If you've listened to the podcast "Rabbits" by the Pacific Northwest-based Public Radio Alliance, read the comments on a YouTube upload of "Cabinet Man" by Neil Cicierega or spent any time delving into the mysterious, disturbing and random world of Internet mysteries, then you have likely heard the legend of Polybius. An arcade game from the 1980's, that, if rumors are to be believed, was invented by the government as a psychological experiment to cause hallucinations and addiction. Did it exist? Was it all made up? That is what "POLYBIUS: The Video Game That Doesn't Exist" (2017) intends to find out.
Directed and written by Stuart Brown and released on his YouTube Channel Ahoy which is dedicated to "insightful gaming videos," the POLYBIUS documentary goes down the long, long path of attempting to trace the urban legend, from finding the earliest mention of the game online to even tracking down earlier mentions in print media. Unlike most documentaries that utilize a lot of real-world footage, "POLYBIUS" mostly uses screenshots, gameplay videos, and photographs of documents to support the narrative, which is unsurprising for a film based in the digital realm. Since going on the journey alongside Brown is a major part of the documentary's appeal, this review will not contain details of specific sources or the conclusions that Brown comes to at the end of the film. As a viewer, I strongly believe that it is most satisfying (and makes the most sense) to see all the evidence pieces and explanations laid out in order from beginning to end.
In terms of audiovisual excitement, "POLYBIUS" has good visual quality in terms of focusing on the important aspects of everything shown, but the narrator's near-monotone (which is likely digitally-altered) gets a bit dull if one is accustomed to the more lively narration, dialogue, and interviews commonplace in documentaries. The use of dramatic backgound music, which might seem amateur on the outside, works surprisingly well in this film because it helps to engage the audience with the mood of the story in the absence of breathtaking scenery or live presentations. The ominous synth music creates a feeling of truly being in the digital realm, which is appropriate for the subject matter and, while not equal to a good wildlife documentary making you feel as if you are watching baby lions play in the savannah, is still somewhat comparable.
Being a YouTube documentary, "POLYBIUS" faces some unique challenges as a film. While it is accessible and free to watch for anybody a WiFi connection, it didn't have the budget, marketing, limited release (read: manufactured scarcity) or high ticket prices (read: funding to pay back expenses and maybe profit) of a typical documentary. These limitations don't pose as large a problem for a digital documentary about an Internet mystery as they would for BBC's "Planet Earth" (2006), but they are real considerations for filmmakers in terms of gaining publicity and being able to afford production costs--which, like it or not, includes online editing software and paying the production team for voice-overs. Additionally, YouTube documentaries must try harder than others to engage their audience. Traditionally-released and streaming productions can easily pander to film festival audiences, weekend moviegoers with maybe 5 or 6 choices and, more recently, people who will watch anything on Netflix that might alleviate that omnipresent pandemic ennui. Meanwhile, YouTube documentaries look no different from literally millions of other selections on the site, are difficult to target to a specific audience despite the algorithm and can easily be clicked-away from in favor of makeup tutorials, shorter educational videos about philosophy, recipe instructions or a bunch of shrimp eating a watermelon--all of which have the potential to be equally educational and entertaining. So I can't blame the creators of "POLYBIUS" for utilizing a bit of manufactured suspense and flashy animation here and there to hold the audience's attention, even though a more serious film may take on a more down-to-earth tone with fewer attempts to evoke nostalgia and its air of fantasy. This aspect also got the film over 5 million views as of 13 February 2021. If you're interested in an entertaining look into a mysterious chapter in the history of gaming with a clean look, check it out; if you are looking for a more serious journalistic approach (or a documentary with more real-world action or cute baby animals), you may want to skip this one.