Monday, 1 February 2016

DARK WEB: AN ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO CREEPYPASTA — PART 4: POLYBIUS

PLEASE NOTE, THIS FEATURE FIRST APPEARED AT UK HORROR SCENE HERE. ALL SUBSEQUENT CHAPTERS WILL APPEAR AT UKHS FIRST.



In my last Creepypasta article, I told the story of BEN Drowned, a cursed video game that exposed the player to the malevolent spirit of BEN, an entity that stalked and toyed with its victims. I also mentioned the haunting tale of Pokemon Black, known to provoke extreme feelings of distress and despair in those who played it.
This week, I’m looking at another grim game said to cause mental and emotional harm on those who played it. However, this mythical title predates those others by some time, first appearing as early as 1998.
I’m talking about the urban legend of Polybius.




The earliest recorded reference to the game is an entry on 3rd August 1998 from an anonymous user at the web site coinop.org.
Very little information is included, only that the arcade game was originally released in 1981. The alarming rumours surrounding this mysterious game are written in the Game Details section of the entry as follows:

‘This game had a very limited release, one or two backwater arcades in a suburb of Portland. The history of this game is cloudy, there were all kinds of strange stories about how kids who played it got amnesia afterwards, couldn't remember their name or where they lived, etc.
The bizarre rumors about this game are that it was supposedly developed by some kind of weird military tech offshoot group, used some kind of proprietary behavior modification algorithms developed for the CIA or something, kids who played it woke up at night screaming, having horrible nightmares.
‘According to an operator who ran an arcade with one of these games, guys in black coats would come to collect "records" from the machines. ‘They're not interested in quarters or anything, they just collected information about how the game was played.
‘The game was weird looking, kind of abstract, fast action with some puzzle elements, the kids who played it stopped playing games entirely, one of them became a big anti videogame crusader or something. We've contacted one person who met him, and he claims the machines disappeard after a month or so and no one ever heard about them again.
‘Until the ROM showed up.
‘Here's what we've found so far:
‘Found english strings "insert coin" and "press 1 player start" and "only" - looks like a 1 or 2 player game.
‘Text in the game says "(C) 1981 Sinneslöschen" Maybe a German company?
‘If anyone has heard any additional information about this game, we'd appreciate hearing about it.’

The ROM in question refers to an image of decidedly shady looking menu screen from the game.




The plot thickened when a coinop.org user by the name of Steve Roach made the following comment:

"I think it's about time I laid this to rest, however entertaining the speculation. My name is Steven Roach who is primarily based in the Czech Republic. Sinneschlossen was a company set up by myself and several other mainly amateur programmers in 1978 that worked on component parts for Printed Circuit Boards that saw programming as a limited but very profitable sideline. I think the fact that it wasn't the focal point of our business took the pressure off of us and hence we created some quality work which quickly gained a reputation within the industry. We were approached around 1980 by a Southern American company that shall remain nameless for legal purposes to develop an idea they had for producing an Arcade Game with a puzzle element that centred around a new approach to Video Game Graphics. They were very keen indeed to gain an upper hand in what was already a very competitive market so we were offered a staggering commission-based renumeration package to develop something special that utilised the technology. We developed the game in little more than two portacabins that were knocked together where we spent many stressful mornings, evenings & nights which was a great pity because it compromised our relaxed and innocently amateurish approach to our business in spite of the financial possibilities. Marek Vachousek was the programmer who came up with the name Polybius - he had studied Greek Mythology at Masaryk University and came up with the name because it sounded quite bold and mysterious, which is what we wanted quite simply. The inspiried graphics combined with the puzzle elements and scintilating gameplay was something to behold - we playtested it for hours and hours and it certainly was an addictive game that was well loved professionally and recreationally by all that played it. The company couldn't have been happier and we all thought we were on the verge of something very special indeed. We then received a phonecall stating that there were concerns within the company that the basic graphics which featured prominently in so many other games of the time were fine for the average gamer to spend hours at a time without any noticable physical or mental detriments but the intense and engrossing gameplay of this new step was very much an unknown quantity so the game was put back several months due to divided opinion within their board of directors, much to our consternation for breaking our backs to finish it on time. We received heartening collated playtesting figures and were then told that the game would receive a temporary limited release which bouyed us significantly but shortly after, we received terrible news - a thirteen year old boy from the Lloyd District of Portland, Oregon had suffered an Epileptic Fit while playing the game, only six days after the machines had literally been installed. One of the senior employees that I knew very well contacted me to tell me that it caused immense ripples of panic throughout the company who were of the opinion that they had "created a monster" as such. It may sound laughable now but please bear in mind that this was 25 years ago when the Video Game Industry was in it's infancy. Every effort was made to withdraw the game from the public domain as quickly as possible but the scaremongering was already out in force and a lot of the children were queueing up or daring their friends to play this supposedly nightmarish game. Company Directors descended on the town to assess the situation which may account for these reports of "Strange Men in Black Suits hanging around" and the machines were often taken in daylight, causing minor but noticable incidents. As far as I was made aware, only seven machines were distributed around the area and no other health-related incidents were reported. I heard "off the record" that the company made a one-off settlement to the boy's family and no more was heard, apart from all the internet-based speculation and resulting paranoia. We disbanded Sinnesscholssen shortly afterwards because we didn't want to restrict ourselves to the stringent deadlines of other companies and favoured distancing ourselves from the game in case of any lingering recriminations which could have done a great deal of damage to our personal and professional reputations which was our livelihood and with some of us having very young families, this was extremely important to us. As far as I'm aware, no ROM's or otherwise exist unless they remain in the bowels of the company that distributed it. We only received a basic payment in view of the fact that the game was withdrawn without nationwide or international distribution so we grew to loathe it and was often a cursed word whenever we used to meet up and still is today, which is a shame. I still believe we created something that should have changed the face of gaming and would have set us apart from the rest of the industry but Arcade Games were often compared to drugs at the time because of their addictiveness and we created something that small-minded bureaucrats perceived to be the Heroin of the Video Game World that's only crime was to be many years ahead of it's time. I'm sure people will doubt the sincerity of this so feel free to drop me a line at stevenrroach@yahoo.com as I'm happy to answer any questions. Steven. "

This is all very compelling, however, Steven Roach commented on the game on 20th March 2006, at a time when the legend of Polybius had taken on a real life of its own.
Furthermore, his reference to the title Polybius coming from Greek mythology doesn’t quite ring true. Polybius was actually a Greek historian born in about 200B.C. As well as gaining fame for writing The Histories, he was also the creator of the Polybius Square, a useful and clever invention used in telegraphy and cryptography. As the creator of a method for transmitting hidden meanings, it seems very suspicious that such a name would have been chosen for a normal game, while it’s even a little heavy-handed for a supposedly covert government initiative.
Also, the name Sinneslöschen is a rather awkward one. It’s a poorly phrased German term that loosely translates to ‘sense delete’ — or sensory deprivation, a key component in known mind control experiments.

And that area is the one that best sends chills down the spine. Coming at the height of The X-Files’ success, in 1998 shady government conspiracies were all the rage. With fresh attention on CIA mind-control attempts such as the MKUltra experiment as a result of Chris Carter’s ratings juggernaut, the world was all too ready to accept that there were agencies who would look to utilise and create a whole new breed of psychological weapon. The idea that there is a game, something that is meant to be fun, that instead causes addiction and psychological trauma to the point of suicidal tendencies (as some accounts have claimed) is a nightmarish tale — and if there’s one thing this series of features on Creepypasta has ascertained, it’s that the most horrifying folk stories are the ones that spread furthest. And boy did the Polybius myth spread — a simple Google search of ‘Polybius game’ yields 194,000 entries!

However, as much as we, ahem, ‘Want to believe’, the cold hard fact remains that NOBODY has the game or one of its old cabinets. There are die-hard vintage gamers out there who collect and trade in classic, rare games, yet not one of them is able to produce, nor even claims to have seen the game. It has all the hallmarks of a well executed hoax.

However, during research conducted Brian Dunning (of web site Skeptoid) some coincidental stories were discovered that might partially explain the origin of the tale.
In 1981, not one but TWO teenage boys were taken ill after excessive bouts of gaming at a Portland arcade.
First the Eugene Register reported how 12-year-old Brian Maura was taken ill on 29th November after attempting to break a world record by playing Asteroids for more than 28 hours. He was eventually forced to quit after succumbing to stomach pains caused by anxiety and drinking too much fizzy pop. 


Researcher Catherine DeSpira also discovered that another young lad, Michael Lopez, developed a migraine while playing Tempest in the same arcade at the same time that Maura was attempting to set his record. Combine this with the reports of cases of photosensitive epilepsy among gamers at the time and we see how the tale of a harmful arcade game could have been born.
But what of the mysterious Men in Black?
There have been cases of the US Army using games as simulators. As recently as the mid-Nineties the US Marines used a modified copy of First-Person Shooter Doom II for training purposes. That this practice was well known by the mid-Eighties is pretty obvious — the plot of Nick Castle’s 1984 movie, The Last Starfighter follows the adventures of an gamer recruited by a mysterious MiB after showing incredible proficiency at a prototype arcade machine.  
As strange as it may sound, it seems that several law enforcement officers did regularly visit arcades at the time. However, they weren’t collating reams of data from a weaponised arcade cabinet. In the early Eighties arcades became the ideal hangout for badly behaved teens and those who might look to do business with them. As such the arcades themselves attracted truants and young drug dealers, and the police were quick to notice this.
What’s more, at that time several enterprising crooks had noticed the gambling potential of arcade games and had fitted counters to the cabinets, which allowed them to monetise and award play. Oregon has strict gambling laws so law enforcement was fast to act, routinely raiding arcades and checking these machines for such devices.
Remember that arcades are mostly frequented by excitable teens. Having seen or heard stories of children who have suffered from ill-health while playing games, then seen squads of grim-faced government officials taking these offending machines apart, it’s pretty easy to see how fantasy-prone youths may have birthed a rumour that finally gained traction during the widespread pre-Millennial paranoia.


And, despite its far-fetchedness, Polybius has spread. People love the idea of this deadly game, with fans knocking up their own cabinets or uploading videos to YouTube which purport to show what playing the ‘real’ game would have looked like.
The game has become such a part of popular culture that references to it have popped up in mainstream tv shows and movies such as The Simpsons and Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph.


That it has been so readily adopted as a subtle in-joke is just one more nail in the coffin in any illusions of truth in the story of Polybius. If it really caused harm to youngsters, would huge multinational corporations such as 20th Century Fox and Disney feel comfortable joking about it?
In simple terms, as compelling a terrifying tale of mind-control and manipulation by agencies secreted among the highest echelons of government it is, there’s absolutely no evidence that confirms Polybius ever existed.
But then again, that’s exactly what THEY would want you to believe...

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Until next time, I hope you enjoyed your stay. 

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