1978--Space Invaders--inspired by Star Wars--first blockbuster game
1979--Tail Gunner, Asteroids, Galaxian, and Star Fire all released.
1979--Star Raiders--released for Atari 400/800--ported to other systems.
1980--Empire Strikes Back released in movie theaters.
1980--Battlezone by Atari--first realistic tank simulator game
1981--March--US Army contracts Atari to convert Battlezone into "Bradley Trainer," a tank training simulator. Army claims only one prototype was ever made, but control yoke design used in many future games including Star Wars and PHAETON!
1981--July--First Polybius sightings at MGP in Beaverton. Mid-July.
1982--E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial--out-grosses Star Wars.
1982--The Thing, Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan
1983--Return of the Jedi!
1983--Starmaster--space combat simulator for the Atari 2600
1983--Star Wars: The Arcade Game by Atari & Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator by Sega--cabinets simulate cockpit
1984--Elite--released on 9/20/84--game inspires Star Raiders
1984--2010: The Year We Make Contact--sequel to 2001
1984--The Last Starfighter released on 7/13! Videogame tie-in canceled?
1985--Explorers, Enemy Mine
1985--Ender's Game (novel) published--same premise as '77 short story
1986--Iron Eagle, Aliens, Flight of the Navigator, Invaders from Mars
1987--The Hidden, Predator
1988--Alien Nation, They Live
1989-- PHAETON cabinet sighted at MGP on 8/8/89. Never seen again.
1989--MechWarrior released--another training sim for military use?
1990--Wing Commander--released by Origin Systems--training sim?
1991--Wing Commander II
1993--Star Wars Rebel Assault, X-Wing, Privateer, Doom
1993--The X-Files--fictional alien cover-up created to conceal real one?
1994--Star Wars: TIE Fighter, Wing Commander 3, Doom II
1994--The Puppet Masters, Stargate,
1995--Absolute Zero, Shockwave, Wing Commander IV
1996--Marine Doom--Doom II modified for use by the USMC
1996--Star Trek: First Contact, Independence Day
1997--Men in Black, Starship Troopers, Contact
1997--Independence Day videogame tie-in released--Playstation and PC
1997--X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter
1998--Dark City, The Faculty, Lost in Space
1998--Wing Commander Secret Ops, Star Wars Trilogy Arcade
1999--Star Wars: Episode I
The release of the first Star Wars film in 1977 seemed to be the timeline's focal point. My father had circled that entry several times and drawn a series of arrows linking it to at least a dozen other items further down the timeline--including a bunch of videogames that the Star Wars franchise had helped inspire, like Space Invaders, Star Hawk, Elite, and Wing Commander.
Armada wasn't listed on my father's timeline, of course--nor was any other game released in the past eighteen years. His final entry was the one noting the release of Galaxy Quest in December of 1999. I was born a few months later, and by the time I reached my first birthday, my poor father was already fertilizing daffodils at the local cemetery.
I spent a few more minutes puzzling over the timeline before turning my attention to the notebook's first page, which contained a pencil drawing of an old-school coin-operated arcade game--one I didn't recognize. Its control panel featured a single joystick and one unlabeled white button, and its cabinet was entirely black, with no side art or other markings anywhere on it, save for the game's strange title, which was printed in all capital green letters across its jet black marquee: polybius.
Below his drawing of the game, my father had made the following notations:
* No copyright or manufacturer info anywhere on game cabinet.
* Reportedly only seen for 1-2 weeks in July 1981 at MGP.
* Gameplay was similar to Tempest. Vector graphics. Ten levels?
* Higher levels caused players to have seizures, hallucinations, and nightmares. In some cases, subject committed murder and/or suicide.
* "Men in Black" would download scores from the game each night.
* Possible early military prototype created to train gamers for war?
* Created by same covert op behind Bradley Trainer?
Back when I'd first discovered the journal, I'd done a quick Internet search and learned that Polybius was an urban legend that had been circulating on the Internet for decades. It was the title of a strange videogame that only appeared in one Portland arcade during the summer of 1981. According to the story, the game drove several kids who played it insane; then the machine mysteriously vanished, never to be seen again. In some versions of the story, "Men in Black" were also seen visiting the arcade after closing time, to open up the Polybius machine and download the high scores from its data banks.
But according to the Internet, the Polybius urban legend had already been debunked. Its origins had been traced back to an incident in the summer of 1981, at a now-defunct arcade right here in Beaverton called the Malibu Grand Prix. Some kid collapsed from exhaustion after an Asteroids high score attempt and got taken away in an ambulance. Accounts of this incident were apparently conflated with another rumor circulating in the arcades at that time, about how the Atari arcade game Tempest caused some of the kids who played it to have epileptic seizures--which was actually true.
The Men in Black part of the urban legend also appeared to have roots in reality. In the early '80s, there had been an ongoing federal investigation into illegal gambling at various Portland-area arcades, and so during that time there really had been FBI agents spotted around local game rooms after closing time, opening up game machines--but this was to check for gambling devices, not to monitor gamers' high scores.
Of course, none of this information had come to light yet when my father had drawn his sketch of the Polybius game in his notebook sometime in the early '90s. Back then, Polybius would've just been a local urban legend--circulating around the very arcade where it had been born, Malibu Grand Prix. The same arcade my father had frequented when he was growing up.
On the second page of the notebook my father had drawn an illustration of another fictional arcade game, called Phaeton. My father's sketch of its cabinet was far more elaborate and detailed than his sketch of Polybius--perhaps because he claimed to have seen the game with his own eyes. Across the top of the page he'd written: "I saw this game with my own eyes on 8-9-1989 at Malibu Grand Prix in Beaverton, Oregon."
Then he'd signed his name.
According to his drawing, Phaeton had a sit-down cockpit-style game cabinet, which was sort of capsule shaped, like a Tron light cycle, with fake laser cannons built into each side of it, making the game itself look like a starship. Weirdest of all, it had doors. According to my father's sketch, the cabinet had two clamshell-shaped hatches made of tinted plexiglass, one on either side of the cockpit seat, which opened straight up, like the doors on a Lamborghini, and sealed you inside while you played the game. He'd also drawn a schematic of its control panel, which featured a four-trigger flight yoke, buttons mounted on each armrest, and another bank of switches on the cockpit ceiling. To me, it looked more like a flight simulator than a videogame. The entire cabinet was black, except for the game's title--printed in stylized white letters across its side: PHAETON.
I hadn't been able to find any mention of a videogame by that name when I'd tried looking it up on the Internet seven years ago. I took out my phone and did another quick search on it. Still, nothing. According to the Internet, there had never been a videogame called Phaeton released anywhere, for any platform. That name had been appropriated for lots of other things, including cars and comic book characters. But there had never been an arcade game released with that title. Which mean the whole thing was probably a figment o
I glanced back at my father's illustration of the Phaeton cabinet. He'd drawn an arrow to the umlaut over the capital E in the word PHAETON printed on its side. Next to the arrow he wrote: "Umlaut conceals hidden data port plug for downloading scores!"
As with his Polybius drawing, he'd made several bulleted notations down below--an apparent list of "facts" about the fictional game:
* Only seen at MGP on 8-9-1989--removed and never seen again.
* No copyright or manufacturer information anywhere. Plain black game cabinet--just like the eyewitness descriptions of Polybius.
* First-person space combat simulator--gameplay similar to Battlezone and Tail Gunner 2. Color vector graphics.
* "Men in Black" arrived at closing time and took game away in a black cargo van--also very similar to Polybius stories.
* Link between Bradley Trainer and Polybius and Phaeton? All prototypes created to train/test gamers for military recruitment?
I studied both the Polybius and Phaeton illustration for several more minutes. Then I flipped ahead to the journal entry describing Battlezone.
1981--US Army contracts Atari to convert Battlezone into "Bradley Trainer," a training simulator for the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. It was unveiled at a worldwide TRADOC conference in March 1981. After that, Atari claims project was "abandoned" and only one prototype was ever produced. But the new six-axis controller Atari created for Bradley Trainer was used in many of their upcoming games, including Star Wars.
This part of my father's conspiracy theory, at least, was true. From what I'd read online, a group of "US Army consultants" really had paid Atari to rework Battlezone into a training simulator for the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, and the United States Army really had pursued the idea of using videogames to train real soldiers, as early as 1980. As my father had also noted on his strange timeline, the Marine Corps had run a similar operation back in 1996, when they'd modified the groundbreaking first-person shooter Doom II and used it to train soldiers for real combat.
If he'd lived to see it, my father's timeline probably would have also listed the release of America's Army in 2002, a free-to-play videogame that had been one of the US Army's most valuable recruiting tools for over a decade now. An army recruiter had even let us spend a half-hour playing it at school, just after we'd finished taking the mandatory ASVAB test--the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. I remembered thinking it was pretty weird that we were being encouraged to play a videogame simulation of warfare, right after being tested on our aptitude for it.
I continued to flip through the faded pages of my father's notebook, marveling at the time and energy he'd spent researching and puzzling over the details of the elaborate conspiracy he'd believed he was uncovering. Lists of names, dates, movie titles, and half-formed theories were scribbled across every page. But, I realized now, my ten-year-old self had been too hasty in dismissing it as gibberish. There was at least a hint of method lurking behind his seeming madness.
It looked as though the existence of Bradley Trainer and Marine Doom were two of the key pieces of "evidence" behind his vague, half-formed conspiracy theory, along with the classic science fiction novel Ender's Game, and two old movies, The Last Starfighter and Iron Eagle. My father had highlighted the release dates of these items on his timeline, and later on in the notebook he'd devoted several pages to describing and dissecting their storylines--as if they held crucial clues about the grand mystery he was trying to solve.
I smiled down at the list. I'd never even heard of Iron Eagle until I saw it mentioned in my father's journal and watched the VHS copy of it I found among this things. The film had instantly become one of my go-to guilty-pleasure movies. The hero of Iron Eagle is an Air Force brat named Doug Masters who learns to pilot an F-16 by cutting class to sneak into the base flight simulator--really just an incredibly expensive videogame. Doug is a natural pilot, but only if he's rocking out to his favorite tunes. When his dad gets shot down overseas and taken captive, Doug steals two F-16s and flies over to rescue him, with a little help from Lou Gossett Jr., his Walkman, Twisted Sister, and Queen.
The result was a cinematic masterpiece--although sadly, it appeared to be recognized as such by me alone. Cruz and Diehl had both vowed never to sit through another screening of it. Muffit was still always happy to curl up and watch it with me though, and our repeated viewings of the film, along with the Snoopy vs. the Red Baron album my mother insisted on playing every Christmas, had served as the inspiration for my Armada pilot call sign: IronBeagle. (When I posted in the Armada player forums, my avatar was an image of Snoopy in his World War I flying ace getup.)
I glanced back at his timeline once again. My father had drawn circles around the entries for Iron Eagle, Ender's Game, and The Last Starfighter; then he'd added lines connecting them all to each other--and now for the first time I finally understood why. All three stories were about a kid who trained for real-life combat by playing a videogame simulation of it.
I kept flipping pages until I came to the journal's second-to-last entry. In the center of an empty page my father had written the following question:
What if they're using videogames to train us to fight without us even knowing it? Like Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid, when he made Daniel-san paint his house, sand his deck, and wax all of his cars--he was training him and he didn't even realize it!
Wax on, wax off--but on a global scale!
The journal's final entry was an undated, rambling, half-illegible, four-page-long essay in which my father attempted to summarize the threads of his half-formed conspiracy theory and link them together.
"The entire videogame industry is secretly under the control of the US military," he wrote. "They may have even invented the videogame industry! WHY?"
Aside from his fictional Polybius and Phaeton drawings, he never gave much in the way of evidence. Just his own wild theories.
"The military--or some shadow organization within the military--is tracking and profiling all of the world's highest-scoring videogamers, using a variety of methods." Then he detailed one example--Activision's high-score patches.
Back in the '80s, the game company Activision had run a popular promotion in which players who mailed in proof of a high score--in the form of a Polaroid of the high score on their TV screen--received cool embroidered patches as a reward. My father believed Activision's patch promotion had actually been an elaborate ruse designed to obtain the names and addresses of the world's highest-scoring gamers.
At the end of the entry, using a different-colored pen, my father had added: "Much easier to track elite gamers now via the Internet! Was this one of the reasons it was created?"
Of course, my father never actually got around to specifying exactly what he believed the military was going to recruit all of the world's most gifted gamers to do. But his timeline and journal entries were filled with ominous references to games, films, and shows about alien visitors, both friendly and hostile: Space Invaders, E.T., The Thing, Explorers, Enemy Mine, Aliens, The Abyss, Alien Nation, They Live. ...
I shook my head vigorously, as if it were possible to shake out the crazy.
Nearly two decades had elapsed since my father had first written all of this stuff in his journal, and in all that time, no secret government videogame conspiracy had ever come to light. And that was because the whole idea had been a product of my late father's overactive--perhaps even borderline delusional--imagination. The guy had grown up wanting to be Luke Skywalker or Ender Wiggin or Alex Rogan so badly that he'd concocted this elaborate, delusional fantasy in an attempt to make it so.
And that, I told myself, was probably the exact same sort of starry-eyed wanderlust that had triggered my Glaive Fighter hallucination. Maybe the whole incident had even been inspired by the contents of the very journal I now held in my hands. Maybe the memory of my father's conspiracy theory had been sitting up in a forgotten corner of my brain
I took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly, comforted by my half-assed self-diagnosis. Nothing but a mild flare-up of inherited nuttiness, brought on by my lifelong dead-dad fixation and somewhat related self-instituted overexposure to science fiction.
And I had been spending way too much time playing videogames lately--especially Armada. I played it every night and all day on the weekends. I'd even ditched school a few times to play elite missions on servers in Asia that were scheduled in the middle of the day over here. Clearly I had been overdoing it for some time now. But that was easy enough to remedy. I would just go cold turkey for a while, to clear my head.
Sitting there in the dusty attic, I made a silent vow to quit playing Armada entirely for two full weeks--starting right after the elite mission scheduled later that night, of course. Bailing on that wasn't even really an option. Elite missions only rolled out a few times a year, and they usually revealed new plot developments in the game's ongoing storyline.
In fact, I had spent the past week practicing and preparing for tonight's mission, playing Armada even more than I normally did. I'd probably been seeing Glaive Fighters in my sleep. No wonder I was seeing them when I was awake now, too. I just needed to cut myself off. To take a break. Then everything would be fine. I would be fine.
I was still repeating those words to myself, like a mantra, when my phone buzzed a reminder at me. Shit. I'd spent so long up here screwing around that I'd made myself late for work.
I got to my feet and tossed my father's journal back into its cardboard coffin. Enough was enough. The time had come for me to stop living in the past--my father's past, especially. A lot of his old stuff had migrated downstairs to my bedroom--an embarrassing amount, I now realized. My room was practically a shrine to his memory. It was high time I grew up and moved some--if not all--of that crap back up here, where I'd found it. Where it belonged.
I'd get started on that tonight, I told myself as I shut the attic door behind me.
When I pulled into the half-deserted strip mall where "the Base" was located, I parked a few spots away from my boss Ray's gas-guzzling pride and joy, a red 1964 Ford Galaxie with a faded bumper sticker that read: starship captains do it on impulse.
Armada by Ernest Cline / Science Fiction / Young Adult have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes