When you begin playing Polybius, all you can really see on the terrain is your tiny ship and the ox-horn gates. There’s other stuff but it all comes and goes so fast; the only constant is the ox-horn gates. You pass through them and you speed up. This is good, right? It’s the goal of the game, right? I mean after a few rounds of smashing into things at insane velocity and dying, you’ll notice a path that leads you to the next gate. You must be here to pass through these gates while shooting as many baddies as possible.
Then why, you begin to wonder, do they turn red when you’re aligned with one?
Why, you wonder, when looking through the achievements, is there one for taking your hands off the controller for thirty seconds?
And then you begin to learn to slow down. To see through the chaos.
Polybius is an urban legend. An arcade game that never existed. An arcade game that caused amnesia. An arcade game that caused nightmares. An arcade game that nobody ever heard of until someone added an entry to a database of Every Video Game Ever approximately seventeen years after it supposedly showed up in a Portland arcade in the late eighties for a mere month or two.
The database entry is quite insistent that this game is not an unusually intense Tempest prototype.
You begin learning the systems layered on top of this simple game of “flying way too fast and shooting things”. You try a few games where you avoid the gates that the game so clearly urges you to fly through. You find the quiet places in the chaos of the early levels to pet some oxen with your bullets. They emit lots of points when you do this.
You laugh when level six urges you to GET THE FRIED EGGS. Until you realize that this incongruity worked nicely to focus your attention on the fact that they play an important part in the game. Seriously. They let you run through things with impunity for a limited time.
You notice that at the end of every level, flashing text floats by. It was lost in the rapid multicolored strobing of the end-of-level sequence at first. But now you can see that, after you’ve spent about a minute staring fixedly at the screen, watching the flashing lights, you’re being urged to EMBRACE ILLUMINATION. To ENJOY ENLIGHTENMENT.
Or being urged to BE SLIGHTLY CROSS WITH LUKEWARM TEA. It’s different every time.
You begin to suspect that this game is not what it seems.
Jeff Minter is a video game legend. He’s been an indie developer since almost the dawn of the medium; his gameography stretches back to the Vic-20 and the Commodore 64. Over the years, he’s done two general kinds of things: abstract shootemups with a goofy sense of humor and a lot of hoofed mammals in them, and what he first called “lightsynths” – visual toys that make seething, abstract images. Nowadays we think of them as “visualizers” when they’re connected to a music player, and he’s done those, too – if you play music on a Jaguar or an XBox 360, you’ll see Jeff’s work up there on the screen. For years he was a solo act despite using the corporate name of Llamasoft; the past decade’s seen him collaborating (and living) with one Ivan Zorzin, who I believe does a lot of the hardcore math stuff in Jeff’s games. (I apologize to Ivan if I’m giving him short shrift here. I suspect he’s used to it by now.)
Jeff’s games are, for the most part, fast paced twitch games, with a tendency towards intense visuals. They flash, they moo, they make jokes about sheep. Some of them are original, some of them are riffs on early classics like Defender, Robotron, or Tempest.
Jeff’s done at least three riffs on Tempest now.
Two of them were definitely Tempest. One was an official modernization, done for Atari’s Jaguar. One wasn’t official; TxK was the reason I bought a cheap PS Vita. It was going to be ported to the PS4 until whoever owns Atari’s trademarks waved lawyers at Jeff.
And then there was Space Giraffe. Which you’d be forgiven for thinking was a trippy Tempest clone. Until you realized that the meat of the game was in letting as many enemies as possible get to the edge of the web. Which was about the worst thing that could happen in Tempest. Realize this and you could start playing the real game, where the challenge occasionally became “survive a level floating in a howling void of gorgeous visual feedback” because the whole thing was actually running inside a refined version of the visualizer Jeff wrote for the 360.
Space Giraffe had deep roots in Tempest. But it wasn’t Tempest.
When you first launched Polybius, you were greeted with a screen warning that “This game contains psychedelic visuals and flashing images”. And a crosshair. Which you had to steer to a symbol representing either psychedelic visuals or flashing images, which gave you a screen going into more detail about how, no, really, this game is going to have a lot of rapidly flickering images, and if you or your family have a history of optically-induced seizures, you should consult your doctor before continuing.
Sure, sure, there’s a warning about that in the manual for every video game console since the NES. But Jeff has been making trippy, flashy things for about forty years. And Jeff made you consciously acknowledge that this game is going to be pouring some seriously intense visuals into your eyeholes. You couldn’t just press X and plow through these screens without thinking; you had to read the first one, move the stick, press a button, then do it again. If strobing lights can break your brain then you should not be playing this game.
You learn to stare fixedly at the center of the screen, watching the little dots that tell you what enemies are about to drop onto the planes and tubes you’re whizzing along. The rest of the screen seethes with flashing lights. But here in the center it is quiet. Here in the center is the future: this dot is a gate, this dot is a jump pad, is that dot a bonus ox? Is that one a fried egg?
Focus on this. Ignore all the flashing in your peripheral vision. The real game is here. Or is it?
Every PS4 game has a set of “trophies” for doing various things in the game. Bronze, silver, gold, and always one platinum trophy for getting all the other trophies. Usually the platinum trophy has a cute name, and a prosaic description along the lines of “Win all the other trophies”. Polybius’ platinum trophy is named “Beast of Universal Love And Light”, and its description is “Achieve ultimate transcendence”. You think Polybius told you to do that at the end of a level once, too.
You wonder how long it will be until the Playstation Network says more than 0.0% of all players have acquired this trophy.
Once upon a time in the sixties, an artist named Brion Gysin created something he called a “Dreammachine”. It was a device designed to produce lights that flickered at about the same frequency as the electrical brain resonance known as “alpha waves”. Staring into it with your eyes closed is said to induce a hypnagogic state. Dreaming while awake. Shapes and colors swirling around and around. Until you open your eyes.
The Dreammachine may also induce seizures in people susceptible to such.
When you close your eyes, you still see ox-horn gates rushing towards you. Ox-horn gates on an endless plain of stars.
Polybius is compatible with the Playstation’s VR helmet. Put it on and you are inside a hallucinatory world full of flashing lights.
As you get better at the game, you start to more regularly enter a mode where you’re going at high speed, and everything’s gone monochromatic. Everything’s rendered in a single color or in black. And that single color is slowly changing. And the pattern of color versus black is flashing rapidly, because your little ship is still careening across the checkerboard ground at some impossible pace, hopped up on fried eggs and crashing through everything in your way. Maybe you’re playing this in the VR helmet. Maybe you’re not. Maybe nothing’s convinced you to get one yet. Maybe this game will tempt you. Does this sound like a thing you want to fill your entire visual field with?
Sometimes you get a fizzing sensation in your skull as you complete a level cleanly. It’s like the chills that run down your spine when a piece of music hits just the right notes. Or when a soft-voiced pair of hands whispers their way through an unboxing video. Perhaps this is a sign that you should, as the between-level advice sometimes suggests, take a break and have a cup of tea. Or some dinner. You’ve been playing this a while now.
You begin to wonder what exactly is hidden under the surface of Polybius. Jeff Minter has taken this modern myth of a video game that gets inside your head and rearranges your brain, and done his best to make it. I do not think there is anyone in the video game industry more qualified to make this myth a reality than him.
Polybius, if you’re willing to give it a little time to learn how to play it, is a powerful brain rearranger. It will leave you in a relaxed state despite the intensity of its play. And while you are at your most relaxed, while you are feeling rewarded, it will tell you things to do. And gently suggest comedically mundane things to avoid doing.
Do you trust Jeff Minter with the keys to your brain?
Do you trust him to be the genially eccentric Englishman who smells vaguely of sheep, llamas, and maybe a little cannabis, that he appears to be?
Do you trust this nice English wizard to have built this powerful delivery system for subliminal messages, and not implant anything worse than RESIST RUNNING OUT OF LOO ROLL or BUY JEFF A DELICIOUS SOFT DRINK?
Polybius is a video game about shooting things that explode into pretty electric fireworks and occasionally say “thank you”. Polybius is not a magic spell designed to lift you out of this world and into a truer reality, nor is it one designed to make you its creator’s slave.
Ten camels out of five. Highly recommended if you have a Playstation; I believe it’s coming out on the PC as well.