Vir­tual-real­ity shooter spawned from an ur­ban leg­end about teen brain­wash­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - DIVERSIONS - BY MICHAEL THOMSEN style@wash­post.com

From the be­gin­ning, video games have been bur­dened with ul­te­rior mo­tives. For in­stance, Willy Hig­in­botham made the first com­puter game, “Ten­nis for Two,” for the an­nual vis­i­tors day at Brookhaven Na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory to demon­strate the “sci­en­tific rel­e­vance” of the re­search be­ing done in the lab’s te­dious cor­ri­dors.

Shigeru Miyamoto’s first ma­jor suc­cess, “Don­key Kong,” sprang from an as­sign­ment to re­pur­pose left­over ar­cade cabi­nets from an ear­lier flop. And “Poly­bius,” the new­est game from de­sign vet­eran Jeff Min­ter, be­gan as a govern­ment-funded brain­wash­ing ma­chine for teens. At least that’s how the story goes.

Ac­cord­ing to leg­end, there once was an ar­cade cabi­net that ap­peared in the sub­urbs of Port­land, Ore., 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 Skep­toid, when the retro games site coinop.org re­counted it, writ­ing 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 un­cov-

In “Poly­bius,” you pi­lot a small ship sur­rounded by en­e­mies. Each of its 50 lev­els in­tro­duces a new con­cept.

ered 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 still­grow­ing 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 3-D tun­nel or trench and spi­rals around shoot­ing at en­e­mies that steadily creep from back­ground to fore­ground. The game con­tains 50 lev­els, each of which in­tro­duces 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 that 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-min- ute 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. 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 on a Mon­day morn­ing but a few min­utes in the head­set has me feel­ing happy and serene.”

Play­ing the game does feel gen­tly re­ha­bil­i­ta­tive, de­spite its speed, which varies de­pend­ing on how many con­sec­u­tive horn­shaped 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. 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.

COUR­TESY OF LLAMASOFT

POLY­BIUS Llamasoft PlaySta­tion 4, PlaySta­tion VR, Win­dows PC

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