My next adventure had its origin in an urban myth about an arcade machine called Polybius. Released in 1981 players had to navigate a wire-frame tunnel. In addition to being surprisingly addictive it was known to induce insomnia, nightmares and fits.
The machine had subliminal messages such as ‘surrender!’, ‘be normal’ and ‘conform’. Like many weird tales from the 1980s Men in Black were reported to turn up and take the arcade machines off the market.
There is not much proof to prove that Polybius actually existed but it was a great starting point for an adventure. After adventures set centuries in the past or in the future it would be a nice change of pace having a game set close to the modern day.
I wanted to have a game with an X-files feel. It had to include government agents, conspiracies and early computer technology used to brain wash people mixed. The big question would be who was behind the arcade machine.
I’d wanted to have the Autons in an adventure and thought about setting the game in LA, tying it into the cosmetic surgery boom as well as silicon valley. The problem was I couldn’t think how to plot such an adventure without losing the focus on the arcade machine.
Instead I thought about the cybermen. It wasn’t just the body that they converted, but the mind as well. What if the arcade machine was downloading a simpler version of the cybermen’s programming?
The only problem I had with this was that it didn’t seem like the typical behaviour for the cybermen, nor did it fit the time frame. Inspiration came from the description of the game itself, the player flying down a wire-frame tunnel.
What if it was a simulation of navigating the time vortex? The fits could be induced by a human mind trying to cope with 4-dimensional thinking. That would suggest that the cybermen were looking to train someone to pilot a time machine.
From this I decided that the cybermen had created their own time vessel and attempted to travel back to ensure that Mondas survived in 1986. The mission failed, leaving a single Cyber Planner the only survivor in 1981.
Stranded the Cyber Planner was found by the son of a farmer. It was able to control the entire family. It still had a mission to complete, it only had a few years to rebuild. It had to find the best candidates to turn into cybermen and ideally pilot another time machine if need be.
Thus it created an arcade machine, using the rural family to build them and deposit them at arcades. Subliminal messages would ensure that teenagers kept returning to play the game, the other hidden messages brainwashing them over time.
I did originally call this arcade machine cyber-war but felt that would be too obvious. Instead the name ‘Vortex’ would only offer clues about what the game was supposed to be replicating. The supposed company that made the game would be called ‘Gemini’ hinting at Earth’s twin, Mondas.
This background for the Cyber Planner would have some nice parallels with Phillipa and the Inspector. The player characters were currently on the run, using an unstable time machine while the Cyber Planner was in a hostile environment lost in time.
I’d use Phillipa’s background as an ambulance woman to get her involved in the whole thing by having her offer medical aide to a teenager having a fit. This would place her (and the holographic Inspector) in the arcade when the Men in Black turned up.
These MiB would actually be real FBI agents. Their mysterious nature and surely manner would hopefully make the players initially think that these are the bad guys. In fact the FBI were just trying to get to the bottom of who was responsible for creating these dangerous arcade machines.
The FBI would be collecting the arcade the machines and investigating the affect it had on the players. The Cyber Planner would have anticipated this and when several arcade cabinets are brought together they would knit together, taking over the facility. This back-up plan would give the Cyber Planner access to a new source of resources.
Once the FBI had whisked the arcade cabinet away there needed to be several paths for the players to investigate. First they could look into the arcade machine itself, looking for another copy to examine.
Secondly the arcade owner would have the letter from the Gemini company that was found with the deposited machine. The letter would lead to a property address which would be empty. The Cyber Planner would just be using it to store constructed machines before having them delivered to various arcades around the country.
Thirdly they could follow up on the boy who had the fit. He’d be taken to hospital where they could encounter other children who were similarly affected. They could speak with doctors to find out more and establish a relationship with the children, to help the players identify with them.
At any of these points the player characters could cross paths again with the FBI, who would become increasingly curious about why the keep meeting. Once they’d established that they were both on the same side then they could start working together.
From there two crisis points would occur, events that would require the players attention. At the FBI holding building the arcade machines would take over while one of the teenagers pre-programmed behaviour would kick in, ordering him to kill his parents.
The FBI would be informed of both incidents but it would be up to the players to decide which deserved their attention and what they left for the FBI. Either way both incidents would lead to the farm house due to the telephone link the arcade machines would establish and a set of co-ordinates programmed into the teenager.
The climax of the game would be at the farm house, the cyber planner located in the barn in a web of wiring. In the farm house the partially converted family would make gruesome soldiers to defend their master.
If Phillipa was exposed to the arcade machine then there would be a chance that she would have been exposed to the subliminal programming. This would add an extra wrinkle to the confrontation with the cyber-planner, especially if it assumed control of her.
The game would be set in Portland, Oregon since that was where Polybius was reported to have first appeared. It would help to give the game a far-flung feel. Gathering details about the place and period I made a note that punk fashions were in vogue and the names of a few films that would have been in the cinema, just so that I could add some colour to the location.
I decided to set it on March 30th 1981, the date that Ronald Reagan was almost assassinated. This would be a big historical moment to set the action against. Phillipa wouldn’t know who the President was but the Inspector would and that he survives. In both respects it would highlight their odd nature as time travellers.
To be Continued…