Polybius, a tempest-style game was released to the public in 1981, and caused its players to go insane, causing them to suffer from intense stress and horrific nightmares. A short time after its release, it supposedly disappeared without a trace. No evidence for the existence of such a game has ever been discovered.
According to the story, an unheard-of new arcade game appeared in several suburbs of Portland, Oregon in 1981, something of a rarity at the time. The game, Polybius, proved to be incredibly popular, to the point of addiction, and lines formed around the machines, quickly followed by clusters of visits from men in black. Rather than the usual marketing data collected by company visitors to arcade machines, they collected some unknown data, allegedly testing responses to the psychoactive machines. The players themselves suffered from a series of unpleasant side-effects, including amnesia, insomnia, nightmares, night terrors, and even suicide in some versions of the legend. Some players stopped playing video games, while it is reported that one became an anti-gaming activist. The supposed creator of Polybius is Ed Rotberg, and the company named in the urban legend is Sinneslöschen (German for “sense-deletion”), often named as either a secret government organization or a codename for Atari. The gameplay is said to be similar to Tempest (a shoot ‘em up game utilizing vector graphics), while the game is said to contain subliminal messages which would influence the action of anyone playing it.
The origin of the legend is unknown. Some internet commentators think it originated as a usenet hoax. Other bloggers believe the story is a true urban legend – one that grew out of exaggerated and distorted tales of an early release version of Tempest that caused problems with photosensitive epilepsy; the game was reported to have caused motion sickness and vertigo, and was therefore pulled.
Several people have claimed to have a ROM of the game, but none of them have made it available for public scrutiny, a “lack of hard evidence” situation typical of hoaxes and conspiracy theories. Conflicting information is even circulated regarding the style or genre of the game. Some sources claim it is a maze-style game, while others describe it as an action space-fighter.
The first corroborated appearance of the game can be traced to arcades in Portland, Oregon. It has been described as a coin-operated arcade game with vector graphics and had strobe lights built into the case which were used as backlighting for the screen during gameplay. A curious fact is that it used a multitude of very bright colours. While most games of the period consisted of blocks of one standard colour (PacMan yellow, Space Invaders green, etc) – the game was described again and again by various players and other people to witness it as “intensely psychedelic” and “dream-like”. What is particularly of interest is that these two phrases crop up again and again when ex-players are asked to describe the gameplay.
Perhaps the most unusual feature of the gameplay is that the ship that the player commanded was static in the middle of the screen while “the whole universe seems to be propelled around you”. Now, up to here nothing seems amiss. It sounds like everythomg that we consider normal for an arcade video game of the time. The mystery really begins after players began to reported bizarre ailments such as; dizzy spells, rashes, mood swings, sudden feelings of hopelessness and dread, epileptic seizures, memory loss, feelings of nausea akin to motion sickness, auditory and visual hallucinations, terrifying nightmares and even suicide attempts.
Many also reported seeing “unsettling and distorted” or “demonic-looking” faces (again this description is used by ex-players across the country) staring during the game’s loading screen which disappeared once they were looked at. Furthermore, players that were “in the zone” and were totally focused on the game during the later levels, claim to have heard unintelligible voices, screams or cries of pain or panic. A description which again is mutually exclusive to the players of the game is that of “a sobbing female voice” and such phrases like “Why did you hurt me?” and “Stop… Please stop, I’m already dead”, among the sampled 8-BIT sounds produced by the machine.
Another side effect that was very striking is as soon as the game was over, the player felt an irresistible urge to play again, sinking coin after coin into the machine. It was very addictive at first but over time the players that have been interviewed all describe developing an irrational, almost pathloglical, hatred towards the game. The more the game was played, the more barbaric hatred the player generated towards the machine and at the same time, the ability to remember why they were so angry or even the dynamics of the game, diminished to the point that the player remembered virtually nothing of game bar the descriptions I have quoted.
Many arcades owners confirmed that it was not unusual to see “odd-looking” gentlemen in black suits monitoring and controlling the machines. This spurned on suspicion and conspriracy theories emerged that the mysterious men belonged to the U.S. Government, were demonic entities or alien beings taking human form. This is further fuelled by the odd behaviour of these men, their “gaunt” or “pasty” appearance and each one of the owners which came into contact with them described “an accent which I couldn’t quite place”. One theory is that Atari had were approached by the US Government and the company was tasked with performing covert experiments on the younger sector of the population.
There are many preported ROMs available for download across the internet, but not one has been verified as copy of the original game by any of the past players. Yet it is curious that one ROM which is available for downloaded contains a .txt file which contains a code so you can activate or deactivate certain functions of the game. However, the feelings of unease, mood swings and uniformity of the descriptions of the elements of the game does not occur. Perhaps it was something to do with the case of game; the strobe-lights, the sounds and perhaps even subliminal messages inserted during the frames of the game which created the disturbing behaviour so many have reported?
Only those who played the game at the time know if it really existed or not and whether the horrors attributed to it were real or just fabrications and rumours passed down over time…..?
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