polybius

The History (Not The Histories) of Polybius


Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time (1981, in fact):

Videogames had just entered the scene.  A select few owned the home con­soles of the age; the Odyssey, the early Commodore home com­put­ers, and (nat­u­rally) Pong in its end­less forms and iter­a­tions.  Electronic play was still a nov­elty, con­sist­ing of young fam­i­lies clus­tered around tele­vi­sion screens in absolute awe and rap­ture (“Holy mother of all that is rel­a­tively sacred!  Those dots are MOVING!!!”).  Children still played out­doors.  Anxious par­ents had yet to impose arbi­trary and ulti­mately futile time lim­its on their beloved spawns’ vir­tual mean­der­ings.  It was a peace­ful time; an inno­cent time.

Well, some bas­tion of order was achieved inside the home, at least.  Outside, how­ever, videogames were run­ning ram­pant.  The golden age of the arcade had arrived.  Our afore­men­tioned dear young were aban­don­ing their inno­cence as quickly as they could find quar­ters under couch cush­ions.  They traded creek-swimming, lemonade-selling, hide-and-seek-playing and, um, wildebeest-baiting (what do you do out­side?) for ghost-eating, giant insect-slaying, alien-blasting, and of course, princess-rescuing.

And it was into this milieu, in the dark and shad­owy cor­ners of Portland, Oregon (which nary a starry-eyed shiny vam­pire has seen), that Polybius was born.

No, no, not him. And if you rec­og­nized the title ref­er­ence, you have my sym­pa­thy.

The launch of the brand-new space-shooter puzzle/action game (think Tempest) didn’t receive pro­fes­sional reviews.  There were no adver­tise­ments or silly mar­ket­ing stunts.  No ill-advised music video at E3, and no com­pan­ion ARG.  Instead, it stole qui­etly into a few back­wa­ter venues like a thief in the night.  A thief who comes only to steal your san­ity.

The title, from a pre­vi­ously unknown devel­oper, fea­tured unique and engag­ing game­play, col­or­ful puz­zles, and swift action ren­dered with what would come to be known as vec­tor graph­ics.  Picture Star Fox with­out tex­tures for a decent visual.  This artis­tic style would come to be deployed by many of the fine titles avail­able on (*shud­der*) the Virtual Boy, and would become a sort of stepping-stone in the evo­lu­tion of UIs in gen­eral.  In its early days, it was pop­u­larly known as “a per­ma­nent migraine.”  No won­der, con­sid­er­ing what hap­pened to Polybius’ poor unfor­tu­nate play­ers…

The game was a sen­sa­tion.  Ecstatic arcade-goers began flock­ing to those sparse loca­tions (two or three, at most) at which Polybius cab­i­nets could be found.  Intent on rack­ing up high scores for the honor and priv­i­lege of putting “DICK” in the top name slot, they were mes­mer­ized by the fast-paced chal­lenges the game’s pro­gres­sive level sys­tem offered.

At the time, many arcade titles would resort to cheap tricks to keep play­ers inter­ested.  Increase the num­ber of bad guys on the screen, speed up the game after each vic­tory; lit­tle things to keep those top-score-seekers ven­tur­ing onward and upward.  Polybius bucked this trend by alter­ing the game­play in each sce­nario.  This drove player inter­est, urg­ing par­tic­i­pants on to the next dis­cov­ery.

Perhaps the com­bi­na­tion of com­pe­ti­tion and dis­cov­ery proved to be alto­gether too much.  Soon, our faith­ful Polyb-ians (still grow­ing more numer­ous by the day) devel­oped a seri­ous addic­tion to their new favorite hobby.  They would stay in front of the screen for hours, plunk­ing in coin after coin, watch­ing the num­bers roll up as they felled count­less poly­gons in a Kubrickian acid-trip land­scape.  None of this would have been so bad in and of itself.  After all, it’s not like play­ing the game caused any last­ing side effects!

Well, all except for the part where it totally did.

Soon, the entranced youths began man­i­fest­ing some bizarre symp­toms.  First it was the insom­nia; visions, typhooning seas of radioac­tive color, scenes from the game, would invade and dis­rupt nor­mal sleep pat­terns.  When they finally man­aged to sleep at night, they dreamt of it; night­mares of the bound­less outer space the game por­trayed.  The next morn­ing, unable to think of any­thing else and for­sak­ing bet­ter judg­ment, they would swoop back to the arcades to play more Polybius, seek­ing to purge obses­sion by belea­guer­ing com­pul­sion.  The pat­tern would repeat, spi­ral­ing way out of con­trol; day after day after day.

One young man swore off videogames entirely, and spent the rest of his life advo­cat­ing against what he per­ceived to be their dan­ger­ous influ­ence.  Another com­mit­ted sui­cide.

As you might be able to imag­ine, this began to cause a stir amongst those who hadn’t played the game or slipped into its self-perpetuating cycle of ter­ror.  Some inves­ti­gat­ing was done.  Strange peo­ple were observed near the game’s loca­tions, dressed in dark col­ors; busi­nesslike.  They would take notes, but not from the sys­tems them­selves.  Instead, they appeared to be study­ing the behav­ior of the play­ers as they engaged the inter­face.  Any attempts to speak with them or inter­fere with their work were met with a curt brush-off.  Persistent efforts were rare; these indi­vid­u­als seemed like the dis­tinctly not-to-be-screwed with types.  Possibly gov­ern­ment?  Who could say?  Speculation abounded, but the chaos was not yet abated.

Finally, a group of con­cerned and anx­ious cit­i­zens formed a coali­tion; they were going to take this mat­ter straight to the top.

On the side of each cab­i­net was printed the developer’s name: Sinneslöschen.  A local high-school teacher noticed that it was German.  It meant “sensory-deprivation,” in that unusual dialect par­tic­u­lar to peo­ple whose only expo­sure to German was a high-school course.

Yep, exactly like that.

The towns­folk sent warn­ings, threats, calls, and let­ters; try­ing any means nec­es­sary to get through to this elu­sive com­pany.  No answer came.  It was sug­gested that a torches-and-pitchforks cru­sade be sent to the evil­do­ers’ front door, but (a.) no one knew where to find Sinneslöschen (their mail­ing address was traced to a rural P. O. box), and (b.) all the torches and pitch­forks had been taken away by city hall after the last health­care reform riot (yay Oregon!).

A week later, the game dis­ap­peared.  Totally gone, overnight.

No more cab­i­nets, no more men-in-black, no more obsessed addicts.  The play­ers’ mem­o­ries of the game were hazy at first, like wak­ing up from a night­mare at six in the morn­ing with a hang­over.  The poor kid who killed him­self was given a funeral.  He was on anti­de­pres­sants, too, with a host of other prob­lems, behav­ior issues at school, that sort of thing. In the end he was chalked up as “emo­tion­ally dis­turbed.”

With time (aided by the sus­pi­ciously fuzzy recall of those who had encoun­tered Polybius first­hand), the whole con­fus­ing ordeal faded from the col­lec­tive mem­ory of Portland sub­ur­bia.

But the leg­end has never been for­got­ten entirely.

In 2006, a man going by the name of Steven Roach appeared on a forum and claimed to have been involved with the game.  A series of posts and a barely-intelligible, ram­bling inter­view later, and his ver­sion of the story was out – even more befud­dling and contradiction-laced (mmm, that’s good stuff) than before.  Instead of pro­vid­ing answers, his story added com­plex­ity and embell­ish­ment; more implau­si­ble details and unsolv­able rid­dles.

And so it went on (both before and after Steve’s “con­fes­sion”): the per­haps orig­i­nally plau­si­ble story lost to his­tory, the rest of us here in the present left to won­der which parts, if any, are really true.

Each sto­ry­teller lay­ers on com­plex­ity and fic­tion, shirk­ing the hard facts and instead using the much-more-exciting tools avail­able in the Walmart Craftsman kit of Sensationalism.  Making the truth harder and harder to dis­cern each time the story gets told.

Steven, you lying son of a bitch.

But you should know all about that.  I’ve done it to you just now.

That’s how myth works, doesn’t it?

But who could believe such a story, really?  I mean, just think of the crazy, unfounded, batshit-wild assump­tions you’d have to make in order to believe such a thing.  Government con­spir­a­cies to unravel and con­trol the minds of angsty Portland ado­les­cents?  With a glo­ri­fied game of Asteroids?  Give me a break.

Even so, there are some that are will­ing and able to make the assump­tions nec­es­sary to believe the story.  These peo­ple will inevitably wind up extend­ing these assump­tions into other realms of per­sonal and pro­fes­sional life, even advo­cacy.

Okay, bad exam­ple.

Even so, the most basic assump­tions you must under­take in order to think there may be some­thing truth­ful in my ridicu­lous rav­ings are actu­ally not all that ridicu­lous.  Let’s take a look-see:

Take a look at some of those arti­cles.  Seems like they might be build­ing exactly the sort of case that could lead one to believe in crazy stuff like Polybius after all.

So is it all a hoax, and that other stuff a sim­ple coin­ci­dence?  Could there be some impor­tant truth hid­ing in there, which we ignore at our own mor­tal peril?

The world may never know.

Still curi­ous?  I’ll indulge in one more bit of blue hyper­linky text.


Aaron Gotzon

About Aaron Gotzon

Aaron Paul Gotzon is a beguiling ne’er-do-well, prancing about the stage by night, and hawking shrimp and cheap alcohol by day. He’s about as qualified to write about games as the average squashed cockroach. He does, however, run an extremely successful male escort service and bait shop out of his grandmother’s basement. If you’d like to send him a message, put it on a piece of paper, and throw it away.