Arcade Games, Catherine DeSpira, Conspiracy Theories, Hoax, Jon Frechette, Podcast Review, Podcasting, Polybius, Portland Oregon, Radiotopia, Technology, The NoSleep Podcast, The Polybius Conspiracy, Todd Luoto, Urban Legends
My New Year’s resolution is to review podcasts. Nobody else is doing this, or at least not properly. That “podcasting is the new blogging” will trumpet in your ears with the sureness of a Maoist slogan, but, as a natural blogger, I have been always envious of podcasting and I have so far resisted this medium’s ascent. The more that I listen, however, the more that my resistance begins to flag.
When I listen to the NoSleep Podcast, I think that I might have found an answer to the literary critic Philip Hensher’s complaint that “there are no outlets in the UK that will pay a writer of short stories in a way that will sustain a career.” Hensher has observed that “between 1890 and the First World War there were at least 34 magazines publishing short fiction in Britain alone.” Like these traditional periodicals and unlike so many of the scrappier magazines that publish short fiction today, NoSleep is able to pay its contributors. This podcast can allow an author to, just as Hensher writes of the earlier magazines, “develop his or her career in tandem with an appreciative readership.” Although NoSleep is so far drawing a blank on the radar of academic criticism, this, or something like it, might well supply the most fertile ground for the future of the short story. Once its stories come to be written down, that is.
The Polybius Conspiracy is a seven-part podcast that was first broadcast on Showcase in October. Based in Portland, Oregon, it starts out matter-of-factly, as an investigative documentary into the urban legend of Polybius, an arcade game that was supposedly unleashed upon Portland teenagers in 1981 by an illicit, state-sponsored psychological experiment. Jon Frechette and Todd Luoto, the podcast’s producers, unearth a man named Bobby Feldstein who claims to have played Polybius as a teenager. Feldstein, or so his story goes, was consequently abducted and left in the woods by men in black.
This series is especially persuasive as an advert for the innovation of podcasting in that its genre-bending format convinced some initial reviewers that it was real. Others were not sure what The Polybius Conspiracy was exactly, leading them to write about it in a comically noncommittal manner. The blogger Gareth Stack was the first to challenge the veracity of this documentary, with Slate Magazine’s Jacob Brogan being the next to cry “fake.”
Enterprising modern hoaxes such as the War of the Worlds radio drama (1940), the BBC’s Ghostwatch live broadcast (1992), and the “found footage” horror movie The Blair Witch Project (1999) all derived their success from taking liberties with formats that were still relatively novel. Whilst the average listener might be familiar with radio documentaries, The Polybius Conspiracy places new pressures upon this format with its length and the immersion of its narrative. The producers are real people and they interview the verifiably real experts Catherine DeSpira, Ernest Cline, and Joe Streckert early on in the series. The podcast also explodes another, pre-existing hoax about Polybius and it delves into the bleak biography of the hoaxer, Steven Roach, a particularly notorious child trafficker.
For me, the unreality had here doubled back on itself. I had listened to the podcast after being warned that it was fictional, and so I had assumed that Roach, along with the cited historians and experts, were made-up people. The arrangement in The Polybius Conspiracy is actually similar to that within a historical novel in which a small preferential club of invented characters mingle with genuine personalities from history. And so, at least as far as one can gauge from this podcast, the abductee Bobby Feldstein, the warring couple Rubin and Marc, and the former journalist Naomi Halbrook are all as bogus as the Polybius game itself.
On the fiction, The Polybius Conspiracy is a dense story that has been woven with a great deal of cobweb thoroughness. Yet it unravels as it is spun, straight back into the raw material of its ambiguity. We wind up not knowing whether Feldstein is the victim of an extraordinary disinformation campaign or whether we are the victims of Feldstein, a manipulative fantasist. The series is still inclined to lean a little towards the former interpretation. There is always a twinkle of urban legend allure that the story is careful to never fully snuff out.
Several reviewers have remarked about the podcast’s resemblance to the 2016 Netflix series Stranger Things, which has all but monopolised upon the provision of mass 1980s nostalgia. If they are my age, the viewer of Stranger Things will experience the alienation of seeing the familiar pop culture from their childhood being replicated as though it was the ballroom interiors in a Jane Austen adaptation. To get a bit more specific, The Polybius Conspiracy reminds me strongly of Scott Heim’s novel, film, and, as I experienced it, stage play Mysterious Skin. Both stories recount childhood events that had occurred in the early 1980s and both work with a chiaroscuro between the innocence of urban legends, in Heim’s case UFOs, and the darkness of adult trauma.
The Polybius Conspiracy remains true enough to its documentary remit to make the term “hoax” feel faintly unwarranted. It is always stiff and nicely undramatic on its feet; it is a rare thrill whenever there is a thrill. Admittedly, the whole of the original urban legend is somewhat triangular in shape. There is a huge dull base, which comprises an unremarkable consumer rights scandal, and then the slim point, which holds the glamour of sinister government programmes. Anyone who is scaling this story has to cut through the bulk of the dreary base before they can access the elusive tip.
But perhaps this series is lacking in the mischievousness, or the instinct for the spectacular, of a traditional hoax. It does not want to fool you so much as to make you conscious that the truth can never be brandished in triumph and that falsity can never be wiped away with a bellow of “fake news!” After all, as Catherine DeSpira notes in her article “Reinvestigating Polybius,” many of the elements of the original Polybius legend were “correct,” with Portland arcade gamers really suffering from “negative effects” on occasion and with government agents really seizing arcade cabinets in the early 1980s. The Polybius Conspiracy draws heavily on this 2012 article not only for its structure but for the broader case that it is making. Coincidentally, 2017 also saw the release of an exhaustive documentary entitled “POLYBIUS – The Video Game That Doesn’t Exist” on the YouTube channel Ahoy. Stuart Brown, the filmmaker, commits to telling the Polybius story with the same energy as DeSpira and the podcasters and, at the end of it all, he arrives at the same oddly depleted conclusion:
Not every machine was as successful as Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, or Galaga. There are countless games long forgotten. Obscurities, bootlegs, and prototypes, of no interest to anyone but collectors. Not every game was catalogued; not every ROM dumped. And with the passage of time, and the destruction of cabinets, some may even be lost. It’s a worrying void of uncertainty. What if a game called Polybius did exist after all?
The Polybius Conspiracy inhabits this “void of uncertainty.” It is a hoax in that it uses actors and passes them off as real people, but it never submits anything that so much as resembles a fact. Its main character is the classic unreliable narrator. Feldstein may be played by an anonymous actor but we never know who he is really playing.
And why, finally, Polybius? A Greek historian who died in 118 BC, Polybius made a name for himself among the Ancients with his efforts to author history accurately and objectively. How did such a wildly inappropriate name become affixed to the computer game and the subsequent hoaxes? In Roach’s hoax, which DeSpira dismisses as “see-thru,” the hoaxer explains that, “Marek Vachousek was the programmer who came up with the name Polybius – he had studied Greek Mythology at Masaryk University and came up with the name because it sounded quite bold and mysterious, which is what we wanted quite simply.” Well, the word “nonsense” sounds quite bold and mysterious if you don’t know what it means. Was there genuinely this ignorance behind the earlier hoaxes, or was the usage of Polybius’ name instead openly sarcastic? That the historian came from Arcadia smacks of the sarcastic for an arcade game conspiracy.
The YouTuber Ahoy thinks that a name from history might have been used “to muddy search queries about the game,” but he equally notes that the word Polybius means “many lives.” In the person of Feldstein, The Polybius Conspiracy imagines yet another life being ruined by the bloodthirsty game.