Sunday, April 02, 2006

Killer Videogames

Polybius is the name of the greatest urban legend in the history of videogames. Supposedly, in Portland, Oregon in 1981, the golden age of the arcade game, there was a mysterious and highly addictive game known as Polybius. Long lines formed to play this shooter, which received regular visits from sinister men in black, collecting data on the psychoactive effects of the game. In some versions of the legend, these effects on the players include amnesia, night terrors, insomnia, somnambulism and suicide. The supposed creator of Polybius is Ed Rottberg, and the company named in the urban legend is Sinneslöschen (German for sense-delete), often named as either a secret government organization or a codename for Atari.
Now, unlike most of the other rumors in videogaming, such as the hundreds of thousands of ET cartridges which are buried in a New Mexico landfill, this has never been proven. Even video game legends which have turned out to be true end up being mediocre: Eric Harris, involved in the Columbine shooting, was said to have designed recreations of the high school to hone their skills in the game. In reality, they did design levels, but mostly of mediocre composition and unrelated to the high school in design. Nevertheless, this room of Harris' is chilling:
The game itself was said to be related to Tempest, a popular and innovative 'tube shooter' which made early use of three factors later to become hallmarks of video game design: different level designs, the continue, and multi-color vector graphics. The prototype edition was also rumored to cause photoepilepsy, motion sickness and vertigo which may be the kernel of truth behind Polybius.
I bring Polybius up only because I found the best suggestion for an April's Fools joke, which would be a functional version:
Anyone could do it if they had access to an arcade or pizza parlor and an old cocktail arcade cabinet outfitted with a junker PC. A good programmer could bang out a clone of Qix or some other classic action/puzzle game in an afternoon and from there you could add a wide range of disturbing behaviors to the machine. It only takes a little imagination to come up with some good ones, but bear in mind that the goal isn't merely to startle the player. A squirt gun installed in the cabinet would be enough to accomplish that. The challenge would lie in making the machine do odd things that are subtle and inconsistent enough to worry the player and start rumors, but not overt enough to provoke the realization that the machine is just fucking with them. The game would only have to knock on the fourth wall a little�not bust through it like Kool Aid Man. At most the machine should randomly perform one trick a day, if not less. It'd be all the more worrying for the player if nobody else had shared their particular experience.

Interrupting the game with a screaming horror like the one on the top of this page (which probably just cost me a few friends) may be a little over the top, but it'd only have to happen once to start the rumor mill going. It'd be even better if someone complained to the arcade attendant about it. "Yeah, sure. My video games are trying to kill you. Do you want your quarter back or something?"

Outfitting the machine with a battery would enable it to turn itself back on after it's unplugged. Not a bad idea of you don't mind having to occasionally replace your closing shift.

The original Q-Bert machine featured a knocker inside the cabinet. Whenever the little weirdo fell off you would hear a descending whistling noise, followed by the knocker striking a piece of foam at the bottom of the machine when he "hit." A similar device could be used in a Polybius machine. Then again, people might just think there are rats fucking inside.

You could rig the game to occasionally whisper disturbing things just on the edge of audibility. If a scared female voice whispering "Go away." or "Stop it, you're hurting me." doesn't rattle the player, the always terrifying "I'm pregnant." should do the trick. Failing that, you could always try a 5800Hz whistle. If you can't unnerve the players then you can at least piss off their pets.

In the spirit of the original story you might want to hire a few of your more suspicious looking friends to put on black suits and come to "inspect" the machine. Make up a custom diagnostic screen with some unusual statistics and have them accidentally leave the screen up after they're finished.

Here's hoping that someone in internet land has the resources and sense of humor to give this a shot. Maybe someday we'll see a movie. Before you die, you play Polybius.

As suggested, it is similar to the Lovecraftian Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem for the Gamecube, with many of the features in that being considered for intellectual property lockboxing, known as 'sanity effects', and all of which are already common and prone to be made by even the veteran gamer:
  • Disturbing sounds, including women and children crying out of fear and pain, the sound of a blade being sharpened, accompanied by the whimpering and screams of its victim.
  • Paintings turning to nightmarish depictions, eg. an idyllic mountain landscape turns to hell on Earth.
  • Walls and ceilings bleeding. Attacking them causes more effusion.
  • When casting a spell, the player character’s body above the waist explodes. (Ironically, this commonly occurs while casting a spell to recover Sanity.)
  • Appearance of monsters that are not really there. These disappear when attacked.
  • Opening the menu screen and finding that all items are gone.
  • Volume lowering accompanied by a graphical effect simulating the TV volume lowering.
  • Volume becoming muted.
  • Going to save the game and having all saved games ‘deleted’.
  • Head getting cut off and then beginning to recite Shakespeare when it’s picked up.
  • Character or monsters shrinking or growing.
  • A version of the blue screen of death.
  • Statues & busts turning to look at the character. They turn back to original position when the character faces them.
  • Insects walking across the screen.
  • Character whimpers and babbles to him or herself.
  • Tribal chanting during the Cambodian tomb chapters.
  • A "To Be Continued" message thanking the player and promising continuation in a sequel game (Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Redemption).
  • Body parts systematically falling off one-by-one.
  • Inability to control your character, accompanied by a “No Controller” message and monsters attacking the character.
  • Title quote displaying, making the player believe the game has reset.
  • Every door becoming locked.
  • Floor being covered in ammunition.
  • Character walking into a room from a previous or future chapter.
  • Character sinking into the floor like quicksand.
  • Character accidentally shoots him- or herself while reloading, only to find it didn’t actually happen.
  • Character enters a room on the ceiling, after a while the player finds him- or herself outside the door used to enter the room.

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