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.
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.