Jeff Minter's Polybius – the Game, and the Urban Myth

By Rich Stanton on at

No-one knows where the urban myth of Polybius originated, but the name shows that whoever was behind it had a brain, and a sense of history. Polybius was supposedly an arcade cabinet that appeared in 1981 and had unusual effects on players - insomnia accompanied by night terrors, and a loss of interest in videogames. Men in black regularly visited the machine to check the data it had accumulated. No-one has ever been able to find proof it existed.

And the name? It’s from a Greek historian of the Hellenistic period who established one of the early rules for those who would write about history: never report anything you can’t independently verify. Few believe that Polybius was real but it’s become something of a gaming in-joke over the years, appearing in the background of shows like The Simpsons, and when Jeff Minter started to think about making a VR game, the name jumped out.

We’ll return to the myth, but what is this real Polybius? It’s difficult to explain because, while in its components it’s a tube shooter, in practice it feels a lot more like a driving game – or as Minter later puts it, skiiing. Your vehicle moves forwards at an initially-sedate pace, and along the way there are various gates to drive through that make you pick up speed. You can shoot (which has a comfortable autofire mode) various obstacles and enemies, but shooting doesn’t really feel like the point. This is a journey.

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The opening levels start gently, on more-or-less flat ground with the elements well-spaced out – you just get used to the controls, zooming forwards, and trying to hit the gates. Then things start to get a little faster, and a little bit crazier. The walls start curving upwards, sometimes joining to create full circles, which your craft can lazily loop around while nailing gate configurations designed to encourage just this. Next thing you’re on a cylinder, whizzing around the edges and chaining scores as the speed picks up and up and up.

It’s not dying that matters in Polybius, so much as speed. Colliding with the edges of gates or other obstacles sucks your craft’s momentum, giving the player a gentle prod rather than an abrupt and potentially immersion-breaking explosion – and this feeds into the wider sensation of what exactly it is doing with VR.

Polybius suffers in 2D screens, because it’s not a 2D game in the slightest – what can sometimes look cluttered and noisy is beautifully clear in VR. These otherworldly colour combinations and effects make it feel almost, at times, like driving through a cosmic chill-out zone, and the strangest thing is how intensely relaxing it is to play. Those experienced with Minter’s games know they build up to offer white-hot challenges, and Polybius will surely build too, but this is not the game’s character.

I asked Minter about this aspect of Polybius, and the effect he was going for. “The more you learn it, I mentioned about it almost being like skiing. In skiing, when you first learn you just want to get down the run and not break your neck, and then you get a bit of confidence and you can come down fairly well. When you get good, and you can fly down that slope with your headphones on and your music rocking, that just feels wonderful. The levels in Polybius are a bit like that.”

“The first few times you’ll hack your way through it, then you’ll start to learn the tricks that keep the boost going longer, and there are lots of little scoring tricks you can learn on the way, lots of little chain things you can learn, so as you get better you can not only keep your flow going but you can also keep your score wrapped up as well. It’s all about guiding the player towards that state of flow, which to me has been something that I’ve been trying to access in every psychedelic game I’ve made, really, that state where you just get into it and it’s almost like you’re at one with the game. I love that feeling.”

It all immediately makes me think of Unity, the Llamasoft and Lionhead co-production that was in serious development but eventually never saw release. The idea there was something similar, and a theme of Minter’s career - trying to create some form of synaesthesia through the combination of effects and gameplay. For my money, he achieved this with Space Giraffe. But is Polybius also some sort of heir?

“There is a lot of Unity in this, but there’s a lot of it in everything I’ve done since Unity really. There’s a lot of stuff that I tried in that. Unity was the reason that I even developed Neon [the Xbox 360’s superb music visualiser] because Neon was originally designed as a texture generator for Unity. There’s always bits and pieces of that which I take but I think Polybius is the game which takes you to that state the fastest.”

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“I remember when I first went down and demonstrated just the bare concept to Sony, just over a year ago, and Polybius looks okay from the outside but you don’t really get the feeling until you’re in there. We had to demonstrate to this one guy who wasn’t saying anything, and he plays for a little while in silence, and he takes the headset off. Then he said, ‘After two minutes, I felt like I was a Jedi.’ And I’m like, ‘Yes, that’s what I want to do. I want to make people feel like they’re a Jedi.’ And when it really speeds up and you’re zapping through that stuff and it’s just, like, brushing past you but you’re not colliding it’s a lovely lovely feeling. I want to communicate that feeling to people.”

I know the Jedi feeling – it’s that sensation you get when you’re in tune with a game, controlling it almost at a subconscious level and pulling off moves you could never do while thinking about them. Some people call it flow. Whatever else Polybius does, it certainly hits this state – and amazingly quickly. When I play something like Space Giraffe it takes a while to settle into your rhythms and routines, start nodding along to the music, and then forget yourself. But with Polybius, two minutes sounds about right. I put the headset on and, a few minutes later, Minter himself may as well have been in Timbuktu. The real world was temporarily paused.

The final game is due early Spring and will have 50 levels total. “They’ve all got the opportunity that when you get it right you can just do that straight through and make it feel beautiful, and that takes a lot of playing. We spend a lot of time just sitting there playing and playing, tweaking and tweaking.”

A final note on the name. Over the years various people have looked into the Polybius myth, and I recommend Brian Dunning’s investigation. One of the fascinating discoveries he made was that, in 1981, an early release version of Tempest had caused problems among some players – including motion sickness and vertigo.

Who knows whether this grew, over time, into the legend of a game that was more than a game. But it is surely appropriate that, over three decades later, the man whose career is inextricable from his variants on Tempest is reclaiming the name. Polybius may have started as a Tempest test cab, and became an urban myth. But in a few short months, it will finally be real.