I wanted to believe the tales of Polybius, the arcade game that drove its own players to madness. It was the perfect urban legend, for the details of its telling reinforced its own state of unverifiable limbo. Any and all cabinets which may or may not have once existed were seized by the powers that be, leaving an empty-handed public to speculate about whether or not they’d ever actually been there to begin with.
"It doesn't look like it's on at all, does it?” That was [removed out of courtesy], the private collector who invited me into his home to show me his supposed copy of the game. “Try to defocus your eyes a bit, like you're looking at a magic eye puzzle. Let the screen do the work for you."
Though skeptical, I stared into the vacuum of the cabinet’s monitor for several minutes, and eventually, the phantom game appeared. It was like gazing into a microscope for the first time, trying to make sense of whatever flickered into view. There were cascades of black stars emerging from a central vanishing point, polygons spiraling off into peripheral nowhere, and a sequence of blurred numbers blinking in the upper-left corner. All of this took place in total darkness.
"Now you see it, don't you? That’s the result of a gas called ‘black neon.’ Its glow consists of two separate wavelengths of light. Each is interpreted as black in color by the eyes, yet is also slightly out of phase with the other. The photoreceptors of the retinae are sharp enough to discern between the two separate waves, but the redundant hue gets written off during the visual cortex’s processing at the last minute. This results in the ability to perceive form within nothingness, just shapes in and of themselves. It’s as close to Platonic ideals as you can get.
"At first, it was intended to solve the problem of pixelation. Black neon provided an outline to objects that were rough around the edges, drawing the player’s eyes away from their imperfect rasterization. When they used it this way, the difference in graphical quality was a negligible curiosity. Then, a couple of Atari engineers who'd been experimenting with psychotropics got to thinking, what would happen if we just filled the whole damn screen with this? And that's how they ended up making Polybius, a game specifically designed to tamper with the brain through the eyes."
My God, did I want to believe him. And yet, “I’ve gotta say, this strikes me as the perfect scheme to perpetuate the myth of Polybius. You can show people an empty screen, tell them that if they keep looking, they'll see what they want to see, and pareidolia will take care of the rest. Believers will see Polybius, nonbelievers will see nothing, and you'll just keep reaping the benefits until the story is forgotten."
“Ah, but you missed one category of person," he replied. "People who come to me, and don't know how to believe in anything at all. They don't trust their surroundings, or even their own senses of those surroundings, yet somehow, they think that they’ll find a truth they can accept in a stranger’s basement. I've shown you the genuine article, Polybius itself, yet despite that, you're going to keep looking. You're going to do it because nothing will ever seem authentic enough for you, yet you also won’t be able accept the possibility that it doesn't exist. I’m afraid that you’re beyond satisfaction.”
A moment of silence followed. ”I guess I'll see myself out, then."
“So you shall. Of course, you're welcome to come back whenever you're ready for your journey to end," he grinned. "Though we both know that's not going to happen any time soon."