The Terror of Mathematics: Angry Video Game Nerd’s Polybius

October 27, 2017. I was on YouTube, navigating through the site, when I noticed an uploaded video in Cinemassacre Plays.

I’d been following James Rolfe as the Angry Video Nerd for over a decade. His persona as a raging, scathing nerd stereotype that neatly eviscerates terrible video games, with nineties gross-out humour and profanity, really hit a nostalgic factor in my heart. When James Rolfe plays the Nerd, to me he’s both a figure to laugh at, but also to sympathize with as a child of the eighties and nineties. In fact, a lot of the time I laugh at the Nerd I am laughing at that part of myself. 

Seriously, for me the tone of the Nerd was set when I first watched his video episode on the Nintendo Entertainment System’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde game. I saw a deadpan humour, a story being built up about how he encountered this “vile piece of goat shit,” as he put it so poetically, a slow building dread in the narrative that he created, followed by the denouement of a game that arbitrarily hurts and kills the protagonist almost instantly. It’s so absurd, and so ridiculous that you can’t even believe it is an actual interactive game with rules or any sensibilities. Towards the end, he creates character as he just can’t help but laugh, but at that point I was so invested in the whole “What the Fuck” lead up and conclusion, that I just — again — laughed with him. 

It’d been a long time since that episode, however. Rolfe had been busy working on his AVGN film, and a lot of the day to day posting had been given to Mike Matei, with some appearances by Rolfe. After a time, I became more interested in Rolfe’s Monster Movie Madness episodes, and of course his interview with Joe Bob Briggs whose work I didn’t know I would become so invested in at the time. Mostly, I just listened to James Rolfe and Mike Matei talk about games and movies. I began to truly become interested in Rolfe outside of his AVGN role, perhaps more so than even the AVGN episodes themselves.

And then one day on October 27th Cinemassacre Plays, which was a channel dedicated to both Rolfe and Matei playing games and Matei in particular having rage-sessions, a short video was released. It was the Angry Video Game Nerd, who I hadn’t seen in a while, except he was talking about a whole other kind of game. Now, for those who don’t know, the Nerd’s whole theme is that he plays the worst-made video games ever created, and he critiques them and swears at them a lot while going as far as to even destroy hard copies of that game. 

But this time, the Nerd was talking about Polybius

This was when I knew we were going to be in for a wild ride. Polybius is a video game urban legend about an arcade game that apparently could affect the minds of those who played it: inducing seizures, insomnia, dementia, and pure insanity in those exposed to it. I have nothing to add to the urban legend itself, as many people have delved into it far deeper than I can at this time. I did think about doing something with the Roman historian Polybius and his possible relation, of that of his work, to the game as an attempt at a creepypasta: a copy and paste internet attempt at an online and electronic urban legend of my own creation.

As a bit of background, there was a time when I was fascinated with creepypastas — you can thank my late partner Kaarina, and Kris Straub’s Candle Cove for that — and I wanted to make one myself: to create a story so compelling, and seemingly real, it could become viral. It’d be the perfect test of my abilities. I never got there myself. I went as far as a few ideas, some notes dealing with eighties nostalgia, and getting some concepts rejected by the SCP Foundation.

James Rolfe went farther, utilizing this idea that has existed online since the early aughts. It’s funny how horror and humor relate to each other. I’ve probably mentioned it before, but just as fantasy and the macabre share the same road and branch off, comedy and terror tend to share similar pacing, unexpected beats, and familiar ends. 

Rolfe released his Polybius episode in a five-part serial. He controlled the pace right off the bat. Each part was divided into Days, and he filmed it in the found footage format that I love so much. Day One is great because it starts off with him sitting in front of the camera like any other AVGN episode, and giving a detailed run-down of Polybius and the rumours, and legends surrounding it. And that’s it. He says that he found a lead on a possible cabinet with the game, and he leaves it at that. 

Already, it piques interest. You want to know what he finds. It is a line between knowing it is fictional, to the meta-narrative point of practically winking the viewer, but also playing it straight as if the character of the Nerd is genuinely pursuing this venture into finding this potentially terrifying game. He finds bad games, but generally not deadly ones. By Day Two, we are in a warehouse with old game cabinets, and eventually we find the Polybius cabinet itself. We follow the Nerd from his camera as he shows us what is going on. Of course, the caveat is that he isn’t going to reveal the game and its graphic “because it might be dangerous,” though he claims it is all probably just a hoax. They do say that showing less of the monster in a horror film is more after all. 

Most of the time and throughout the rest of the Days, we watch the Nerd play Polybius and not the gameplay itself. He downplays a lot of it initially, stating that it’s mediocre at best, but he weaves little snippets of facts, an email of warning that he laughs off, and the realization that the Nerd is spending more and more time playing the game. His estimation of the game changes during these periods, his esteem for it rising from mediocre, to good, to one of the best games ever made … and the slow realization that he is becoming addicted, and that his senses have become, well … unreliable at best. 

Rolfe’s AVGN episode plays off of the Video Game Panic of the late twentieth century, of the medium affecting the minds and health of children, and those who play them. Video game addiction, like most addictions, is also real and has been discussed in that context. When you also add to the fact that Polybius was supposedly released by the American government as limited and localized experiments in mind-control, and you see the place in which Rolfe is playing. The way the Nerd described playing Polybius “like watching a waterfall” reminds me of the Star Trek The Next Generation episode “The Game” where there is a virtual reality simulation that creates mental geometric shapes that interact specifically with the brain, and induces pleasure in those interactions. 


In Rolfe’s Polybius episode, we see the Nerd’s addiction become his fear as he realizes he can’t rely on his own senses, or personal judgment anymore. But in one Day, one installment, we see a shape rise, look at us from the reflection of another cabinet screen, and run away: drawing us into the hallucination, or the supernatural element involved as well. It is reminiscent of those terrifying Easter-eggs in Ghostwatch

But it becomes clear that Polybius doesn’t just want to be played, but it wants others to see it be played as well: like a Let’s Play version of Ringu. The torment and exhaustion in the Nerd builds up, and gets real. In the last installments of the serialized found footage made a web miniseries, he struggles against Polybius — even working in the historical Polybius’ mathematical grid in an attempt to escape — but to no avail. What I think is fascinating is how Rolfe manages to play on the Nerd’s general frustration, on his sense of unfairness in dealing with games that break their own rules, and douses these traits with fear, and despair. Even though you know this is fictional, and the Nerd is a persona, you get invested in his genuine distress because Rolfe builds it all up to that point: from one to eleven.

In the end, after shifting the camera away and back from the screen, he relents — apologizing to the viewer — as he knows the only way he will escape this fate, like Ringu again, is to show us the game. And we see it, and the geometrical graphics warp and change, and we get a demonic jumpscare. Personally, I think it was a good lead up, and I really like the emulation of  YouTube’s “This video is unavailable screen … though I think we could have done without the second jumpscare.

AVGN’s Polybius episode is a very tough and cheek construct that plays with the found footage webseries format, with that electronic serial epistolary place, with hints of images, glances of the “monster,” rumours and accounts sprinkled through, and a slow, insidious, psychological sense of horror that grows into a jumpscare or two, with some realistic technical hoax elements. The serial drop made it, in my opinion, and I looked forward to seeing what happened each day a new installment was uploaded onto Cinemassacre Plays.

But, there is another element at play too. When I was looking for a “Making Of” episode years later, I realized that there was more to this episode. AVGN’s Polybius was filmed and recorded at TNT Amusements. And while Polybius was a more horror-based found footage version of an AVGN episode, made epistolary, THE ANGRY VIDEO GAME NERD films POLYBIUS at TNT Amusements is more of a mini-documentary of sorts … that leans towards humour. Their endings tie into each other well. Todd N. Tuckey, the President of TNT Amusements, is great.

I do think that there was another missed opportunity. You see, at the end of the episode it seems as though the Nerd is changed forever by this experience with Polybius. Perhaps he is either dead, or transported into another world. James Rolfe himself has created a few continuities, where not only is the Angry Video Game Nerd is own person, but there is another figure named Board James: a madman who plays board games with his friends, and his reality is constantly shifting like the dreamlike sequences in the Phantasm series. If James Rolfe could have gotten a lot of his original crew from that series back together, and we know from continuity that the Nerd and Board James have interacted, the ending to the Polybius episode could have been a fine crossover back to Board James, or something like it. But the logistics on that might not have been feasible, for a variety of professional and personal reasons: not the least being that James Rolfe is a busy man. I also think it might have been amazing if this had been the end of the Nerd for a while, as though he died or worse, but he was inevitably coming back with the cartoon resilience most recurring characters in weird worlds have, though there is overlap between AVGN episodes at times, and him being affected by this after the fact could have been an interesting aspect to explore.

But anyway, here is the AVGN Polybius Episode, and THE ANGRY VIDEO GAME NERD films POLYBIUS at TNT Amusements. I am so glad this exists, and I love the experimentation with the medium and the times that Cinemassacre reinvents AVGN, just as I wanted to do something new for this Friday the Thirteenth. Have a terrifying weekend, my fellow subjects. 

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