Duane Weatherall delves into the world of the mysterious game.
Gamers all love a good rumour. Indeed we love them so much, GameSpot have set up specific section, Rumour Control, to discuss the latest tales and either verify them or debunk them. One recent popular rumour is that of the Final Fantasy VII remake. This has been around for many years, but speculation reached its’ pitch at 2005's E3 event in Los Angeles, USA, when, as part of its PlayStation3 announcement, Sony Computer Entertainment showed the intro to the much loved RPG, reportedly in real time PS3 Graphics.
But something I recently discovered is like nothing I've ever seen before. Stories first surfaced in the late seventies and early eighties and then really took hold on the internet in the late nineties. A publisher released an unknown arcade game into a handful of Arcades in Portland, Oregon, USA. This was normal practice; cabinets would be released in small amounts for play testing before the full scale production was released. But according to some sources this particular game never made it past this point. Reports surfaced that kids had suffered fits whilst playing, sparking controversy amongst local media. With games frowned upon anyway (much as they are today), some even suggested that games brainwashed kids. It was withdrawn from production and the game was removed from the places it had been distributed to and not heard from again.
For a lot of games in their arcade infancy, some would go on to be re-worked and then re-released; Tempest was one such game, but this game I had discovered seemed to disappear completely. Before the cabinet was removed kids would allegedly dare each other to play on the game and would spread rumours of its dangers. Many such tales began spreading that not only did it cause players to fit, but that it also caused amnesia (leaving some unable to remember their names or where they lived), disorientation, nausea, vomiting, the inability even to be sad. Some claimed they never wanted to play another game ever again and there were even claims of suicides. More lurid tales began to circulate of men in black suits arriving at cabinet locations, collecting data from its sub menus. These men came to take them away when the product was recalled, triggering paranoid gossip of Government involvement, trying to train kids in some sort of underhand manner. Surely this can't be the case, these are have to be just rumours? Well that’s what I'm trying to find out, on my journey to discover the truth behind Polybius.
According to the majority of the sources I've come across, Polybius was developed and released somewhere between 1979 and 1981. The Coin-Op Museum website actually lists it as 1981, but according to another two sources who claimed to have been on the development team, it actually began in 1979. This makes sense as games have always seemed to take 1 to 2 years to begin development and ship. The team may have consisted of around 10 or 20 people, depending on who you believe.
The problem with the Polybius myth is that there is so much different information on offer with many over the top ideas. A game that can wipe the memory of those who play it, in the 1980's? Not easy to believe is it? It's like something straight out of Hollywood. Take these two films-War Games and Nightmares, both of which both tell the story of a teenager playing a game that has dramatic consequences. A lot of people claim that is where the rumours stem from; the name of the particular film can be a little mixed up, no ones quite sure what its called, yet a lot of people profess to have seen it.
In War Games, Matthew Broderick plays David Lightman; a boy who comes across a game called “Global Thermonuclear War” and finds himself almost launching a missile attack on Russia, which he manages to stop with the programmer’s assistance. Aside from the fact the film includes a computer game and Government Officials; it’s difficult to see any other links between War Games and Polybius. More convincing perhaps, is that the rumours are based on Nightmares, starring Emilio Estevez as a teenager. In the film, everyone is talking about an arcade game called The Bishop of Battle; rumours are rife that no one has ever beaten the game, but that one kid has managed to reach the final level, level 13. Upon playing the game, Estevez begins to hear voices instructing him to complete the game. So one night he breaks into the arcade and begins playing, when he reaches level 13 its like nothing he’s ever seen before. This is more than likely the film people are talking about in referring to these rumours, as normally they mention a multi part film. Nightmares is such a film.
It seems everyone has their own opinion on Polybius, whether it was just a game that was pulled for causing epileptic seizures, a Government conspiracy, a completely different machine or even just an old April Fools joke. The only “evidence” of Polybius is a cabinet shot, too grainy and more like an old newspaper print to be believable and to someone skilled enough in Photoshop is easy enough to fake. There is another picture, this time a screen grab of the games title screen. It has a basic black background, blue/green Polybius text and the normal arcade cabinet “insert coin” and “copyright” text, which both seem very similar to those used by Williams on Robotron and Joust. Also worth mentioning is that no game with the name Polybius has ever been copyrighted, leading some to doubt its existence.
Many people claim to have played the game or even own a ROM version of it, yet those who supposedly own such a version of the game will not give out any links to obtain it and searches on programs such as LimeWire and Kazaa lead to no results. Hindering the search is the fact that many of the sites that feature links to anything to do with the game tend to be anywhere between 2 and 5 years old, with many of them now being dead or just search pages. That isn't to say there isn't information available out there somewhere, it’s just becoming increasingly harder to find.
Another path I've tried to following is that of finding that uses the Online persona CYBERNOGI, whom it seems, according to many USENET members, created Polybius. Upon finding CYBERNOGI's homepage, I discovered that this is a German programmer and they are also the founder of “Logologie” the worlds fist ever cyber-religion. Many believe that CYBERNOGI created Polybius as some sort of April Fools Joke, yet no amount of searching around the Internet links the two together.
CYBERNOGI did create a dumped ROM of an Eastern Germany shoot'em’up called Phoenix, and also has an interest in trance inducing (“zoner”) games. But other than that, there is no hard physical evidence that links Polybius to CYBERNOGI. It seems that years after Coin-Op posted details of the game in 1998 (presuming CYBERNOGI created the joke before that date) people are still searching for answers today, or even claiming they know the truth.
To add to the difficulties, people have decided to attempt to put together their own pieces of software and claim it to be Polybius. The most famous of these simply just crashes after the Title screen, which looks exactly like the screen grab that’s doing the works and emits an odd noise. Those who believe in the rumours of mind control and amnesia believe this to be due to the difference in the technology from the games arcade cabinet and today’s PC's-“obviously” the PC's wont have the technology in the government would have been testing for mind control.
The most believable of all the theories behind Polybius is that it is, in fact, just another game. Many believe it to be early code for Tempest, as descriptions of how the game plays seem to be very similar to it, with symptoms such as epileptic seizures that were happening during the earliest recordings of Tempests’ testing. As for the other feelings the game supposedly gave to people, well sickness and dizziness can happen where ever there is the feeling of motion- some only have to catch a glimpse of SEGA's OutRun to give them a feeling of motion sickness. Recently playing Marvel Nemesis almost put me off ever wanting to play another game, but as for the other symptoms, it looks like kids trying to scare each other. We've all been there, except with most of these rumours it usually revolves around horror films. But imagine for a moment that your in an arcade. A kid’s playing a brand new game and there’s lights flashing. He begins to feel sick, then passes out and begins to have a fit. At the that young age you’re going to tell your mates all about it, maybe even exaggerate it, then they'll do the same and then the whole story spins out of control.
This is the possibly most believable theory because of the methods of the games industry during this time (many games made it into arcades for a short period of time, only to be scrapped due to problems). But something that is also interesting to note, is the fact that another arcade cabinet has emerged, using a similar board structure to that that we have believe Polybius was using. These are the only two arcade machines known to use this particular board, coupled with the development team supposedly situated somewhere around what is now the Czech Republic and Germany (a pointer towards CYBERNOGI enhanced by the team who supposedly developed the title calling themselves Sinnesloschen). The Czech Republic link comes from a post made by a man calling himself “Steven Roach”, who claims to have been on the development team for Polybius, who also stated that they developed it from porta cabins in Czechoslovakia.
The other arcade game is called the Poly Play, sharing a similar name, plus the board it runs from as Polybius, it’s hardly surprising to hear that this may be another source of the rumours. Add to this the fact that no one can make their mind up whether Polybius is a shooter, a puzzler or something else, certainly helps its case of the being this infamous game- Poly Play features up to eight games, consisting of puzzle, racing, shooting and sports games. The machine itself is rare, as when the Berlin Wall came down, someone felt the need to recall all the cabinets and dismantle them. Only a few were salvaged out of the 1000-1500 made. Poly Play is from Eastern Germany, which also adds weight to the name of the Polybius developers name originating from Germany (it roughly translates as Sense Deleted), although the Poly Play cabinets were manufactured circa 1985, which doesn't fit in with the original dates of 1979 -1981.
To add more fuel to the fire, I managed to contact Steven Roach with regards to much of the information that I have detailed. The more I asked about his involvement with the game and the more he answered my questions the more solid everything he states seems to be, although a huge part of me remains sceptical at the same time.
Firstly can we have some background information on yourself, Sinneschlossen, and Polybius?
Steven Roach: I'd be happy to - My name is Steven Roach and I'm based in the Czech Republic where I've been living since the age of fifteen when I relocated from Rhyl in Wales in 1965 due to my parent's business interests in import/exports. Sinneschlossen was a company set up by myself and three 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 drew the attentions of the industry - there were so few people on the development "map" as it where at the time, it wasn't difficult to get ourselves noticed.
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. They were very keen indeed to gain a distinct advantage in developing something new in an already competitive market so we were offered a staggering commission-based renumeration package to develop something special that utilised the technology. They liked our focus on the need for originality as the market was becoming saturated with very similar games which couldn't realistically hold people's attentions forever.
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 but they were the best years of my life - making excellent money with all this new and exciting technology and being surrounded by friends and family - very special times.
The game received a limited release in Portland, Oregon - it was common for the larger companies of the time to have "test areas" etc so they could gauge whether it was popular enough for national or international distribution and a young boy from the Lloyd District suffered an Epileptic Fit while playing the game. The company descended on the town to remove the machines and apparantly caused a great deal of hysteria while doing so.
Theres been alot about Polybius floating around, could you tell us why you wanted to tell your story?
SR: Certainly. I've always wondered whether anybody remembered the game or even had an opinion on it outside of people we knew. A friend then told me that some sort of Urban Legend had sprung up around the Internet that the game was some kind of experimental government hardware designed for brainwashing people - this was, and is, very amusing but then I discovered Screenshots and even a shoddy attempt at some sort of game which is a bit of a slap in the face to a something we considered to be ground breaking at the time.
What sort of game was Polybius? How did it play? What was the aim of the game?
SR: Most games of the time were based around the idea of destroying wave after wave of aliens without any real need for thought. For obvious commercial purposes, we needed to incorporate this kind of action but wanted to add a puzzle element to the game without giving it an educational edge - a game that was reasonably difficult but that relied on intense individual skills and thought behind actions made. Many games of the time were purely about destroying waves of alien spacecraft and that was it - we favoured a two pronged approach without overcomplicating the gameplay so it could maintain longevity.
The game centred around a moonbase, largely plagiarized from Star Wars which displayed a number. There were six sets of different aliens: the first, which varied through six levels, appeared as random waves sent out from the moonbase which needed to be destroyed. The others were numbered between one and ten which had to be repelled back into the base to lower the total. The figure had to match exactly to clear the level otherwise you lose two lives or just the one if you had one remaining
The moonbase has a completely random number between one and ninety-nine which is displayed on the front. There are six different waves of ships: one that is numbered individually and needed to be repelled back into the moonbase by bouncing them off the ship as opposed to destroying them, sending them back into the moonbase to get the figure down. The others were purely out to destroy your ship.
The longer the level went on, the more frantic the game became. Not only that, if the Aliens managed to get past you, they formed a line at the bottom of the screen. The numbered aliens would fire lasers back towards the ship to try and increase the number again and take you out as well, as well as the normal ones gathered there trying to kill you. The longer you dithered, the more intense the gameplay came.
We studied a great deal of footage on synchronized swimming and flight patterns of wildlife to gain inspiration as to how we can vary the imagery of the oncoming spacecraft. Galaga was a good example at the time of how you can make the gameplay graphically enjoyable and a pleasure to watch.
We admired Astro Blaster, Phoenix and other games of the ilk but we wanted people to feel they were having an experience as well as playing a standard video game and neutrals to appreciate it. Our main priority was the atmosphere, effects and playability which was the key to keep people playing in our opinion.
Do you feel alot of the rumours have any sort of truth behind them, and if so, how out of proportion do you think they have been blownout of proportion?
SR: They have some truth in the fact that anyone living in or around the Lloyd District of Portland, Oregon would have witnessed quite a lot of drama and hysteria around the time. There would have been a lot of extremely worried board members, engineers and possibly shareholders flapping around trying to create as less a fuss as possible but probably creating more by their presence there. Imagine if a large food store chain had produced a potentially lethal batch of foodstuffs which had been distributed and the chaos a situation like that would have thrown up - largely the same principle.
We were dealing with naïve, wealthy people that had no idea of what they had on their hands; either a Billion-dollar industry or a Billion-dollar time-bomb
What went so wrong for the game to be pulled?
SR: 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.
We never really received any specific information as to what point in the game the seizure occurred which was very annoying at the time and caused us a great deal of consternation. Also, because they settled out of court, there is no legal or existing first hand account which is also annoying, both then and now.
I think it had to be the explosion of the Moonbase itself - there were two flashing white bars would appear to separate the moon upon implosion and lots of rhythmic flashing while the moon particles scattered, then a brief burst of speech which purely said "Polybius" after the last piece of debris has disappeared. This was a really impressive effect if we say so ourselves and we didn't see anything on the market for years afterwards that could have competed with it.
Possibly because the whole cabinet was completely black, it may have caused a greater degree of focus which triggered off the reaction. Saying that, knowing America's litigation-obsessed society, the Mother could well have made it all up and chanced her arm that she'd get some money out of it - it certainly worked if that was the case.
The industry in its time was in its infancy, and made all kinds of mistakes, do you feel this was the best possible route for the publisher to take?
SR: Maybe. I wish I could make people understand that people considered video games to be a pretty serious addiction and, although we had play tested the game thoroughly, no-one could be sure that playing on these cabinets for hours on end wasn't detrimental to your physical or mental health. At the time, it was probably the right move but it's sad to see how laughable it all is now.
Do you believe there could be some sort of content left in one piece out there?
SR: We signed over all rights to the game when it was suspended from active distribution, the technology was returned to the company and that was it - believe me, in a lot of ways, we were glad to see the back of it at the time. We were kept in the dark for several years as to whether the game would ever see the light of day in any capacity but we didn't hold out any hopes - the problem was that the industry moved at an incredible pace over several key years in the 1980's and by the time all the red tape and paranoia had cleared, Polybius had probably already fallen behind other games of that era so it is very unlikely in my opinion that any part of the game was incorporated into other projects.
There were seven cabinets produced, distributed and withdrawn to our knowledge which is quite a lot of costly storage space over a long period of time so they were likely to have been broken up and disposed of at some point, whether they could have been retrieved from some skip or other I don't know but again, it's very unlikely.
Is there anyway that, in the modern age of computer trickery, that members of the original Dev team could put together an example of what Polybius was?
SR: The five of us moved on into our own projects away from the video game industry and personally speaking, we're all probably getting a little long in the tooth to revisit our roots in the gaming past (we're all well into our fifties) but I don't think it is the unlikeliest thing in the world. I've received a great deal of replies from people wanting to know about Polybius, how the contracts were put together, what games of the time inspirited us etc and it's all been very heartening - I hope to share as much of it with the others as I can.
I've also received a couple of firm offers about a possible on-line re-creation of the game but am conscious of the fact that I may be adding to the paranoia that has sprung up around this game. It all needs a great deal of thinking about. If the company approached us about incorporating Polybius in one of their Retro Game Packages that are proving to be very popular on the newer platforms of today, I think I speak for all my colleagues when I say we wouldn't hesitate to accept such a proposition.
Is there any actual artwork available?
SR: We had a Marquee sent to us for our opinion - it was much to "showy" for what we wanted and we rejected it, favouring a plain black cabinet and bold logo. We wanted the game to do the talking and the effects would have worked well against a plain black setting. We may still have this somewhere but it hasn't immediately come to light unfortunately.
There are pictures of what could possibly be the original cabin all over the internet, along with what is rumoured to be a screen capture of the games title screen, is there any truth in these pictures?
SR: The cabinet itself was produced in the United States and, from all the information we were given at the time of distribution, the pictures that I've seen on Klov.com actually does bear a reasonably strong resemblance to the preliminary amusement industry press that we received. We all agreed that the game itself was enough of a selling point without extensive and costly artwork and that a bold logo and plain black exterior would give it an air of mystery.
No other screenshots that I've seen are remotely anything like what we put together.
There was a machine released in Russia/Germany called Poly Play, that featured a handful of different games to choose from and play, and also had alot of flashing lights. Alot of the rumours around Polybius are very confused over what sort of game it as exactly, with many of the descriptions being similar to content on the PolyPlay, it is rumoured the 2 also featured a similar board on which they ran, is there any possible way that the 2 could be linked outside of the rumours?
SR: There is always a chance - maybe we were one of several development teams that the company involved sent the technology to, it's certainly a possibility. If there were financially-driven deadlines to produce a game and get it onto the marketplace, we may have been one of several teams asked to manufacture something along those lines. The amount of clone boards were rife amongst the industry at the time so it wouldn't surprise me if someone took advantage of a rare situation that was offered to them
Sinnesloschen translates as Delete Sense in German on Googles translation tools, many people claim this was done on purpose and is grounds for the rumour of the game causing Amnesia, could you finally dispel any of these rumours?
SR: Sure. It involves a funny story as such. Ulrich Koller received a call from our bank who we had requested to set up another account as we wanted to treat this venture as a separate entity. We wanted a name with a European flavour and discussed a lot of possible names but nothing sprang to mind - if this was to be the first of many titles then we wanted a name with a certain presence. Marek liked the idea of something along the lines of S.Y.S. "Suspending your Senses" or something along those lines where the focus was completely on the game with no other thoughts present apart from the gameplay itself. When the Bank phoned, Ulrich just blurted out "Sinnesloschen" which, didn't quite translate to what we had in mind but we stuck with it.
Finally, despite how much you claim to that you were part of the original dev team, there will always be sceptics, unless the game is uncovered somehow and released in retail form, what do you have to say to those that don't believe you and have you anything that could possibly win them over?
SR: The first thing I would say is that I completely understand and would probably have the same level of scepticism if I was investigating something of a similar nature. That said, I'm always happy to hear from people regarding the game and have already answered a great deal of correspondence. The people who have taken the time to write to me have gone away, if still not completely convinced, a little better informed.
Also I have nothing really to gain from this - I'm very much a realist and know that there will always be a Question Mark hanging over our place in the annals of gaming history unless the company involved are prepared to release the hardware, which has probably long since been disposed of.
The Polybius legend is probably impossible to solve, unless someone comes forward with evidence that completely and utterly either rubbishes the rumours or can confirm any of the details. Out of all of them, the easiest to believe is that the game was removed from its test area after 4 weeks due to the game causing seizures. Whether this has anything to do with Tempest is pure speculation. I can safely say that this isn't so much a hoax as it is Chinese Whispers. For now we can just assume the story being just another faulty game taken from the market and left to sink into gaming folklore. The legend is one of those things in life that everybody will have an opinion on when they hear about it, and that's fair enough, but it would be nice if people didn't jump to conclusions based on internet message boards, especially when the majority of them are made up of young males who have nothing better to do than make up silly little stories. Mr. Steven Roach's story certainly makes sense, especially considering the infancy the industry was in at the time, and the fact that many people, even now, believe that video games do more harm to those who enjoy them than they do good. I think it's also fair to say that Polybius did exist, but not in the way that most people believe, and that alot of the rumours probably stem from company executives that were around the Portland area of the US at the time of the test machines being removed.
I know for one that, if anything completely concrete did surface, that I'd certainly stand up and take notice as Polybius is one of those things in life, especially for gamers, that needs some closure, if only to stop people making up stories about brainwashing and amnesia.