According to legend, there once was an arcade cabinet that appeared in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon in 1981, which left those who played it mentally unmoored, by turns irritable, depressed, and even suicidal. Soon men in black suits arrived to confiscate the machine and no one has seen them since. The story surfaced in 1998, according to Skeptiod, when the retro games site coinop.org recounted it, writing that that there were “bizarre rumors” the game had been developed with “some kind of proprietary behavior modification algorithms developed for the CIA or something.” In the years since, people have joked about having uncovered the original arcade cabinet, attempted to make a documentary about it, and even uploaded fake footage of the game to YouTube.
Minter’s “Polybius” is the most tangible contribution yet to the still-growing canon of half-truths and insinuation. “Polybius” resembles Minter’s earlier tube shooter games like “Tempest 2000” and “Space Giraffe,” in which a small ship is placed in a 3D tunnel or trench and spirals around shooting at enemies that steadily creep from background to foreground. The game contains 50 levels, each of which introduce a new concept. One level sends players into the air on launchpads while avoiding indestructible walls below; another has players slaloming between flags to avoid damage; and still another has players chased by an overhead cube which litters the course with bombs that explode into three-dimensional asterisks. The constant in each of them is enemies in need of shooting.
Replaying the two-to-three minute levels to figure out how each works often feels like whittling a piece of wood, something that’s both absorbing and easy to walk away from. It’s a surprising counterpoint to enormous games like “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” or the endlessly competitive “Overwatch,” games hungry to drain hundreds of hours for no certain end. Minter designs his games from the bucolic calm of a small English town of Tadley, taking frequent breaks to feed biscuits to the yak, sheep, and goats with which he shares his grassy yard. There was a hint of the bucolic in his approach to the game, which he described in a post for Sony’s PlayStation blog: “I really don’t like games that make you feel more stressed out when you finish playing that [sic] before you start. Despite all its speed and hyperstimulation, you actually find in play that the game has a relaxing, even a mildly therapeutic effect – I can get up grumpy of a Monday morning but a few minutes in the headset has me feeling happy and serene.”
Playing the game does feel gently rehabilitative, in spite of its speed, which varies depending on how many consecutive horn-shaped speedgates your ship passes through. After 10 or 15 gates, the visuals dissolve into a pulsing neon cloud while enemies and obstacles rush by in a blur, from which the only escape is to crash and return one’s sight to normal. In this hallucinatory rush, it feels as if the only thing to do is to hold on, like being a bull rider shot out of a rodeo stall into a discotheque. But there is something calming about these momentary panics, which narrows one’s thinking. It has a cathartic effect, the mind being emptied of excess attentiveness.
The game’s visuals evoke the early 1980s, when vector graphics simulated three dimensions, a technology that seemed to come from a different universe, from the flat sprites and pixels of “Pac-Man” and “Space Invaders.” The visuals on “Polybius” are more computationally complicated than those early vector games, but it is a reminder that computers are best suited to depicting computation itself, not attempting to reproduce the minute details of the physical world.
The lavish masquerade of escapism often confuses one’s sense of how a game operates. For this reason, “Polybius” makes even more sense in virtual reality, when the compression of the flat screen can stretch into the distance, giving speedgates, enemies and obstacles a dimensional presence that one feels more than sees, something that becomes easier to respond to by instinct.
If too many games today entangle the mind with ceaseless complications, proliferating differences with only superficial distinctions in outcome, “Polybius” provides the feeling of having one’s mind washed clean for a few moments, shaken free of clutter. Its biggest reward occurs in the moment when the headset is removed and the screen goes dark, a moment when it feels possible to see everything with what feels like new eyes.
Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Slate, the New Republic, the Daily Beast, the New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen.