Someone just created The Blair Witch of podcasting, and no one noticed

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Warning: This article contains spoilers for the podcast 'The Polybius Conspiracy', if you haven't yet heard the show, you might want to listen before reading the rest.

Someone might just have pulled the Blair Witch of podcasting, and no one’s noticed. In 1999 a viral campaign for the pioneering found-footage horror, The Blair Witch Project, briefly convinced millions of people that a team of young filmmakers had disappeared in occult circumstances in the forests of Maryland. The stunt was so successful it helped kickstart the found footage genre. The micro-budget film went on to gross almost 250 million dollars worldwide.

Radiotopia are the HBO of podcasting. The network has given birth to shows like 99% Invisible, the Heart, Love and Radio, and Johnathon Mitchell’s unparalleled drama anthology The Truth. It makes sense that this outfit, responsible for some of the most innovative and diverse (not to mention popular) programming online, would come up with something like this.

Full disclosure, I’ve met Radiotopia founder Roman Mars, and count several Radiotopia staffers among my friends. But I haven’t spoken to any of them about this theory. My guess is the truth is locked down to a few members of the production team. In any case, it’s much more fun to puzzle out as a listener.

The Polybius Conspiracy series centres around Bobby Feldstein, a man who claims to have been abducted in October 1981 from his home in a suburb of Portland Oregon. Discovered the next day near the Tillamook State Forest, 60 miles from home, Bobby told a wild and implausible tale of mysterious figures paralysing him before transporting him to a hidden location. There he managed to escape only after being freed by another boy, a long term captive. This event is somehow connected to an unusual video game Bobby had played in the weeks before his disappearance. A legendary arcade cabinet known as Polybius, said to have briefly appeared in Portland arcades in 1981.

The myth of a mysterious mind controlling arcade cabinet is a well known one within the videogame world. The story seems to have originated in the Pacific Northwestern arcade community in the early 1980s. Recently, Polybius has had a resurgence in popularity. It’s been the topic of popular articles, documentaries, a graphic novel, and even a virtual reality interpretation by legendary game developer Jeff Minter. The story taps into all-too-real mind control experiments carried out on American citizens by three letter agencies throughout the latter half of the 20th century. It arose in the context of an American conservative renaissance, with Christian and family groups railing against Dungeons & Dragons, videogame arcades and a litany of ‘satanic’ cultural influences. Variations of the story include everything from extra-terrestrials to the notorious MKUltra chemical control programme. Those unfortunate enough to have played the Polybius game cabinet are said to have suffered nausea, nightmares, madness and even death.

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In Episode One of The Polybius Conspiracy, Bobby Feldstein recounts how he discovered an unusual cabinet at an arcade called Coin Kingdom, run by a dubious man named Willy King. The game contained in this unmarked cabinet featured strange abstract graphics and an usual control scheme. Bobby spent weeks perfecting his skills, till one day he reached a high level where he was assailed by invisible enemies. After playing he felt nauseous, barely making it home before passing out. He awoke a few hours later with a powerful thirst, and walked downstairs to get some water. Here he was somehow paralysed by three mysterious non-human figures, who entered his home and abducted him.

The programme makers don’t play along with Bobby’s story, at least not at first. Via real videogame historian Catherine “Cat” Despira, they introduce dark inferences about the underbelly of 80s arcade culture. Perhaps Bobby’s story is a con, perhaps it’s a screen memory for a more mundane yet horrific story of abduction and abuse.

Bobby recounts how he woke up paralysed in the dark, in a tunnel somewhere in a forest far from his home. Barely able to see, hearing a thrashing sound, he was released from the ‘vines’ holding him down by another captive. This boy fled with him but ultimately disappeared. Bobby managed to make it through the wilderness to a road, and finally a petrol station where he called his parents. Bobby claims his story was dismissed by both parents and police. We’re informed the owner of the arcade, Willy King, died in a car accident nearby a mere month after Bobby’s experience.

Episode 2 introduces a man named Ruben, who’s partner Mark Symms had a storied history with prostitution and drug addiction centred around the Portland arcades. Mark recently disappeared after taking thousands of dollars from the couples shared accounts. Cat Despira provides context for the Polybius legend, linking arcades where the game is alleged to have existed to police raids in the 1980s. These raids centred around drugs, stolen goods and underage prostitution. In February 1981, a friend of Catherine’s, Tony Sayers, told her about an unnamed game at the ‘Good Times’ and ‘Games Plus’ arcades. A game that had supposedly driven a teenager insane.

Back in the present, we learn that Mark Symms disappeared, leaving his partner Ruben, family and job in drug rehabilitation. After his disappearance his sister (for reasons unexplained) sent Ruben a picture of Mark as a teenager in a ‘Knights of Entertainment” tournament at Coin Kingdom. Ruben claims to have stumbled across Bobby’s tour (which includes a visit to Coin Kingdom) online. Although Mark had never mentioned Polybius, Ruben decided to take Bobby’s tour When Ruben showed him the photo of Mark as a teenager in the arcade, Bobby instantly recognised the boy who’d saved him in the forrest. We then hear Bobby take the producers on a tour of through the old arcade, and into tunnels running under the building (now a laundrette). This leads into a discussion of another legend, of ‘Shanghai’ tunnels supposedly running beneath the streets of Portland, used to press gang young men into forced servitude on the seas. The presenters enter the tunnel beneath Coin Kingdom, which Bobby suggests could have been used to ferry the Polybius machine into the arcade. Oddly the programme spends several minutes discussing the likelihood that the tunnels running under Portland were probably never used to smuggle the unwary into a life on the seas. There really do seem to be networks of tunnels running beneath Portland, which once connected the opium dens, brothels and casinos of Chinatown. They were likely not commonly used for ‘Shanghaing’, but that doesn’t serve discredit Bobby’s story, only his knowledge of local history. The episode ends with a credulity stretching tale from Mark Simm’s partner Ruben. Ruben describes finding Mark standing on the window ledge of their apartment in sleep walking daze, a couple of weeks before his disappearance, staring into space repeating the line ‘They’re coming’.

The Polybius Conspiracy is a part of Radiotopia’s ‘Showcase’, a rotating channel of one off podcast series. The programme started life as a kickstarter to create a film documentary. The trailer for the original documentary features a variety of figures from the Portland gaming community, but makes no mention of Bobby Feldstein or child abductions. A google trawl returns no Bobby Feldstein walking tour in Portland, and no Polybius walking tour. In fact no Bobby Feldstein appears in a google search at all. There are only 8 Bobby / Robert / Robyn Feldsteins publically listed on Facebook and three on Twitter (none of whom have ever tweeted). Producers Todd Luoto and Jon Frechette claim to have heard about Bobby’s walking tours from a friend. A key claim made by Bobby in the show is that he gives his walking tours in part in the hope that he’ll find his mysterious saviour, the boy who rescued him from the forrest tunnel. If that’s the case he’s done a remarkably poor job promoting them. Unlike the other arcades mentioned in the series, variants of Willy King, and Coin Kingdom return no results on google, either in it’s former incarnation as an arcade or its supposed current one as a laundromat. Needless to say the same is true of Mark Symms / Simms. So we have a missing protagonist, a missing location, and a missing ‘missing person’. But google is not omnipotent, perhaps Bobby’s tour has never made enough of an impression to be mentioned on the web, or depicted in photographs on flickr.

Dylan Reiff, a Portland based comedian and game designer, is listed as a ‘character’ on the website, but a ‘field producer’ in the show notes. Dylan is a real person, here he is at a storytelling event in 2016 talking about his passion for gaming and an alternate reality experience he created that convinced one ordinary teenager he was the saviour of the world. Dylan was also one of the documentarians behind the original kickstarter.

Joe Streckert, described as a Portland tourguide, gives regular talks about the Polybius myth and was filmed performing in front of a live audience for the abortive documentary, at an event hosted by Dylan Reiff. Joe’s a writer and host of the weird history podcast, as well as the author of The Legend of Polybius book. None of this is a smoking gun, but it does speak to deeper links between the producers and their guests than are made explicit in the show.

The nail in the coffin of The Polybius Conspiracy, for me, is this paragraph, from a 2015 article on Eurogamer about the proposed documentary film.

The film didn’t start as a documentary. Originally Luoto and Frechette were hoping to make a fictional sci-fi film touching on similar themes. It was only upon doing the research for that project that the filmmakers realised it would be both more interesting – and more cost effective – to follow this already existing myth. “We realised that truth in a lot of ways is stranger than fiction,” Luoto says. “Once we started reading more and talking to people we realised ‘this is fascinating. We shouldn’t wait for people to give us millions of dollars to do this. We should just do what we can.'”

Did the producers found another way to tell their story, one that didn’t require millions of dollars? Notably Radiotopia’s site is careful not to call the show a documentary, but rather “the complex story of two men united by a decades-old urban legend”. So is this a masterfully crafted docudrama, mixing real interviews with scripted fiction? Or is the Polybius Conspiracy a sincere and chilling investigation into a real abduction: One with life long consequences, that helped create a myth that persists to this day? The story of a mysterious arcade cabinet, that drove innocent Portland kids to a lifetime of addiction, and perhaps ultimately death? Tune in to find out.

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Getting Into The Game

'Who Wants to Play Videogames' by JDHanckock
Poster based on ‘Who Wants to Play Videogames‘ by JDHanckock.
 jdhancock.com | @JDHancock on Twitter. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Download: Getting into the Game Documentary

Broadcasting Bank Holiday Monday 31st October, 11AM on Newstalk.

Getting into the game is a new documentary aimed at kids who play games. Video games. Kids who play videogames and wonder maybe, possibly, perhapsily, if they’d like to make them. Growing up I remember getting those magazines full of strange impenetrable symbols that promised – if you could just type the whole book into your computer, without making any mistakes – you’d get a brand new, completely free game. These days games are everywhere, but they’re so damn fancy they can seem impossible to learn how to make.

This documentary will help open the lid, just a crack, to see what lies inside your favourite games. We’ve brought together people from every corner of the industry – artists, coders, indies, musicians, gamejammers, and developers of every age.

Featuring interviews with..

Mary Moloney of Coder Dojo
Andrew Boel, Pete McNally, Nick Grey, & Jen Taylor of Havok.
Terry Cavanagh, creator of VVVVVV and Super Hexagon
Owen Harris, designer of Deep, and co-founder of DubLUDO.
Niall Kehoe, Irelands youngest videogame developer.
Students and Lecturers from IT Carlow’s Videogame design degree.
Vicky Lee & Andrea Magnorsky of Global Gamecraft.
and filmmaker, animator and indie developer David O’Reilly.

The programme is divided into five segments, each one looking at a different part of making games.

Learning the Art

We visit cutting edge computing research laboratories at DIT and IT Carlow and tour exciting games development technology.  Lecturers and students explain the skills students should be building outside the classroom if they’d like to study videogames in college. Students tell us about their love of games and how they got into making their own.

Getting Covered in Jam

At DIT a group called ‘Global Gamecraft’ host ‘game jams’, competitions where anyone (over 18) can help make a game in just a few hours. Game Jams are an excellent way to develop the technical, artistic and collaborative skills sought by the games development industry. Jams are a fun and friendly way for young people to get a taste of game development. We speak to competitors and organisers like Vicky Lee, and provide a glimpse of the excitement and accessibility of ‘homebrew’ game development

Creating Havok

Modern videogames simulate exciting and realistic physics. The most impressive game physics ‘middleware’ software in the world comes from an Irish company founded by graduates of Trinity College. Havok are an industry leader employing dozens of artists and programmers. We speak to staff at the company about the day-to-day work of making one of the key technologies underpinning some of the most exciting and popular videogames.

Independent Heroes

The independent game development community is a thriving segment of the industry. We speak with leading Irish indie developer Terry Cavanagh, creator of hit games like ‘Super Hexagon’, about running his own studio. Terry explains how new distribution methods make it easy for anyone to sell their homemade game on the internet. Independent game development is a part of the industry that is particularly important to present to second level students – since it can be used to develop skills, or even start a business while at school.

We try out virtual reality in the company of Bryan Duggan of DIT, exploring DEEP, the anti-anxiety game from Owen Harris. Deep uses unique breathing sensors, soothing music and a beautiful polygon virtual environment to teach deep breathing relaxation techniques.

We hear from David O’Reilly, animator and creator of fictional videogames for use in Hollywood films. David gives us a glimpse into a self-directed career involving art, graphic design, and filmmaking.

Coder Dojo

Coder Dojo is a place for kids to learn how to make games, websites, and even robots. Started in County Cork, the Dojo movement has spread worldwide. Amazingly, Coder Dojo events are completely free! If there isn’t a coder dojo in your area, you can even start your own. We meet some of the kids who are making coder dojo the coolest place on earth.

Getting into the game was produced by Dead Medium Productions. The programme was developed, researched and presented by Gareth Stack and James Van De Waal.

All the music and sound effects used in the programme are listed here. Many of them are available for you to use for free in your projects under a creative commons licence. This documentary is available to download and share for free under the Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International licence, it can be played in class or emailed to your students. Use it and share it! Go make some games!

BAI CREDIT

Threat Detection – Episode 24 – All Filler, No Killer

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Gareth & James get together in the first Threat Detection for a while for a general chat about games. They talk about classic videogame publications like PC Gamer, C&VG and EGM, as well as the revival of classic games on sites like Good Old Games.


Download: Episode 24

What is Threat Detection?

Threat Detection is a videogame chat show on Radiomade.ie. Each week, hosts Gareth Stack & James Van De Waal take an hour or two to tear apart a videogame topic, like character, horror, or sex.

Threat Detection – Episode 23 – A.I. in Games (Part 2)

ellie in last of us

What’s Threat Detection?

Threat Detection is a lively, smart, frequently funny and always irreverent videogame chat show on Radiomade.ie. Each week, hosts Gareth Stack & James Van De Waal take an hour or two to tear apart a videogame topic, like character, horror, or sex.

Download: Threat Detection – Episode 23

In the second part of our A.I. in games double bill, we focus on the companion character of ‘Ellie’ in ‘The Last Of Us’, perhaps the greatest accomplishment in videogame A.I.

Growing Up Digital – Episode 2 – Mad Scientists of Music

Episode two explores the video game backgrounds of a variety of Irish experimental musicians – how video game culture and ready access to technology influenced their love of music and their aesthetic sensibilities. Chiptune music in particular reappropriates not only the machinery, but also the distinctive sounds of computer games of the 1980’s, and this helps to define its unique aesthetic. Kieran Dold (Karakara) discusses the aesthetic appeal of retro videogame music. Niamh Houston (Chipzel) explains how ‘home brew’ software like LSDJ, allows her to make music from classic Game Boy portable gaming consoles. Niamh talks about completing the loop – working with BAFTA award winning video game designer Terry Cavanagh to create retro video game inspired music for contemporary ‘indie’ computer games like Super Hexagon.

Download:
Episode 2 – ‘Growing Up Digital

About the Series

BAI logo mark colourMad Scientists of Music is a six part, BAI funded documentary series on Near FM. The show explores the world of Circuit Bending, Chip Tune, and Electroacoustic music in Ireland. Low cost technology, recycled instruments and a new attitude to tinkering embodied by the ‘maker movement’ are helping to reinvent music. A new generation of Irish musicians raised around computers, the internet and video gaming, see noise as something to be hacked, taken apart, and reconstructed. These artists build their own instruments, whether by recycling toy keyboards, modifying video game consoles, or attaching electronics to traditional stringed instruments. They often share their music online for free, and in doing so challenge our ideas about copyright and ownership. Their playful attitude to technology finds new uses for obsolete devices and brings the collaboration of musicianship to engineering and the arts.

Credits

Part 1 – Gaming

Game experience intro: Sebastian Dooris (Deathness Injection)
Montage of Gamers: Emma (of Deathness Injection), Andrew Edgar, Kieran Dold (Karakara), John Leech (Siam Collective), Ed Devane, Colm Olwill, Ed Devane, Meljoann.

Part 2 – Chiptune

Interviewees: Kieran Dold, Niamh Houston.

Featured Artists

ChipzelKnuckle Joe
ZPGMalware Brigade
ZPGXai Unbound
ChipzelSuper Hexagon Soundtrack and Super Hexagon play through (courtesy of Terry Cavannah)
Menacing WondersChipzel (feat Manami Matsumae)
Super Gammy BoyMicrosoft Excel Swag
Super Gammy BoyI’d Have That Many Followers Too If I Dressed Like a Whore
Bitwise OperatorHows That

Threat Detection – Episode 20 – Character in Videogames

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Download: Threat Detection – Episode 20

Does character matter?
A vessel for the player to travel through the story.
An enigma in his/her self.
Often times an empty receptacle for containing player projections.

How can it be conveyed in interactive media?

Characters can often be more than their general perspective of first and third person perspective.

Often times the perspective of the character is taken advantage of to better inform a kind of meta narrative or even just to take a more focused and fixed look on the game’s themes (a la Half Life)

Characters can also be unsculpted mounds of marble for the player to not only mold to their tastes but also to have the availability to shift the game engine’s choice of perspective between first and third person.

Will you be the stabby stabby guy, the hammering Yorkshire madman or a resigned and fashionable wizard who flames his enemies.
Distance between player and manipulable character is drastically shortened. This enhances the likelihood of the player embodying his character. They are verbs of the player’s whim and the supplementary background.

Threat Detection – Episode 15 – Privilege

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Download: Threat Detection – Episode 15

1) Super Bunny Hop reports VAC bans affecting Dark Souls 2
– vac bans for using graphics enhancing hook file

2) Onion AV club running a series of articles on empty spaces in games
World of Warcraft
Myst and Riven

3) More privilege theory applied to gaming

Threat Detection – Episode 4 – Finally

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The ‘lost episode’ of Threat Detection! At last available. Apologies for the delay on this one, it got lost in the mix while moving studios.

Download: Episode 4

We talk about…

1) A look back through our Gaming histories!

2) The new consoles – XBox 1 vs the PS4

3) A contentious take on the dodgy future of Nintendo

New Live Show – Threat Detection

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Radiomade is a facinating web based Dublin radio station. They ‘hit the headlines’ as they say in the yellow press, late last year with a successful effort to beat the world record number of consecutive interviews. Last July a similar stunt saw station proprietors Jack & Dan host 24 DJs in 24 hours. Point is they’re doing something new, capturing the imagination of a generation disillusioned with Ireland’s utterly terrible and inexplicably popular commercial and semi-state radio offerings.

Just before Christmas I got in touch with Radiomade and suggested a couple of shows to the guys. One is an ambitious monthly culture / comedy offering that it looks like we’ll be debuting in the near future. The other, a weekly discussion about videogames, technology and interactive entertainment kicked off last night. Threat Detection features myself and Exchange Dublin veteran James Van De Waal. Each show starts with a monologue to kick the discussion off, followed by an in-depth dissection of a trend, issue or incident in gaming. To start the series, we felt is was important to address the issue of games as a medium – specifically a growing and ferociously compelling form of immersion.

Here’s the first episode’s opening monologue…

‘There was a general air of disrepair. Shops were boarded up. The pavement was broken and potholed. A few automobiles traveled on the broken streets. They, at least, appeared to be of a slightly advanced design, but they were dented, dirty and noisy… Clothes had not changed nor had the common speech…. It appeared that in four hundred years nothing at all had been accomplished. Many familiar buildings had collapsed. Others still stood. He looked in vain for a newspaper or magazine’.

An excerpt from John D MacDonald’s short fiction ‘Spectator Sport’, published in 1950. In the story a time traveller visits an America three hundred and fifty years hence, discovering a society that has chosen to focus its energy entirely on the creation of ever more compelling interactive dreams. Dreams a man may labour his whole life to permanently inhabit.

Videogames terrify me, not because I dislike them, but because I find their dizzyingly abundant fantastical worlds so all consuming. The great psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott came up with a word for finding one’s life satisfaction in an uncreative imaginary avoidance: He called it ‘fantasying’, the act of escapist self-delusion. At their worst videogames offer the most compelling opportunity for fantasying possible. Let me read you something else…

‘I think the twenty first century will see a social cataclysm larger than that caused by cars, radios and TV combined… The exodus of people from the real world, from our normal daily life, will create a change in social climate that makes global warming look like a tempest in a teacup’.

Thus begins the introduction to Jane McGonigal’s 2011 book ‘Reality is Broken’, with a quote from Edward Castronova’s ‘Exodus to the virtual world: How Online Fun is Changing Reality’. McGonigal attempts to refute this dire warning, suggesting that since games really do provide a more compelling experience than reality, harnessing their power can incentivize social goods and reinvigorate democracy.

Videogames let us embody avatars, alternative versions of self in worlds unbound by our physical limitations. We can experiment with gender, escape into empowerment fantasies or wreak death and destruction on distant or fictional opponents. Games give vent to our secret impossible dreams and desires; they can enlighten us, enervate us, sate us or drain us. Games combine narrative storytelling, music, theatre and with the added lure of interactivity. They are perhaps the ultimate human form of entertainment, and it’s time we took them a little more seriously.

Is Castronova with his dire warnings of a polis abandoned by its citizens a Cassandra, doomed to be ignored as we sleepwalk into a brave new world of dulling distractions? Is McGonigal right in seeing games as a new freedom to extinguish the unpleasant and mundane, a tool to solve our most intractable problems? This is Threat Detection, a new show about videogames.

You can catch Threat Detection live each Tuesday at 6PM GMT on Radiomade, or catch up with past shows here.

Image: Logo based on four hyperboloid bundles in a tetrahedral like intersection by Fdecomite. Used under – Creative Commons Attribution Licence.