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The Legend of Polybius

The legend goes that in the early 1980s an arcade cabinet by the name of Polybius began to appear at arcades. G-men would appear every so often to examine the machine and helpless patrons would suffer nausea, disorientation, or other symptoms. Some claim that the project was an offshoot of the long mythologized CIA mind control program MKUltra. It was hard to dose people with drugs, why not try to use flashing lights instead? Instead of using LSD to make victims pliable, why not subliminal messages hidden in a game? Even without the MKUltra connection, claims across the internet are that anyone who played might be subject to all sorts of ill side effects.

While none of these claims can be corroborated – the game’s existence, in general, has never been authoritatively proven, Polybius is also the name of a Greek historian who urged others to extensively corroborate before recording something as history – they do have the hallmarks of techno-horror. Horror as a genre is often more an expression of societal taboos and anxieties than about representing an actual event. It resonates because there’s a tiny kernel of truth or anxiety that’s been ratcheted up to a fever pitch. Even today video games are held at arm’s length. They’re too immersive, they make killers, they erode society, they actively make us dumber… read more >

The anthology series Dimension 404 featured Polybius in an episode of the same name and in this case, it’s a mostly demonic game that’s the brainchild of an ancient soul who offended the gods and a video game programmer. Playing it brands you until the monster claims your soul and, if it’s feeling feisty, horribly mangles you. Except for the name and one Man in Black, the Polybius of Dimension 404 and the Polybius of myth bear little resemblance. The episode does however assault your senses with nostalgia. All your old friends are there, Attractive Store Employee, Surly Store Owner, Over Eager Friend, Friend Who Becomes Your Enemy, Headgear Kid, and Overbearing Parent. But the nostalgia drops into a darker layer, that outcast feeling, not sticking up for your friend, and the existential horror of being “different” and finding a home far away from home. It’s a familiar tale, especially if the space you fit into in your teens was more on the fringes. While it has nothing to do with the actual Polybius legend, it’s still worth a watch, as is most of the Dimension 404 series.

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