Of the many cultural signifiers of 1980s America, the video game arcade ranks as both important and transitory. They were once ubiquitous and the source of much consternation regarding the moral fiber of 80s youth, but unlike Transformers and My Little Pony toys, you won’t find one on eBay. Video arcades were places to gather with friends, have some fun and forget about school, parents, even oneself. This effect was supposed to be temporary, but for one young man, it threatened to become a permanent situation.
When Jeff was a young teenager growing up in a Washington suburb, the allure of the arcade was too strong to resist. “I was there every chance I could get,” Jeff tells me. “The weekend, I practically lived there.”
Jeff’s friend Mark shared his obsession with video games and even excelled his friend in his passion. “If I was at the arcade for two hours,” Jeff said, “Mark was there for three.”
Jeff explains that while Mark’s family was well-off and could keep him well stocked with quarters, trouble at home kept Mark from wanting to leave the arcade. “There were a lot of incidents at Mark’s house, sometimes the cops were involved.” Jeff tells me. “Mark wanted to be anywhere but there.”
One morning in November 1984, Mark met Jeff at school in an agitated state. “I hadn’t seen him so worked up like that,” Jeff says. “I thought something had happened to his parents.”
Mark went on to explain to Jeff in ecstatic terms the new video game that had arrived at the arcade the day before. It was, according to Mark, the most advanced, most exciting, most important video game he had ever played and Jeff had to play it as soon as possible.
“He said it was called the Pole Busii or something,” Jeff recalls. “English was always his worst class.”
Unfortunately for Jeff, he wouldn’t be able to make it to the arcade. “My mom’s family was visiting and she had all this stuff planned,” Jeff says. “No way was I getting out of it.”
The next day at school, Jeff noticed a difference in Mark’s demeanor. Instead of breathlessly monologuing about video games or sullenly complaining about his home life, Mark was distant and spoke very little. “He was kind of blank,” Jeff remembers, “like something inside him had been deleted.”
Jeff tried talking to his friend but he got little out of him. The only question Mark seemed to respond to was when Jeff asked if he had been back to play the new arcade game. “Mark’s eyes widened and he turned to stare at me. ‘It’s only pretending,’ he said” Jeff recalls. “He didn’t talk the rest of the day.”
The next morning, Mark didn’t show up at school. Throughout Jeff’s morning classes, he grew more and more concerned. By lunchtime, he knew what he had to do. “I cut the rest of the day,” Jeff tells me. “I had to find Jeff and I knew exactly where he’d be.”
The arcade was dark and empty. Almost empty. There at the back of the arcade stood Mark, his back turned to Jeff and half-lit by the lights from a dozen arcade game’s garish attract modes. He was a playing the new game, or at least that was what Jeff could surmise. “The top of the cabinet where the name should be,” Jeff recalls, “it was filled with these weird symbols like hexagons and triangles.”
Jeff approached his friend and stood next to him. Mark didn’t acknowledge him but kept his attention focused on his game. Jeff tried to talk to Mark, but soon, even his attention was drawn to the screen. What he saw there still disturbs him.
“The game was primitive yet highly advanced,” Jeff remembers. “It was a series of colorful geometric forms moving from the middle screen to the edges at increasing speeds.” The effect of this pattern for the viewer was the feeling of intense movement. But soon another more unsettling effect began to become apparent.
“I stood there watching the screen as Mark played, although I’m not even sure what he was doing that would be considered playing,” Jeff recalls. “After a few moments, the sense of movement intensified like a hundred times and the basic shapes on the screen seemed to take on elaborate 3-D forms. There were these purple lights that started blinking and then rotating and moving around, even what seemed like to the sides away from the game cabinet and then behind me. There was a sound like loudly humming machinery from far away and a weird clipped buzzing much closer to me. It almost sounded like speech.”
Jeff came to slowly realize that there was actually someone talking. Under the disturbing sounds of humming and buzzing, Mark was speaking very quickly and quietly in a monotone. “I’ll never forget it,” Jeff says. “He was mumbling incoherently, but I could make out some of it: ‘communication is impossible…dwarfs the visible structure…we didn’t build it…symbol of the old empire…waiting inside the ziggurat…the form it will take…at the edge of the asteroid belt.’”
The strange sounds and sensations began to draw Jeff further and further into the screen until he felt like he wasn’t in the arcade anymore, that he had been transported somewhere else entirely. “I suddenly felt very cold and it seemed like I was floating,” Jeff recalls. “There was a large object in front of me, a rock or a planet, and it seemed to be impossibly distant and I was flying towards it and it was opening up and there was a golden light inside.” And then, Jeff and, possibly even Mark, was saved by Jeff’s poor mealtime decision-making.
“I got sick and puked up my lunch all over Mark and the machine,” Jeff says. “I had some funky tacos that day.” Mark was momentarily stunned and took a step back from the game. He had a look on his face of unimaginable loss and extreme disgust. As he recovered, Jeff saw that the strange effects on the screen had disappeared and the game was now beginning to play its ending screen. “It read GAME OVER,” Jeff remembers, “POLYBIUS II.”
Just then, the arcade owner came charging up and chased the boys out the front door for making a mess. Mark stalked off in silence and Jeff headed home to clean up.
That evening when his mother returned home, she told him how she had seen a lot of police activity at that arcade he liked so much. Jeff shot out the door before she could finish. When he got to the arcade, police cars blocked the street, their lights flashing in the fast approaching twilight. A large black van was parked directly in front of the arcade. FBI was written in yellow across the side.
Jeff joined the small crowd of gawkers gathered down the block. Mark was there wearing a confused and pained expression. Jeff approached his old friend. “I said ‘Hey, man’,” Jeff recalls. “And he said, ‘Hey, man. You puked on me’.”
Mark had seemingly recovered some of his old self. As Jeff and Mark watched the scene, they overheard a man in the crowd explaining that the owner of the arcade had been running an illegal gambling operation. The FBI had been raiding arcade parlors up and down the state for gambling.
As the man finished, two FBI agents emerged from the arcade with a game cabinet on a large dollie. Jeff saw Mark shudder as the agents wheeled the cabinet around to reveal the strange game with the enigmatic symbols that had so fascinated them. It disappeared inside the empty van. Mark grabbed Jeff’s arm and the two friends turned to leave.
“Mark was fine after all that, no permanent problems,” Jeff tells me. “Of course, the arcade closed down and we never heard about Polybius II again. One thing I’ll say, I didn’t see those agents take any other games out of the arcade that day, just Polybius II.”
Jeff’s story remains the only documented evidence of the existence of a video game known as Polybius II. The side effects of this sinister machine appear to be quite alarming, but the implications it raises about the human mind and the universe it inhabits are doubly so. Was something using Mark and, presumably, other players to reach out across the cold vast voids of time or space? And if so, was the message a hopeful one of cooperation and a better future? Or was it, as some believe, a warning that the lonely reaches of interstellar space could only harbor the enemies of life itself, that waiting in the cosmic gulf was humankind’s worst nightmare. Or as others have sometimes put it more succinctly, game over, man.