Like any good urban legend, I can’t even tell you when I first heard about Polybius. I grew up in the Portland (Oregon) area, and loved video games my whole life, yet I know I didn’t hear about it until well into my adulthood. I want to say it was brought to my attention after one of my first few visits to Ground Kontrol, a completely awesome retro cabinet and pinball arcade. Incidentally, I’ve written about Ground Kontrol a lot because I think about Ground Kontrol a lot, and it probably goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that I miss it a lot.
When I heard the title of the game it sounded vaguely familiar (though what good urban legend doesn’t?), but I found myself seeking out more information. It’s such a strange story that in a lot of cases, people can’t even agree on what type of game it was. Some say it was an abstract puzzle game with action elements, while others claim it was space shooter. There are even more claims that it was an amalgam of any of these options. Unless an actual cabinet is found, I doubt we will ever know.
Polybius was attributed to the developer Sinneslöschen, however there is no proof this German-based developer ever existed. The developer’s name generally translates to “sensory deprivation” though it’s not grammatically correct. It was said they created the game back in 1981 at the height of the arcade cabinet craze.
If you played this cabinet, it was rumored to cause any number of troubling psychological effects: amnesia, night terrors, insomnia, stress, and weirdly, the desire to no longer play any video games.
It was also said the game caused an unhealthy addiction where players would line up around the block of any place with a cabinet, often physically fighting to be the next to experience it.
The funniest and least believable part of the urban legend was that the fabled men in black would visit the machines, collecting data on the people unlucky enough to play it. There are more than a few rumors out there claiming it was developed by the government and used for psychological testing. There were also rumors of subliminal messages being encoded in the game.
What is far more likely is that the urban legend developed out of the effects of an early build of an actual game that came out around that time: Tempest. In this early state it caused photosensitive epilepsy, motion sickness, and vertigo. This is perhaps one of the reasons why we see the warnings we do on games today.
The men in black aspect likely came from the FBI investigating and raiding several arcades in the area due to to suspicions of the arcade machines being used for gambling purposes. They continued to monitor the cabinets for signs of tampering, thus likely incurring the rumor that they were gathering data from the fictional Polybius machines.
It also didn’t help when people started looking for these cabinets (which of course they didn’t find), thus even more rumors began that they had all magically been confiscated. Apparently there are still occasional reports that one has surfaced, usually in the vicinity of Oregon.
What I think is the best part about all this is that for the Portland Retro Gaming Expo in 2013, a very limited run of 30 “homebrew” Atari 2600 Polybius games were created and marketed by Chris Trimiew, owner of Lost Classics. The gameplay wasn’t based on the original ROM (if it ever existed in the first place), but was, what I assume to be, his own take on the game.
Now it was funny to write this up, as I’m wholly convinced that Polybius (as we have heard of it) is a myth. My conjecture is that it may have been an actual game that perhaps caused seizures in some (which is not entirely uncommon in a very small demographic), yet was completely blown out of proportion due to any number of reasons.
But it sure would make for an interesting story if an actual cabinet was uncovered someday.
It would also make for a heck of a horror movie, no?