Over time, all close-knit communities develop legends. From the creation myths of the Ancient Greeks to the campfire tales of modern Boy Scouts, human beings have always taken the inexplicable, filtered it through the lens of the imagination, and disseminated the result in myriad songs and stories.
It is, perhaps, telling of our nature that many of the narratives we weave to unravel our world tend towards malicious explanations. In Greece, petty gods battled in the sky and their anger was manifested in the world as lightning bolts and thunderstorms. In Mexico, a child vanishes and tales of La Llorona are shared in whispers among terrified schoolmates.
As far as communities go, video games have inspired a fiercely loyal, overwhelmingly unified one. From the socially isolated computer aficionados of the 1980s, a culture of acceptance has taken root and given birth to the era of the geek. Beneath the surface, however, there will always exist an eerie undercurrent that highlights the community’s struggles and — most of all — its fears.
As an example, look no further than the legend of Polybius. According to legend, the game — its name, unsurprisingly, taken from a Greek historian — was released in 1981 and caused its players to suffer seizures, nightmares and temporary insanity. The imposing black arcade cabinets were supposedly visited by men in black who combed through the game’s logs, collecting data on its players who were, in fact, government test subjects.
The myth of Polybius could be seen to highlight the video game community’s fear of impending governmental interference, the spoiling of the community’s intellectual purity and the transformation of games from something beautiful and creative into something harmful and dangerous.
Here, we examine a handful of tall tales that have emerged within the gaming community. Whether they serve as an expression of the fear of loneliness or as an examination of the medium’s very nature, here's a look at four unnerving video game urban legends.
4 The Citadel
With the popularity of Skyrim, there has been a recent resurgence of interest in the previous Elder Scrolls games. Over ten years ago, the series’ third installment, Morrowind, cast players in the role of a recently freed convict and sets them on a quest to investigate the Sixth House, an ancient Great House whose methods include the invasion of minds.
Though the Sixth House is a fictional device, in 2007, a “chosen few” members of various Elder Scrolls communities received a file that — purportedly — modded the game into something new, something unrecognizable, something… real. The file, jvk1166z.esp, was at first thought to be a virus, as it would freeze the game and corrupt saved files.
Players, intrigued by the mod’s taciturn indifference to their efforts, persisted and eventually discovered that the game was operational when played through DOSbox. Reports vary, but on a number of details they are consistent. First, every NPC related to the game’s primary quest is dead. Second, a shadowy, arachnid figured called “The Assassin” stalked players wherever they went. Third, there is an impossibly deep, painfully difficult dungeon called “The Citadel” that few players managed to successfully delve.
Those who did, however, tell of a room whose walls were adorned with pictures from the player’s My Pictures folder and a locked door that could not be opened. Conspiracies abound, fans of the mod insisted that afterwards, “The Assassin” began to appear in their unmodded games. One player, seemingly enthralled by the mod’s atmosphere, sent a panicked message to a friend claiming, “[i]t’s at my window […] like he's knocking his finger against the glass. I might still be dreaming now” and was never heard from again.
3 Ben Drowned
It all started innocently, as many tales of terror do: at a yard sale. A college student, named jadusable, was given a Nintendo 64 for his dorm. Like many college students, jadusable was burdened with two things: a constant sense of boredom and a crippling amount of student debt. So, he did what any of us would do, he took to the streets in search of adventure or, if that wasn’t available, cheap video games.
Inexplicably attracted to a certain roadside vendor, he’s confused by the sale’s lackluster offerings. A single table, piled high with miscellaneous garbage yielded only a single item of interest: a plain, gray cartridge branded in permanent marker with the name “Majora.”
Back home, the game proved difficult. A previous save game, titled “BEN,” seemed to interfere with his new game. NPCs called him Ben, spoke to him about Ben and — most disturbing of all — continued to tell him that “Ben drowned.” Complicating matters, what initially were minor texture errors became full-fledged impossibilities. His character would randomly catch on fire or witness strange statues appear out of nowhere bearing the message, “You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?”
Jadusable posted a series of blogs about his experiences with the game. Ultimately, the entries devolved into incoherent, irrational ranting. Ultimately, he assured readers that he had burned the cartridge and his laptop, freeing himself from the cartridge’s malevolent curse.
2 Pokemon Black
Pokemon has captured the imaginations of children and adults for years. The games, celebrated across all of Nintendo platforms, have gathered a highly devoted base of fans that keep a vigilant eye open for any news about new installments in the prolific series. With their upbeat, typically cheerful atmosphere it came as a surprise, then, when a few years back rumors about a seemingly malevolent and previously unknown Pokemon Black began to surface.
According to those who have played the game, Pokemon Black begins the same way Pokemon Red began with one key difference. Among the player’s starting Pokemon is a new creature called, “GHOST” who knows only a single attack called “Curse.” With GHOST, the game was a breeze since the Curse attack immediately killed any Pokemon or trainer that it was used against. Initially, players struggled to understand the point of a game so easy.
And then the end came. An old man — apparently an aged version of the game’s main character — strolled about a deserted cemetery. Friendless and alone, he — the sole inhabitant of this cold, empty world — gazed upon the tombstones as a sequence of images flashed on the screen. The images, each featuring one of the previously defeated NPCs, informed the player of the consequences for their actions. The apocalypse had come and gone, the holocaust of Lavender Town was real… and the player was responsible.
Claimed to be one of the earliest examples of the survival horror genre, 1989’s Killswitch by the Karvina Corporation tells the story of Porto and Ghast, two playable characters inhabiting a macabre and labyrinthine coal mine. The mine, now abandoned, was once the employer of Porto and is now haunted by a band of demons like Ghast.
A press released purportedly sent out by the Karvina Corporation stated, “Killswitch was designed to be a unique playing experience: Like reality, it is unrepeatable, unretrievable, and illogical. One might even say ineffable. Death is final; death is complete.” To exemplify these statements, Killswitch reportedly erased itself once completed, making the experience intangible. Like many urban legends, it was an undocumented occurrence in search of form.
That form appeared in 2005, when Yamamoto Ryuichi was rumored to have purchased the last remaining copy of the game for $733,000. Intending to document and broadcast his experience, followers of the Killswitch legend anxiously tuned in to verify the existence of what is, at its heart, a digital ghost.
Later that year, a single video appeared. Ryuichi is motionless, seated before a faded computer screen locked on the Killswitch title screen. He says nothing, and weeps.