Polybius is a fictitious 1981 arcade game that originated in an urban legend that dates back to February, 2000.
The legend of Polybius is, as legends tend to be, rather amorphous, and there are many different versions of the tale. The main ingredient is the game itself, a seemingly-innocent cabinet that popped up and hides sinister motives, from subliminal messages to more supernatural activities. Often, the game is described as playing like the 1980 classic Tempest, but sometimes the gameplay itself isn't actually described.
Early versions depict Polybius as a vague government experiment, presumably related to mind control in the same vein as MKULTRA and similar experiments. Kids lined up to play the strange game, with mysterious men in black suits either standing by and taking notes on clipboards, or coming by after hours to collect the data direct from the console.
Soon, the players started to experience disturbing symptoms nausea, migraines, memory loss, nightmares, and in some retellings even "an inability to become sad". Many players swore off games altogether, with one even becoming "a big anti-video game crusader or something".
Others portray the game as more outright malevolent and possibly alive, with spooky details like occasionally not requiring coins to play, continuing to work after being unplugged/shut down, and other creepiness. At any rate, in nearly all versions it disappeared entirely off the face of the Earth after only a month or so.
Perhaps of note, the developers of Tempest are on record as saying that early versions of the game featured the tunnel spinning while the player's ship/lane remained in place, rather than the other way around as it was in the final release game. This was changed due to the spinning tunnel causing vertigo and motion sickness in some playtesters. If any test units of the early game were ever in public, or if talk of a "game that makes you sick when you play it" were to emerge from playtesting, this could be the kernel of mundane truth on which the wild stories were based. In such a scenario, the "men in black" / government agents would be nothing more than the game developers getting reporting data from the cabinets and feedback from the players for their game in testing.
More recently, the story has spread to a new generation of storytellers. These newer iterations include being developed by a man named Ed Rotbergnote and being published by the shadowy Sinneslöschen note corporation, and specific locations for its existence (usually nondescript, Midwestern-y sounding towns in Oregon or Ohio). Nightmare Dreams, suicides, and other scariness ensue.
A couple of websites have flash games based on Polybius, and some claim to have ROMs of the game. Given the popularity of the legend, at least three real implementations have been created - one for the Atari 2600, one actual arcade machine by the arcade mock-up builder Rogue Synapse, and one commercial release for the Playstation 4 and Playstation VR by the same man that brought you Tempest 2000 and TxK. But fear not, Tropers! The original game is almost definitely fictional ... unless it's not.
Some Polybius researchers think that Cube Quest, a rare arcade game from 1983 that used 3D animated polygon-style graphics over the top of an image played back from a Laserdisc may be the source of the Polybius legend. Its gameplay is VERY similar to the descriptions of Polybius, leaving the possibility of faulty memories matching Cube Quest gameplay with the Polybius myth decades later. Seen here.
The Angry Video Game Nerd explores this legend in his 150th episode (also doubling as the series' Halloween Episode of 2017). UK YouTube personality Stuart Ashen is crowdfunding a film on Indie Go Go called Ashens and the Polybius Heist about the game. In September 2017, Ahoy released an hour-long documentary on the Polybius myth, serving as probably the most comprehensive account of the subject, even coming to a conclusion on the legend's origin. It was also given a short film treatment by Daywalt Horror.
This game, and its legend, provide examples of:
- The '80s: One of the very few consistent details in many versions of the story is that it was released (and then quickly discontinued) in 1981.
- Acid-Trip Dimension: The logical setting for the game.
- Amnesia Danger: The Angry Video Game Nerd's version is innocent enough to start with, until he finds that while playing he locked himself in the warehouse with the game using a combination lock, but has no memory of or intent to do so. And because he has no memory of it, he doesn't know the combination..
- Artifact of Attraction: The Angry Video Game Nerd's opinion of it shot from "mediocre Tempest clone" to "greatest game ever made" in just a few days under its influence, so it's probably this.
- Being Watched: Some versions involve The Men in Black watching players and collecting data as they play, with seemingly few people noticing.
- Brown Note: Sometimes the game has no more evil goals than fucking with your sensory perception. Other times, free-flowing bowels are the least of your worries.
- Content Warnings: As quoted above in the Llamasoft version, and in the README file explaining how to activate the "higher functions" of the Rogue Synapse version. Add another page of warnings if you play with the VR headset. Could be scary, but could also prove how authentic it is..
- Creator Thumbprint: The Llamasoft version contains rather more oxen that were mentioned in the original.
- Depending on the Writer: From the minute details of the backstory, to the gameplay itself.
- Driven to Suicide: Maybe they were upset that they didn't make it to the high score list?
- Eldritch Abomination: More recent internet-spread stories with a more overt horror style imply that the arcade cabinet may be more alive than it lets on...
- Government Conspiracy: Assuming The Men in Black work for the government, mind you.
- Hell, in some versions of the story Polybius is directly linked to an MKULTRA-esque project.
- Gratuitous German: A commonality to the myth is the game's alleged developer, Sinneslöschen.
- Just One More Level: While some of the implementations may have had these properties incidentally, the Angry Video Game Nerd's version of the story (which does not use any real implementation) suggested the original game had this (and The Tetris Effect) dialled Up to Eleven.It won't let me go.. IT WON'T LET ME GO!...
- The Little Arcade Cabinet That Wasn't There Yesterday: In most versions, the game suddenly appears in small, suburban arcades, only to quietly disappear after a short period of time.
- Manchurian Agent: One implied purpose of the game's mind control properties.
- Meaningful Name: Polybius was a Greek historian and cryptographer. Plus, the aforementioned Sinneslöschen.
- The Men in Black: Some versions of the story claim that mysterious men in black suits were seen around the game, either taking notes while people played it or collecting data from the console after hours.
- The Most Dangerous Video Game: If it existed, it definitely would be. The Angry Video Game Nerd's version definitely is.
- New Media Are Evil: Has shades of this, as video games were a major source of moral panic in the 1980's. It's entirely possible that this could have inspired the Polybius Urban Legend.
- No Plot? No Problem!: We never learn of the game's plot in any of the legends, so it presumably doesn't need one (and neither of the implementations have one)
- Nothing Is Scarier: The scariest versions of the tale are those where nothing truly horrific happens; for most, the mere thought of an arcade game being monitored by shadowy Men in Black is more than enough.
- And again, Life Imitates Art on this - the vast majority of modern games, even on home machines, are monitored via metrics automatically reported over the internet.
- Schmuck Bait: Admit it. If you saw one of these things in your local arcade, you'd probably be a little curious.
- Sensory Abuse: According to some tellings, the game includes lots of flashing, colorful backgrounds. Some even add that the game includes some weird optical illusions, too.
- Sensory Overload: What most implementations aim for, in a positive sense. This clip shows a YouTuber playing the VR version reporting that "they can't feel the controller" and that they "drooled a little".
- Shoot 'em Up: According to most versions (and both implementations), although in the Angry Video Game Nerd story it's a "Collect 'Em Up" instead.
- Spiritual Successor: Many "Haunted Game" type Creepypasta stories share a lot of common traits with the Polybius legend. In particular is the Lavender Town Syndrome story which is also about a video game containing sounds/images that is said to drive anyone who plays it to insanity or even suicide.
- Subliminal Advertising: Sometimes Polybius wants to mess with your mind, implanting suicidal (or homicidal) thoughts into your subconscious. Other times it just wants you to join the navy.
- Both the Atari 2600 version and the Llamasoft version have "subliminal messages" that aren't subliminal at all. They're negative in the Atari 2600 version, and generally positive in the Llamasoft version (although your political opinion may change this, as one of the possible messages is "RESIST BREXIT")
- Other sources claim the subliminal messages incited people to be conformists.
- Vector Game: A frequent claim about the legendary arcade machine was that it used both raster and vector graphics at the same time. The Rogue Synapse implementation simulates a vector display running the game with raster effect loops underneath, which would have been the only reasonable way of doing this in 1981.
- The real (but extremely rare) video game Star Rider used 3D animated polygon-style graphics over the top of an image played back from a Laserdisc, although it did not use a vector monitor as many such arcade machines did.