Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Nightmares: The Story of Polybius

Bill Bailey* steps into the small, muggy arcade. Despite the fact that it’s Saturday, most game machines stand unused, aside from a nearby Pac-Man machine. A new game, Polybius, catches Bill’s eye through the dim arcade lighting. Pondering for a moment, he plunks in a quarter and begins the game. He develops a headache after a few minutes of play, but ignores it. As time goes on, the headache worsens, but Bill ignores it still – he can’t tear himself from the hypnotic lure of the game. Then, suddenly, Bill no longer knows where he is. He runs from the arcade, into the streets, disoriented. Hours later, a motorist finds him wandering out of a local cornfield. When asked who he is and where he lives, Bill can’t remember anything. All he can recall is the arcade. But it couldn’t have been the game that caused Bill’s terrifying experience; it’s just a simple piece of machinery created for entertainment purposes… right?

But according to Bill, it was the game. Bill, now 37, says still suffers from horrible nightmares he thinks came from playing the game.

“It’s really a problem. I can hardly function in the real world anymore,” he said.

For years, Bill had no idea what had happened to him that day in the arcade. “It was a week before I could remember my full name,” he said. All he could remember, he says, was the name of the game he had been playing before he blacked out. Bill had given up looking for answers years ago because his investigations continuously turned up nothing.

However, it was technology that caused Bill’s plight, and ironically, it would be technology that would finally provide him with some answers. In the summer of 2002, Bill stumbled across a web site devoted to old arcade games, www.coinop.org. On a whim, he did a search for Polybius. What he read next was shocking.

It began in a small suburban area of Portland, Oregon in 1981, where Bill had lived as a child. A handful of arcades in the area received a new game, Polybius, without much fanfare. Rumors quickly and quietly spread of players experiencing bizarre symptoms, such as insomnia, terrifying nightmares and even amnesia. The worst cases were said to have been unable to remember vital information, such as where they lived and who they were.

“It’s as if I were reading my own case file,” said Bill, adding, “Knowing I’m not alone in this is both comforting and terrifying.”

Perhaps the most frightening were the accounts of mysterious black-clad men visiting the machines, looking over the hardware but ignoring the money Polybius had earned. Four weeks after they arrived, the arcade machines vanished, leaving nothing but questions. No one has had a verifiable sighting of a Polybius machine since. In fact, the only evidence that the game ever existed is a small picture of the copyright screen that has been floating around the Internet for years.

Discussion of what Polybius truly is continues on many Internet message boards. Some say the game was a secret government experiment utilizing behavior-altering algorithms to create the perfect soldier, while others insist that it was actually Russian in origin. But most feel Polybius is simply an urban legend.

“As far as the existence of Polybius goes, I'm pretty skeptical,” said “Night_Trekker,” a member of www.coinop.org’s message board. “All this talk and only a single, nondescript screenshot? I don't buy that.”

However, for Bill Bailey, it’s all too real.

“I don’t know anything about secret government agencies or men in back. All I want is to be able to sleep at night without waking up in terror every few hours.” Shaking his head, he added, “I just want to be able to live again.”

* Before this gets reposted on every wacky website ever as “absolute proof that Polybius exists,” you should know that Bill Bailey is a fictional character. This mock newspaper feature was created with the intention of informing the reader of the Polybius urban legend, one of the most terrifying myths in gaming. Bill’s account of the Polybius and its effects are an amalgamation of many facets of the legend.

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