You may have heard of the video game "Polybius." Released only in a small arcade in a suburb of Portland, Oregon, it is infamous for causing nightmares, amnesia, and even suicide in those who played it. Little else was known for decades, but a recent disclosure by an employee of the company who developed it has revealed several details about it.
The first surprise is who developed it. Many had speculated that the United States military developed it for an unknown purpose, probably related to psychological warfare. While the US government did indeed commission it, they hired another company to actually make the game, one you've almost certainly heard of: Nintendo.
As you may know, Donkey Kong was Shigeru Miyamoto's first game, developed in 1981, the same year as Polybius. Nintendo had been hurt by overestimating the appeal of their recent game, Radarscope, and Donkey Kong a desperate gamble, an unconventional game made by an unknown designer that could make or break the company.
That's what we thought, anyway. It turns out Nintendo had another ace up their sleeve: the influential Hiroshi Yamauchi, then president of Nintendo, had heard about the US Military's desire to build a game to be used for psychological attacks. He managed to get the contract and ordered Miyamoto to create the game, using the opportunity to make the game he really wanted to (Donkey Kong) as incentive.
Miyamoto was given some kind of outline by the US military, which he has refused to discuss. The normally cheerful Miyamoto became very quiet and withdrawn, not letting anyone, even Yamauchi, see his work on Polybius. The strict and forceful Yamauchi is reported to have gone into Miyamoto's office to demand he reveal his work so far on Polybius.
Yamauchi came out looking frightened; Miyamoto had somehow gotten Yamauchi to back down, which Nintendo employees unanimously agree has never happened at any other time.
Miyamoto finished Polybius and handed the disc containing the information necessary for production to any army representative who came to Nintendo's office; no one else saw it. Miyamoto remained withdrawn, locking himself in his office every day until he emerged with a completed version of Donkey Kong, back to his cheerful self with no acknowledgment of his strange behavior during the development of Polybius. Miyamoto had recovered, but the saga of Polybius was just beginning.
Creating a game takes a great deal of work and how Miyamoto managed to hide traces of his work on Polybius was quite baffling to the people aware of the incident. The solution to this was recently discovered by a Nintendo of Japan employee. In the employees' lounge of Nintendo of Japan, there is a Donkey Kong arcade machine - one of the very first manufactured.
Donkey Kong was made from modified Radarscope hardware and it seems Miyamoto used this trick to hide the remains of Polybius. A few months ago, a Nintendo employee was playing the Donkey Kong arcade machine. He was distracted and played in an unusual manner. The first sign that something was happening was when the line on Mario's face started curving downwards, as if he was frowning.
The employee was intrigued and kept playing. The graphics started to fall apart; pixels would leave images behind when moved, or move away from their object. While this was happening, the employee was started by an angry shout. Miyamoto had entered the room and was furious. He yelled at the terrified employee to never touch the machine again, and yanked the cabinet's cord out of the wall.
Everyone in the lounge was stunned; Miyamoto had never acted like this before, and he was known for being friendly and calm. Miyamoto regained control of himself, apologized, and told the employee who had been playing not to worry, that he had been upset about something else and had lost control of his emotions.
The employee, familiar with the real development history of Polybius, didn't believe him. He knew he was on to something and managed to take a disc with a copy of the original code of Donkey Kong home with him.
The employee copied the code onto his computer and started hacking into it. There didn't seem to be anything unusual in it, so the employee focused on recreating his situation on the arcade machine. Like string unraveling, he found more and more oddities as he got closer to what he had done earlier. As he suspected, it eventually led to a title screen displaying the title "Polybius."
The employee posted what he had done up to this point online. The last thing anyone heard from him was that he was about to play the mythical game. It is unknown what happened next; the employee committed suicide, one of the most gruesome ever reported in Japan.
Someone who lived close by had been among those who read the employee's progress reports online and he saved them. The employee had destroyed his computer during the suicide, so the police found no evidence that Polybius was involved. The person who made the copy confronted Miyamoto, showing him the proof that Polybius was involved. Using it for blackmail, he got Miyamoto to give him an off-the-record summary of Polybius, which has been made public online.
The only leaked details of Polybius' game-play have been that it was similar to tempest and had amoebas as enemies. The Tempest part is true; the game takes place against a solid black background where you control a human head that moves back and forth, shooting enemies that come at you with scaling that emulates 3D movement. The enemies are easy to mistake for amoebas, but if you look closely they're actually faces with different expressions on them. The enemy names/descriptions Miyamoto gave:
Hope: A twisted, threatening smile with no eyes.
Love: A blank expression, the eyes are lifeless.
Truth: A sad face with red tears visible below the eyes.
In a novel twist for the time, each enemy is dealt with differently. Your character's shot only works on the Hope enemy. Love should simply be avoided, while you should let truth collide with your character. There is a bright flash whenever you fail to do the right thing to an enemy type, but the game has no lives and can only end if no buttons are pressed for thirty seconds.
The flashes have a physical and mental effect on the player; the game enforces a normal three lives rule with them. Three flashes will make most players start to feel dizzy and nervous, enough to make them quit unless they're very determined. They will have vivid nightmares for the next few weeks.
If a player takes a few more, they will forget not only the game, but most functions necessary for independent life; players who get amnesia from the game normally have to be cared for for the rest of their lives.
A very strong-willed person may be able to resist the amnesia stage and keep playing. After a few more flashes, they will faint. As soon as they recover, they will madly attempt everything in their power to commit suicide. The army kept one person who experienced this alive; after nearly thirty years, he still has to be watched every second to prevent him from killing himself.
This was all the information Miyamoto was willing to give, but there were still quite a few unanswered questions about Polybius. With this information released to the internet, the hunt for more was on. Someone claiming to be involved in the project has come forward online; for obvious reasons he does not want his identity revealed, so he has avoided going into any personal details beyond that.
Polybius used a pattern of lights the military had been working on to produce an effect similar to epilepsy in the person who viewed them. The technique had been refined to the point where the light pattern could even cause specific effects by being altered.
For the flashes of light to have the desired effect, they had to be viewed with a degree of concentration, hence why a video game was chosen for the testing process. The arcade machine was to be used to test the effects on a wide variety of people without informing them of the seriousness of the experiment.
Obviously, the plan to test Polybius on innocent, unknowing people was horrible from an ethical standpoint. The rather cold Yamauchi was willing to go along with it for the money that would save his company, but Miyamoto wouldn't and, as the designer, the true nature of the game couldn't be hidden from him.
Miyamoto was shown three flashes immediately after being assigned to the project and told he would keep getting them whenever the effects faded until he finished the game. This was the cause of his odd behavior during the game's development.
The natural question after hearing this is whether the experiment was a success. The army detained several people who had suffered the effects of the flashes during the game's short test in the Portland suburb and, without exception, every test subject responded to the flashes in the expected way.
However, attempts to create an antidote to the effects were unsuccessful and tricking people into playing an arcade machine obviously wasn't a very practical way to deploy a weapon. Due to this, Polybius faded from memory.
...until, that is, technology made a few advancements. The level of concentration needed to make the flashes have their effect can be attained by reading text. The flashes themselves are fairly easy to display on any type of monitor.
Now that computer monitors displaying text and linked to a limitless network are so common, I'm sure you can put two and two together. The military probably isn't going to send the flashes into your computer, but now that the secret is public and the flashes can be found in a common arcade game...
(This story is credited to a person called KI Simpson. Also, you can download Polybius from here.)