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Polybius: The story behind the world's most mysterious arcade cabinet

The truth is out there.

Legend has it that in 1981 an arcade cabinet called Polybius briefly took residence in Portland, Oregon. But Polybius was no ordinary video game. Many believe that it was a tool of the United States government to test one's mental and physical agility as a method of recruiting soldiers, just like The Last Starfighter. Others say that it caused seizures or brain aneurysms, and was possibly being tested by the CIA as a brainwashing tool. Some think it was just a prototype version of Tempest. Many more believe the whole thing was a hoax, while others say it never existed at all.

Documentarians Todd Luoto, Jon Frechette and Dylan Reiff are seeking the truth behind the mythical arcade cabinet, wherever that might lead them, in their upcoming film The Polybius Conspiracy - now seeking funding on Kickstarter. It's not a simple matter of proving whether Polybius was real or not, but rather coming to some understanding on how all these wildly divergent rumours began in the first place. And oh boy, are there a lot of stories out there, many pertaining to real world events.

You see, in the span of a week, three children really did fall ill upon playing video games at arcades in the Portland area. Michael Lopez got a migraine, the first he'd ever had, from playing Tempest. Brian Mauro, a 12-year-old trying to set the world record for playing Asteroids for the longest time, fell ill after a 28-hour stint. And only a week later 18-year-old competitive gamer Jeff Dailey died due to a heart attack after chasing the world record in Berserk. One year later 19-year-old Peter Burkowski followed suit for the same reason playing the same game.

"There's a medical and logical explanation to it, but when four different kids get sick within a close time frame of each other, that's how legends can grow," co-director Todd Luoto tells me over Skype.

"When you think about it in playground years, that's enough fodder to keep kids going and talking about that forever," producer Dylan Reiff adds in a conference call. "Even a week is a pretty short time between events to make correlations, especially with kid brains. Kid brains are just going to take that and go wild with it."

That's just one tiny aspect of the urban legend. The whole Last Starfighter scenario in which Men in Black would use arcade games to recruit soldiers was based on the fact that FBI agents really did stake out arcades in Portland during the early 80s. Only it wasn't to recruit video game savant super soldiers, but rather due to a series of drug and gambling busts in the area. Some of the very arcades the sick kids frequented were raided by the feds.

"Back in the early 80s, arcades weren't the safe haven that people think they were. Drugs were a big part of what went on. Gambling was a big thing as well," Luoto explains. "There were FBI that came up to the Portland area and placed hidden cameras and actually tracked people through their high score initials that they left. So there actually was an FBI raid that people remember. But then they remember that there actually were these Men in Black figures that would go there as well. So some say they weren't trying to brainwash kids, but they were trying to keep tabs on the arcade."

"So you've got people seeing these kids getting sick, seeing these busts go down, and seeing this police presence. It's the perfect fertile ground for conspiracy theory," Reiff adds.

There are more real world connections that lie beyond the Polybuis myth, notably the CIA's MKUltra program. It's now known that following World War 2, the US government recruited Nazi scientists via a plea bargain agreement in what came to be called Operation Paperclip. The former Nazis would be protected under the condition that they would develop technology for the US. Over the years this turned into MKUltra, a well documented, albeit illegal initiative experimenting on brainwashing and mind control. Both drugs and electronics were used in such experiments.

"The kernel of truth lives there. That there was this government program. That it did exist. How that would translate to Polybius is another thing entirely," Reiff says. "People make connections between what the government was doing, the legend, and how they overlap. Flashing lights, disorientation, audio, sensory confusion - I think somewhere in there is the kernel this has sprouted from."

There's another connection to Polybius involving mind control, albeit one not related to the US government. In 2006 a man going by the name of Steven Roach posted on the CoinOp forums, where Polybius was first mentioned, offering a detailed story about how he was commissioned by a South American company to build a video game. They released the video game in a small market. People got sick from it, then they recalled it. The guy said it was as simple as that.

According to video game historian and Polybius expert Cat DeSpira, there was in fact a man named Steven Roach who used to run these behavioural modification programs. "His company was based in Mexico, but they actually belonged to an institution of some sort that was global," Reiff explains. "What they used to do was basically a child reform academy that used behaviour modification, and it's implied some sort of brainwashing, but obviously not digital. But that ended up getting shut down by the government authorities because of abusive practices that supposedly Steven and his wife were involved in, and now he is a man on the run."

If Polybius is a hoax, why do so many people believe it? Are they gullible? Insane? Pranksters? Maybe a conspiracy of pranksters, perhaps? Or are our memories really that unreliable?

What isn't clear is whether the Steven Roach on CoinOp was the same fugitive DeSpira detailed, or merely someone imitating him. Whoever the poster was, this supposed Roach claimed that a company called Sinneslöschen commissioned the game - a slightly fumbled word that loosely translates as "sensory removed" in German. There is a Sinneslöschen site in existence, but it's been confirmed as just a fan site.

"He misspells it a few times in his posting, which is also pretty suspicious," Luodo notes. "This Steven Roach poster was very good with technology, but according to us not so good with spelling."

"There's a question as to whether he actually would have had the skill-set to do what he's talking about," Reiff adds. "So there's a lot of questions, but it's incredibly intriguing if it is indeed the same Steven Roach who's on the run with his wife right now, because what they did was horrifying. And it was related to mind control and the idea of deprivation with these kids who were at the reform academy. They were deciding when they would sleep, deciding when they would eat. And this was all pretty standard practice for mind control tactics and brainwashing."

These are all diverting - and pretty disturbing - theories, but there's quite a lot to suggest that Polybius was all an elaborate hoax. But if it is, then what a hoax! Its ties to real world events and history would be enough to make Hideo Kojima green with envy and it's been over three decades since Polybius allegedly appeared and nearly two since its first public mention.

This 17 year gap between Polybius' 1981 phantom appearance and 1998 public record on CoinOp could be explained by the fact that nobody ever bothered to document it before the internet existed. Of course, it's more likely that it was a prank, especially given its source.

The first mention of Polybius was a german poster on CoinOp going by the moniker Cyberyogi. Cyberyogi has a reputation as a trickster, though. "When you start learning more about Cyberyogi, he didn't post a lot of truths," Luodo says. "He posted stories similar to this."

It's also worth considering the name Polybius, an ancient greek historian who championed factual integrity and using first-hand accounts when penning records - something that was considered revolutionary at the time and sadly still holds true today with the murky web of lies and half truths dominating the internet. With no other explanation for the name, it seems likely that Cyberyogi chose this title as an ironic joke to poke fun at people's willingness to believe anything.

Even The Simpsons references Polybius. (Note the 'Property of the US Government' gag.) It's in a Batman comic, too.

"I like the really crazy perfect storm conspiracy theories where all these things were happening, but I also like this idea that maybe there's just this group of 80s teenagers who created this thing and have just kept this secret guarded as being a hoax all these years," says Reiff, whose background in comedy and "immersive horror games" gives him an almost majestic awe of a good prank. "I like that idea as well, that these guys came together to come up with this really fun urban legend and have protected it, flawlessly, for decades."

So does it matter it's actually true? Because one person's truth is another's lie. And indeed, there are several accounts of those who swear that they've played Polybius. Or at least know someone who's definitely played it.

"I don't think anyone's gotten a lot of first-hand accounts on tape and it's really interesting to see in comments how many people claim to have played this game," Reiff says. "Whenever you read the comments there's always someone who says definitively that they've played this game.

"Do you try to poke holes in their story?" I ask.

"It's not really about poking holes in the story, it's much more about exploring the legend," he replies. "We want to have facts and get the best information we can, but we're also just trying to hear what everyone has to say, because everyone's truth is relative to them."

For it's those subjective truths that actually spawned The Polybius Conspiracy. The film didn't start as a documentary. Originally Luoto and Frechette were hoping to make a fictional sci-fi film touching on similar themes. It was only upon doing the research for that project that the filmmakers realised it would be both more interesting - and more cost effective - to follow this already existing myth. "We realised that truth in a lot of ways is stranger than fiction," Luoto says. "Once we started reading more and talking to people we realised 'this is fascinating. We shouldn't wait for people to give us millions of dollars to do this. We should just do what we can.'"

"The characters who remember this legend are so rich and so interesting," Reiff adds. "The people and the story are pretty exciting on its own."

The more I think about it, the more I think the ending of Metal Gear Solid 2 is actually about Polybius.

On that note, the documentarians have quite the list of interviewees they'd like to track down, should the Kickstarter be successful. DeSpira is already on board and excited about the project, but there are others too. Reiff notes that the owners, managers and employees of now closed Portland arcades are willing to add their two cents to this ever labyrinthine tale. He adds that the alleged last sightings of Polybius were at a storage locker in Newport, Oregon. "There's still four or five storage lockers we hope to visit," he giddily tells me. It's hard not to ignite one's inner Indiana Jones at such a notion, no matter how convoluted and silly the quest may seem.

So maybe Polybius did exist. Maybe it didn't. Maybe something a lot like it did. Cartoons have given epileptic children seizures, federal agents have raided arcades in Portland, the US government has experimented with mind control, kids have fallen ill to prolonged video game exposure, and many recall tales of mysterious agents whisking away wide-eyed children with untapped video game potential.

The truth is that the story behind the legend may be just as interesting as the legend itself. Luodo cites his childhood fascination with the Loch Ness Monster as a prime example of this. "I was pretty obsessed with the tale as a kid and pretty heartbroken when it came out that that iconic photo was apparently a fake," he tells me. "But then you start learning about even that myth and what was behind it...

"The story behind that photo was that the Daily Mail got this really notable hunter in 1933 to hunt it down and he found these footprints that he thought was the monster and claimed that they were. But when the newspaper did more research they realised that they were actually footprints of a hippo and they shamed him. And so he was really, really upset about it. So a year later he had this doctor, who had nothing to do with this legend, turn in these doctored photos and that's what everyone associates with the Loch Ness Monster. That's a really strong character tale about why this doctor would submit what he did. It's not quite as romantic and exciting as finding a monster, but when you look at character complexity, it's a really engaging story."

"In many respects that's what we're finding now. We don't know if the game is true. We don't know if it's linked to MKUltra at all. But what we're realising is that even if it's not, there's still a really fascinating story behind it."