podcast review

The Polybius Conspiracy Documents the Strange Story of the Most Mysterious Video Game of All Time

Photo: Radiotopia

The “I Want to Believe” poster remains one of my favorite pop-culture artifacts ever. It’s simple, bold, iconic, and it still holds up as an endlessly captivating object to stare at long after the X-Files wrapped its original run in 2002. (The thing is also a pretty decent Google Images–search rabbit hole.) The poster is most definitely an artifact of its time. Between the retro UFO, blocky font, and grungy texture, every inch of the image evokes a pre-9/11 world, and, being one of those pesky millennials in his late 20s, I don’t quite recall that world with much political or sociological clarity. However, I do clearly recall the way it felt watching the X-Files, along with all the ideas of conspiracies, men in black, and shadowy dangers of the world that the show played with. The unknown seemed so much more present then, as was the paranoid prospect of a shadowy government working intelligently and somewhat effectively to preserve the veneer of a more “normal” world, one society is made to inhabit contentedly. Part of the conflict in this construction lies between the sense of an artificially constructed, pacifying world and a real, scarier, weirder one. The central nightmare here is one where you irreversibly move from the former to the latter, with no way back and no one to believe you.

You could feasibly call it a more innocent idea of conspiracy, built for a time when you could still fear a coherent idea about the monolithic omnipotence of a particular North American government. It evokes a strange kind of nostalgia, one that’s paradoxically comforting in its belief of a rational structure to which we can attribute responsibility over unexplainable horrors — even if it requires submission to a potentially malicious superstructure.

The Polybius Conspiracy, a seven-part audio documentary that debuted early last month as part of Radiotopia’s Showcase project, inadvertently tugs at this nostalgia, even if the story it’s trying to tell is a potentially dark one. The documentary explores the urban legend behind a mysterious arcade cabinet, marked Polybius, that supposedly appeared in a couple of gaming establishments across Portland, Oregon, in the early 1980s. As the tale goes, the actual game was a strange and borderline incomprehensible contraption, but it nonetheless proved to be addictive beyond reason. Kids were described as not being able to pry themselves away, and they were stricken with night terrors and other biological impediments when they did. Some say the cabinet was a CIA mind-control experiment, perhaps in the vein of the very real MKUltra project (or the not-so-real The Last Starfighter). Others say men in black were spotted checking on the machines. The dreamlike story had spread in the the classic gaseous way that urban legends typically do, passed through whispers and utterances of “I know someone who knew someone who played it” — even if there exists very little tangible proof that any actual person had physically laid hands on the machine. It’s the type of tale that would evolve into CreepyPastas, a kind of caveman drawing, proto–Slender Man, and indeed, Polybius can be considered one of the urban legends to have been amplified by the internet, appearing on the website coinop.org in the early aughts, even if the story had long been told in the decades prior.

Almost all aspects of Polybius can be easily found online. But the podcast finds its reason for being in its focus on an individual who alleges having a (very) direct relationship with the legend: one Bobby Feldstein, who claims to be a victim of an abduction that was a direct result of having played the game. When we first meet him in the podcast, Feldstein is certain, sure, and adamant about his traumatic incident. What follows is what you’d expect from a mystery documentary in the vein of, say, Tickled, or what was lovingly cosplayed in the definitively fictional American Vandal. The producers, Jon Frechette and Todd Luoto, try to assess the validity of Feldstein’s story, as a proxy of evaluating if there is any truth behind the urban legend. Experts, enthusiasts, and journalists are interviewed, old archival materials are dug up, digressions are indulged. At one point, there is a clash between the documentarians and their subject. At another, a narrator briefly turns inward, thinking aloud about his methods.

All of this is enough to make for a perfectly serviceable and enjoyable genre fare. But The Polybius Conspiracy is just surprising enough, and goes to enough interesting places, to warrant a deeper download. We find out Feldstein isn’t the only one with an unsettling Polybius-related story. The producers paint an atmospheric picture of Portland in the 1980s, a pre-Portlandia landscape dotted with streaks of weird and Pacific Northwestern suburban burrowing. The show spends some time outlining the ways in which new technologies stoke certain kinds of societal fears. And after four episodes (the fifth comes out later this week), there is enough to suggest that the story being presented to you isn’t exactly what it seems — that the team may well be up to something less literal than proving whether an urban legend is true, or not. That accompanying this story of a mystery is also the story of a person who once had a traumatic experience, trying to make sense of it all.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about the podcast is how, despite some of its darker details, the urban legend at the heart of The Polybius Conspiracy strikes me as structurally incapable of being truly unsettling anymore. (Unless, of course, its ’80s aesthetic and suspiciously good timing puts you in that Stranger Things mood.) Especially so in 2017, when we all appear to have fallen into the real, scarier, weirder world with no avenue of explanation in sight. Between Russian trolls and an endless cascade of bizarre and increasingly surreal headlines, it seems that any possible belief in a larger, rational, omnipotent structure to which we can attribute responsibility over unexplainable horrors has long died. How else, then, can one react to the fears illustrated in The Polybius Conspiracy? With a quaint nostalgic impulse, and an absurd longing for a simpler kind of paranoia.

I want to believe, indeed.

The Strange Story of the Most Mysterious Video Game