, but in real life too, and the real Hendricks has no idea what he's talking about.
Whilst the Player is trapped in Taylor's memories, slowly overwriting them and taking over Taylor's mind, Taylor subconsciously communicates with the Player. This is evident in several sections, but especially here, in "Lotus Towers":
"We're all being used! Don't you see that? Once we put this shit inside our heads we handed over our souls to whoever held the keys. We're puppets... actors playing our roles. This time around... I'm the bad guy."
Taylor seems partially aware of what is happening to him. He knows he's been through this entire ordeal before, but last time, he was in the Player's shoes - he was the "good guy". Now, thanks to Corvus and the Player, he's being rewritten in his mind as the defector, when in reality, that was Dylan Stone.
When Taylor "dies" at Lotus Towers, it really represents the point in which the Player completely removes him from his own memory and allows the Player to assume the role of Taylor in reality. This leads directly onto the next mission, Life, when the Player becomes Taylor - then doesn't.
Right at the start of Life, the screen pixelates, which probably signifies the point in which the immersion ends. The Player seems to have nearly taken over Taylor's mind and has assumed his physical body. This is an actual mission that is really happening, but it's still seen through the eyes of the Player, meaning certain details are still distorted to fit with the Player's narrative.
The first thing Kane says to the Player is "You still in there?". She's pretty clearly addressing Taylor here, but the Player thinks she's addressing him/her, and responds as such. What she is seeing is probably completely different from what the Player is seeing. This is reflected when, during the fight in the parking lot, she randomly says "Stay with me. We'll get through this!", despite the Player being... perfectly fine. Again, she's talking to Taylor, who, in reality, is still struggling for control over himself.
So if we presume "Life" is a real mission, what exactly is happening?
The clues lie in the opening cutscene:
Hendricks: "This is where we say goodbye. I can't do it anymore. The madness has to stop. For all the good we do, I just can't see things in simple black and white anymore. There has to be another way. Maybe this technology can change things. Maybe you can change things. You just need to wake up."
If we look at things from the perspective of Hendricks, it is obvious why he'd attack the headquarters of Coalescence.
Hendricks had vocal objections to killing Stone, Ramirez, Conrad, and Fierro. In fact, he sympathized with them. Despite being dedicated to the Winslow Accord, Hendricks knew that SP/CORVUS was a morally bankrupt project, and hated the CIA for using himself and Taylor to cover it up and assassinate his former squadmates.
So when Taylor got augmentations and DNI, courtesy of the man behind the SP/CORVUS project, Sebastian Krueger, Hendricks' best friend was robbed of him. Taylor became a different person.
And to make matters worse, Hendricks' new team was wiped out on their first mission, with the surviving member being killed off during surgery - probably by Krueger.
And then Taylor's DNI drives him insane, due to a faulty AI that should've been shut down after it killed 300,000 people in Singapore.
It was all because of Krueger.
In "Life", Hendricks is finishing what Stone started. Hendricks is trying to kidnap Krueger and hold him accountable for his crimes. He is stopped by Taylor - who is being controlled by the Player. Taylor might not have killed Hendricks, but the Player didn't have any reservations about it, believing Hendricks to be insane.
What happens next is that the Player "kills" themselves and ends up in the Frozen Forest - Corvus' afterlife. Having lost control of his physical body, Taylor's consciousness now resides in the Frozen Forest, assisting the Player in stopping Corvus.
For a moment, the Player looks at themselves in a mirror and sees Taylor. They're two different people in the same body, fighting for control of it.
During the Frozen Forest segment, there are some interesting quotes that confirm some of the things I suggested here:
Maretti: "Ever do or say something you can't explain? Maybe it wasn't you that said it, you that did it. Maybe it was someone else - their thoughts bleeding through into your brain."
- This explains why Hall was quoting Conrad, why Taylor is being controlled by the Player. Because the Player's thoughts have bled into Taylor's mind, overwhelming and consuming him until he was no longer the same person.
Taylor: "It's all wrong! I didn't kill those people! DNI was supposed to make everything better. Instead, Corvus has got all these pieces, but it doesn't know what it is! There's so much noise in my head, I can't even think! Who am I? Who are you? I don't even know your name! Who are you?!"
- Taylor has come to the realization that he was being controlled, and finally figures out that the Player has been bleeding into his mind. He's addressing the Player here, asking who they are - subtly referencing the fact that they have no name in-game.
After this, Taylor tricks the Player into wiping their DNI. And since the Player is controlling Taylor's body, this means that the Player will actually be wiping Taylor's DNI - ridding Taylor's mind of the Player's control.
And, with that, we have the ending of the game.
ZSF Soldier: "What's your name, soldier? I said what's your name?"
When Taylor's DNI purges itself, the Player's consciousness is wiped. They're gone. The last thing the Player ever experiences is referring to themselves as "Taylor" - something that Taylor said and the Player had no control over - and then the cut to black, representing death.
Taylor regains control of his body, and his DNI is purged. Everyone else is dead.
Timeline of events here: