POLYBIUS – Part One: The Arcane Arcade

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Today on the Mask Sign, we take you back in time to a forgotten world of glamour, intrigue, and technology. An age in which kids rode bikes, college and housing were affordable to people earning average wages, and video games were played in arcades. I’m talking, of course, about the glitzy world of the early 1980’s.

Properly speaking, however, our story really starts about a decade later, in the mid-90’s. In those wild and woolly days of the early internet, people needed something to kill time while they were waiting six and a half days for a single album to download over their 56k modems, and they turned to Usenet (the precursor to bulletin boards like Reddit, minus the upvoting system and most of the MRA’s) and IRC (a chat network which is still going strong long after the death of ICQ, AIM, and MSN) It was in these spaces that questions began to be asked about something that had happened back in the 80’s, before what was then charmingly known as “the net” had risen to significance. The questions dealt with recollections of a very strange arcade game called Polybius.

As the legend goes, Polybius arrived in certain arcades in Portland, Oregon, somewhere around 1981 or 1982. At the time, the arrival of a new game in an arcade was a major event, which drew the attention of various nerdlingers, dorkwads, and losers for miles around. It wasn’t a surprise, then, that Polybius had made such a splash in the collective memory of those discussing the issue on Usenet years later. However, it was the mysterious aura around the game that solidified it as a genuine legend in video gaming history.

Nobody saw the cabinets unloaded, for one thing; they simply appeared one morning in various arcades, as if by magic. Clearly somebody had delivered them in the dead of night, and they had been unloaded and installed with the utmost secrecy. That was odd. Stranger still was the game itself. Reports suggest that it was a solid-black cabinet bearing only the name of the game, with none of the bright, colourful graphics that were often used to lure kids to games that were a good deal less spectacular on the screen. It had a single joystick and a single button, and it was supposedly manufactured by a company called “Sinneslöschen,” a bad German word which is apparently meant to convey the idea of “sensory-deprivation.”

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Supposedly, real shots of the title screen and the cabinet. I can’t figure out where they came from.

Nobody seems to recall with any precision what the gameplay involved; some say it was a space shooter, like Asteroids, others say it was a puzzle game or a side-scroller. The mystery over the content of Polybius is, no doubt, a lingering effect of whatever secret technology had been implanted in the program and the machine— because, according to many who claim to have played it, Polybius was far more than a simple video game. The addictive nature of Pac-Man may have inspired a ridiculous hit song, but Polybius got in your head in a real way.

The game was popular, as were all new arcade games, but in the case of Polybius, the frenzy reached an absurd degree, with reports of gamers fighting physically for the next turn, their spilled blood presumably mingling with and contributing to the omnipresent stickiness of the arcade floor. For those who got a chance to play, the effects were even more troubling; while the game was active, they sank into a trance-like state, and they had trouble with their memory of the event later. However, despite this amnesia, the game had certainly had an effect; players reported suffering intense anxiety, night terrors, extreme depression, confusion, seizures and malaise. The effects of the game lingered for days and weeks. There were even reports of attempted suicides.

The weirdness doesn’t end there. Along with the psychological damage, there was a conspiracy angle at play here too; mysterious men-in-black types visited the cabinets regularly, jotting down records pulled from the game’s memory before vanishing into the night. Some even reported being tailed by these strange figures after a rousing, foggily-remembered Polybius trance.

And then, one day, Polybius was just gone. Nobody saw who came for the cabinets and nobody found out what ultimately happened to them. The memory of the game might have faded completely from the collective imagination had not some of its players and witnesses found each other years later on Usenet and IRC, discovering, quite to their surprise, that they suddenly weren’t alone in their memories of this strangest arcade game in history.

In the years since, the story of Polybius has become something of an internet legend, with several writers (now one more) explaining their take on the game. Some say it never existed. Some argue that it did exist, but that all, or nearly all, records of it have since been expunged by whatever shadowy, nefarious organization was responsible for it. Some claim that there is a foundation of truth behind the legend, which has since been blown out of proportion by later mythologizers.

One of the latter is a man named Steven Roach. In 2006, Roach appeared on retro gaming forum coinop.org claiming to be one of the creators of Polybius. He was interviewed in 2007 by a writer for Bitstream, a gaming website which is part of the Steam network. In the interview, Roach claims that he was part of a South American video game development company, Sinneslöschen, and that he had had a part in programming Polybius while the company was working out of some porta-cabins converted into a games development lab.

According to Roach’s story, Polybius was sort of a Space Invaders clone, with some added details to make it more engaging (Roach says that his intent was “to add a puzzle element to the game without giving it an educational edge”, demonstrating that, despite whether he’s telling the truth or not, the man has a certain understanding of what makes for a good video game). Like many video games, it was given a limited production and installed in a few arcades in a test market (Portland, Oregon, in this case) to determine whether or not it would be successful if produced in quantity. That’s when the 8-bit hit the fan.

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Something in the Polybius display was apparently capable of causing seizures. This is a very real possibility with any kind of video game or optical display of any kind featuring bright, quickly-flashing colours. The result, called a ‘photosensitive epileptic seizure,’ came to international attention in 1997, when the Pokémon episode “Dennō Senshi Porygon” featured a scene which caused seizures, dizziness and other troubling effects, resulting in the hospitalization of an astonishing 685 viewers, including at least 150 overnight hospital stays and two people whose reactions to the episode lasted upwards of two weeks.

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All those Pokémon Go players getting flattened by cars seem almost trivial by comparison.

According to Roach, a similar event of a somewhat smaller magnitude happened in Portland in 1982. In the ensuing confusion, he says, paranoia about video games was up, and company people descended on the cabinets to try to figure out what was wrong with them:

They have some truth in the fact that anyone living in or around the Lloyd District of Portland, Oregon would have witnessed quite a lot of drama and hysteria around the time. There would have been a lot of extremely worried board members, engineers and possibly shareholders flapping around trying to create as less a fuss as possible but probably creating more by their presence there. Imagine if a large food store chain had produced a potentially lethal batch of foodstuffs which had been distributed and the chaos a situation like that would have thrown up – largely the same principle.

As far as Roach is concerned, then, all the stories of the bizarre psychological effects of Polybius are attributable to the scare associated with photosensitive seizures caused by the game, and the rumours of men in black examining the machines are a vestigial memory of these “board members, engineers and possibly shareholders” who were coming to investigate the cabinets. At this point one may very well ask whether it’s standard procedure for ‘board members’ of a video game company to come and personally inspect potentially troublesome machines that are still sitting out in the open in arcades. That seems a little unlikely, doesn’t it? In fact, Mr. Roach’s claims are disputed widely by the people who write on Polybius; despite his repeated insistence that he is the game’s author, he has never provided any kind of real evidence (like a game cabinet or ROM) to support his story, nor has he revealed any kind of independently-verifiable information aside from the general background which anybody with access to Google can dig up on Polybius. So we’re back to square one.

There are a few other possibilities. Some have claimed that the origin of the Polybius legend can be found in stories about the initial test cabinets of a much more famous game called Tempest. Tempest is a kind of 3D, wireframe scroller game, which really did cause some seizures when it was test-marketed in Oregon. Demonstrating the more plausible response to something like this, the test cabinets were removed, the problematic sections were revamped and Tempest went on to enjoy great popularity. The problem with this is that the Tempest cabinet looks nothing like the Polybius cabinet as it is generally described; like most games of the era, Tempest’s cabinet was covered in colourful graphics, and the controls were much different from Polybius’s joystick-and-button arrangement; Tempest has four buttons, and a kind of scroll-wheel as opposed to a joystick.

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“I don’t know, Jimmy, Tempest does look fun, but Polybius won’t stop screaming inside my brains.”

Another possibility is the game Poly Play, so called because it housed a number of different games. Poly Play has the distinction of being the only arcade game ever produced in communist East Germany. The game’s German origin jives nicely with the German name of Polybius’s supposed producer. The game titles are also similar, and the varied gameplay may explain why there are many contrasting claims regarding the gameplay of Polybius. Further, Poly Play features one joystick and one button, though the cabinet is not black, but rather that hilariously 70’s wood-grain design used extensively for electronics cabinets, as though we’re meant to believe that cathode-ray monitors just spontaneously grow inside living trees. That said, Poly Play didn’t cause any seizures, though it has its own air of the mysterious in the fact that immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union somebody apparently hunted down and destroyed most of the Poly Play cabinets for some unknown reason, making them valuable collector’s items today.

So what exactly was Polybius? Was it dreamed up out of nothing in some kind of mass psychosis? Was it a government training tool to find brilliant, malleable minds to recruit into its intelligence communities and black-ops programs? Was it a misremembered version of the only East German arcade game? The fact is, nobody really knows. But we’ve got a couple of leads to start with, and who knows, maybe we’ll find something that nobody else has stumbled on before. It’s always a possibility. In this case I decided to start with a strange word I’d heard here and there in connection with this case: “Logologie.” What the hell is a Logologie? Let’s find out.

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