Most people can cite at least a couple of urban legends or conspiracy theories. Paul McCartney isn’t really Paul McCartney. A ghost haunts a single shot in the 80s comedy hit Three Men And A Baby. Blowing on Nintendo cartridges makes them work better.
With the advent of the internet, we might be forgiven for thinking that outlandish claims and tall tales would be chased away by the might of Google or a website like Snopes, where myth-busting facts are but a search term or click away. Instead, the web has allowed creepy stories and urban legends to travel more quickly than ever, as they’re copied and pasted in forums, emails and social media posts – hence the oft-used term ‘creepypasta’, used to describe these strange, viral tales.
So what happens when urban legends collide with the realm of videogames? All kinds of weird and wonderful things, it turns out, with myths inspiring games and vice versa. To mark the upcoming The Evil Within 2, we’ve taken a look…
The Philadelphia experiment
If you’re into your 80s sci-fi films, you may have heard of The Philadelphia Experiment, a 1984 thriller reputedly based on fact. The widely-shared story suggested that, during World War II, the US navy was researching into ways of making its ships invisible. The secret program had an unexpected side effect, however: it caused a ship, the USS Eldridge, to travel through time. The story was eventually debunked, but it’s still proved a popular staple in pop culture: just look at such games as Xenogears or Half-Life 2: Episode Two, where the Philadelphia experiment gets a mention during the course of their stories.
Curiously, the Half-Life series has itself become something of an urban legend in videogaming circles; it’s over a decade and counting since the last entry, and Episode Three still hasn’t appeared. Our guess is that Valve have been working on an advanced, VR Half-Life 3, which itself seems to have disappeared into the mists of time.
The Madden curse
The John Madden series of American football games has been going strong since the 16-bit era, which has given it plenty of time to build up its own conspiracy theory. The thinking goes that appearing on the cover of a Madden game is something of a poisoned chalice; such players as Garrison Hearst, Eddie George and Ron Gronkowski have all suffered injuries in the same season their determined-looking faces graced the Madden packaging. If you’re an American football player yourself, this might sound like a fate worth avoiding – though it’s worth bearing in mind that the sport’s a fairly brutal one in any event, so all those injuries could be put down to plain old coincidence.
Yurei and The Evil Within
Japanese culture is full of myths and urban legends, and The Evil Within, Shinji Mikami’s survival horror hit from 2014, drew on at least one of these – as well as the imagery of classic movies by George A Romero and David Lynch. Mikami revealed at the time of The Evil Within’s release that Laura – one of the game’s spookiest characters – was directly inspired by a being from Japanese folklore called Yurei. Literally meaning “faint spirit”, Yurei are traditionally characterised by their white clothing and long black hair, and are said to be the vengeful ghosts of people who’ve been wronged in their previous life.
The Evil Within therefore draws on the same urban tales as seminal J-horror Ringu (remade in the US as The Ring), in which a long-haired, malevolent spirit named Sadako emerges from a cursed videotape. All of which only goes to prove that the most powerful ghost stories never really go away – they’re just updated for modern tastes.
Here’s the most recent trailer for The Evil Within 2, just to get you in the mood for the rest of this piece…
A frankly terrifying horror concept that first emerged in the bowels of the website Something Awful, the Slender Man is a wraith-like presence who pops up in old photos – photos siad to have been taken shortly before a series of disappearances and other inexplicable events. Since his first appearance in 2009, the Slender Man has taken on a life of his own, having appeared in his own games (Slender: The Eight Pages and Slender: The Arrival), and immortalised in the indie phenomenon Minecraft when its creators added a character called Enderman as a tribute.
Prophecies in Fallout 3
Forget Nostradamus: if you’re looking for predictions of the future, look no further than Fallout 3. Some time after the game first emerged in 2008, stories began to circulate that brief, crackly radio messages had forecast the date when Queen Elizabeth II would die (March 19th, 2014, we were told). The news soon spread, along with other radio messages heard in the game, such as the revelation that the world would end in 2012. As you may have guessed, neither prophecy came to pass, though we’re still waiting on a confirmation for one prediction: that Britney Spears will win an Oscar in 2023. It could happen, folks.
Final Fantasy VIII
Here’s an urban legend that’s so popular, it even has its own website. The theory is that Squall, one of Final Fantasy VIII’s central characters, actually dies at the game’s midpoint, and that everything we see unfolding thereafter is some kind of nightmarish vision of the afterlife. Could it be true? The game’s developers aren’t saying, which makes this one of videogaming’s more persistent legends.
In his novellas and short stories, master of weird fiction HP Lovecraft often referred to the Necronomicon – a cursed volume that is said to be full of forbidden knowledge and evil. Indeed, the Necronomicon is described in such detail – Lovecraft writes that a copy’s kept in the British Library – that some readers have mistakenly concluded that the book is real. Some mischievous hoaxers have further helped blur the lines between fact and fiction, with entries for the Necronomicon (written by one A Alhazred) appearing in library indexes from time to time.
This might partly explain why the Necronomicon has spread far outside Lovecraft’s own work, either popping up in the short stories of other macabre writers, or occasionally on the silver screen; the cursed book, bound in human skin and full of unholy scrawlings, famously turns up in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead movies.
Seminal videogame Alone In The Dark also makes mention of the Necronomicon, as well as a similarly evil publication, the De Vermis Mysteriis, which sprang from the imagination of fiction writer Clarke Ashton Smith. Like a ghost, these fictional tomes keep emerging from the past to haunt stories of all kinds.
Let’s face it, Nintendo’s follow-up to the much-loved Ocarina Of Time was creepy enough to begin with, but this widely-shared creepypasta takes things up another notch. The short version of the story is this: the spirit of a dead boy named Ben lives on inside a Majora’s Mask cartridge, waiting to terrorise the unsuspecting. If you’re feeling brave, the full story’s well worth reading.
Unless you have an irrational fear of blue mammals or 90s culture, there’s nothing particularly terrifying about Sonic the Hedgehog, the mascot that made Sega the trendiest console manufacturer of the 16-bit era. But this version of Sonic – origin unknown – takes the character into much darker territory, and like the Majora’s Mask cartridge described above, is purported to be cursed. The game itself is a hacked and modified version of the original with added blood and sinister imagery; even more scary, though, is the story that playing this twisted Sonic results in hallucinations. And we thought playing Sonic Boom: Rise Of Lyric was bad.
Pokemon takes place after an apocalypse
Call it tall poppy syndrome: Pokemon was such a phenomenal, multimedia sensation in the late 90s that it’s perhaps inevitable that strange stories would spring up around it. Take the widely-shared fan theory that explains why there are loads of kids in Game Freak’s hit RPG games, but very few adults: the series takes place after a deadly pandemic, which wiped out most of the world’s parents but left their progeny unscathed. Without any grown-ups to boss them around, kids then started collecting animals and forcing them to fight one another until one of them passes out – a pretty dystopian idea, now we think about it.
This isn’t the only Pokemon urban legend, either. Consider the story that the Japanese version of Pokemon Red and Blue contains snatches of music so wildly discordant that it can damage your mental health. Most recently, a strange conspiracy theory sprang up around the hit mobile spin-off, Pokemon Go. On Chinese social media, word got around that Pokemon Go was being used by the American and Japanese governments to spy on China’s military operations.
“Then, when war breaks out, Japan and the US can easily target their guided missiles, and China will have been destroyed by the invasion of a Japanese-American game,” a post on Chinese social media site Weibo read. You can read more about this curious theory over at the Hollywood Reporter
The GlaDOS mystery
Here’s a slightly macabre one. As fans of Valve’s classic Portal will know, the menace at the centre of the game is Glados: an artificial intelligence gone dangerously awry. Towards the end – after traversing a series of increasingly tricky spacial and physics-based puzzles – the player confronts the maniacal AI, which at first glance looks like a mish-mash of strange shapes, lights and cables. According to one theory, however, Glados’ silhouette is designed to resemble a woman, tied and hanging upside down.
At first, we just thought this was all a matter of interpretation – a bit like spotting the face of Elvis in a slice of toast or something. But thanks to an article on Cracked, we know from the game’s art director Jeremy Bennett that GlaDOS really is meant to look feminine:
“Eventually, we settled on a huge mechanical device with a delicate robotic figure dangling out of it, which successfully conveys both GLaDOS’ raw power and her femininity.”
Area 51 – Deus Ex, GTA San Andreas, Area 51 games
In 1947, a strange incident in the New Mexico desert created a legend that continues to this day. In the summer of that year, a newspaper headline announced that the US military had recovered a crashed flying disc outside the city of Roswell. The story was swiftly retracted, but that didn’t stop the growing rumours that the flying saucer – and its occupants, said by some to be still alive – had been taken to a secret military installation called Area 51.
While Area 51 does indeed exist, the military has consistently denied that it has any alien technology in its possession – though they would say that, conspiracy theorists might argue. At any rate, the Area 51 legend has continued to inspire storytellers all over the place, not least in videogames. There’s mention of it in the original Deus Ex, the Grand Theft Auto entry San Andreas, while the top-secret facility in Half-Life – full of wild technology and deadly aliens – could be regarded as fictionalised nod to the real base.
There have even been a couple of games called Area 51. Both rail shooters, the first hit arcades in the 90s and throws all kinds of extraterrestrial critters at the player, while the second, released in 2005, was essentially an unofficial remake of the first, albeit with better graphics and a voice performance from Fox Mulder himself, David Duchovny. The truth is out there.
This particular urban legend is so chilling, we’re surprised nobody’s thought of making a movie out of it. Said by some to hail from Czechoslovakia, Killswitch was purportedly an adventure game initially released in 1989. You played a woman who wakes up in a mine haunted by all kinds of demonic forces, and whose only aim is to get out of the place with her life intact. The twist was that, once completed, the game deleted all traces of itself from the player’s hard drive – and with only 5,000 or so copies supposedly made, this would theoretically make Killswitch one of the rarest games in existence.
According to some accounts, one copy – still wrapped in its original packaging – emerged at an auction in Japan and sold for $733,000. It’s then said that the guy who bought it – a chap named Ryuichi Yamamoto – filmed himself playing the game, and the footage subsequently appeared online. The brief clip reportedly shows Ryuichi sitting in front of his computer, weeping. Shortly after, the legend concludes, the video vanished – and with it, the last trace of the mysterious Killswitch.
The Killswitch story can be traced back to a website called Invisible Games – a website devoted to stories about non-existent (and often spooky) videogames. Word of it has since spread far and wide, to the point where web dwellers have made their own versions of the game.
When it comes to videogame-related urban legends, this one is arguably the biggest of them all. When the golden age of arcades was at its height in the early 80s, a mysterious coin-op cabinet called Polybius began to appear in a handful of locations across America. Legend has it that anyone who played the game began to suffer from psychological issues, including insomnia and hallucinations; far from your conventional diversion, Polybius was, the stories claimed, a secret government experiment of some kind.
As urban legends went, it all seemed fairly convincing, with images appearing of the cabinet and the game’s title screen. On further investigation, however, the Polybius story was revealed to have originated from a message board in the 1980s, and there’s no material evidence to suggest that the game ever really existed. The myth has proved far too attractive to disappear, though, and Polybius has remained a pop cultural footnote ever since: a Polybius cabinet appeared in an episode of The Simpsons, for example, and Ernest Cline’s sci-fi novel Armada.
Polybius is also another example of a mythical game inspiring the creation of real ones. Various designers have attempted to create their own impressions of what Polybius would have looked like – though obviously, none have the same deadly effects of the legendary game.
Interestingly, the Polybius story may be based on fact – albeit loosely. Around the time Polybius was alleged to have appeared, the government really had commissioned a videogame company to make something on its behalf. In 1980 the US military contacted Atari and asked them to make a new version of Battlezone, its hit 3D tank game, and make an altered version of it for training purposes.
Atari was also responsible for the hectic shooter Tempest, which like Battlezone, used vector graphics to create a 3D environment. At one point, a news story went around that a player had collapsed from a severe migraine while playing Tempest – though this was almost certainly due to a long, unbroken stretch of gaming rather than anything sinister deliberately programmed into the game.
Some descriptions of Polybius sound very like Tempest, with its flickering colours and fast-moving vector graphics. It seems possible, then, that all these bits of information were conflated to form one of the most famous urban legends in gaming. It’s proof that all the best modern myths have at least a grain of truth to them.
The Evil Within 2 goes on sale on Friday 13th October 2017…