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.

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