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. 

Creepshow Commentaries Season Two: Creepshow Episode 1 – Model Kid/Public Television of the Dead

So after my Iron Man Certificate Challenge escapade, I had a lot of a mess to clean up in my Dissections and Speculatives room. Certainly, I needed more energy and inspiration after such a self-inflicted punishment. Ominously enough, the next season of Creepshow has landed on Shudder, and I had the occasion to watch it. I’ve thought about what I would do once the Creepshow seasons started up again, as I had written a whole series of summaries and thoughts — micro-reviews — of the series’ episodes before I even began the Horror Doctor. What I have decided is that, instead of waiting to have them all compiled, I am going to do one a piece. I think that is fair, and digestible. As such, most of these Creepshow entries are my thoughts and impressions of the episodes with their twinned stories grafted together complementing and contrasting with one another. In other words, I will be horror geeking out most of the time, and hopefully something of substance will be said or gleaned from it. As such, here we go with the first episode. I hope you will enjoy it ladies, gentlemen, and other beings of the night.

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 1: Model Kid/Public Television of the Dead

I wasn’t sure how Creepshow was going to top its first season, especially with its Animated Special. And so, here are the first two stories to start off the second season and … what can I say?

They tell us to think about the children when creating or enjoying controversial things. 

And they did.

That isn’t entirely accurate, of course. In fact, I would say that both of these stories, directed by Greg Nicotero and written by John Eposito and Rob Schrab respectively, are about nostalgia and the power of that sentiment even against the forces of darkness, and abuse.

Eposito’s “Model Kid” reminds me of all the old Universal and Hammer movies made in the early twentieth century that I would watch in my childhood, especially those involving Abbott and Costello. We even see a bit of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein as a young boy named Joe and his mother watch it on what the latter calls “their time machine.” And she even explains why she calls their projector a time machine: as it is a device that takes you back to a time, a fictional piece of space-time preserved forever, a silver piece of moving eternity, and simpler, perhaps even better times. It’s nostalgia all over again. I also love the fact that Joe creates a fight between the Gill-Man and the Mummy, his action figures, and especially when you consider that as of the release of this Creepshow episode, Godzilla Vs. Kong has just been released. These monster mashups and cinematic attempts at shared universes have existed for a long time, especially when you consider that Meet Frankenstein has “the Monster,” Dracula, and the Wolfman all in one film, whatever grief films like Batman Vs. Superman might have possessed for having more than the titular characters. 

You really feel for Joe, especially when you realize that his nostalgia takes the form of his “friends”: who are essentially the monsters in all the vintage horror films, some before his time in the 1930s and some contemporary Hammer — as he lives in 1972 and talks about Christopher Lee being the relatively new Dracula compared to Bela Lugosi, whom he dresses up as and imitates. For me, it had been the eighties and nineties where I would watch these tapes over and again on VHS, even renting them repeatedly, or recording them from Cable. I could relate to not having many friends, and consistently watching those films to remember the events in my life that happened around those films — my fleeting childhood, my grandparents, uncle, and time just getting away from me. But with Joe, the loss of time is even more poignant, and the people that don’t understand it far more cruel.

I could, as you can see, truly relate to Joe: especially in how even the most well-meaning people in his life didn’t understand why this “time-machine” and its assorted toys and posters were so important to him. And while the plot was fairly predictable, the way those monsters come to him, proving to be his friends, and the karma he delivers through some less than sympathetic magic with a figurine — a model — he orders, is fairly satisfying. 

Nostalgia and karma somewhat bleed out into the next story by Rob Schrab “Public Television of the Dead.” However, the nostalgia doesn’t centre on the early twentieth century, but rather the latter part of that epoch. We open up with a children’s show that reads like a combination of Lamb-Chop’s Play-Along and Reading Rainbow who has a character called Mrs. Bookberry teaching kids about “karma”: about how good deeds — and terrible actions — revisit themselves back on their doers. 

It continues on, with an Antiques Roadshow analogue, and even — honest to the happy little trees — a Joy of Painting homage to the point of plagiarism called The Love of Painting starred by a man named Norm. Norm is about to, unfortunately, lose his show due to the greed of Mrs. Bookberry, who is not nearly as benevolent as she appears to be on television, especially not in how she treats one of the few African-American television production members on staff. That last little detail about that element of racism, glossed over during that time, really added a gravity to the awfulness of that character.

But there is another aspect of horror nostalgia. We see Ted Rami, yes that Ted Rami, on the antique show — one of the three programs run by one WQPS along with the reading show, and the painting one — showing a book he … found in his fruit cellar. I admit: I was swearing, goodnaturedly, at the screen as this went on. And I thought: there was no way they would mention its title. I believed they would just mention it in passing, and have a whole other story. But …

They went there.

They went there, and they went there hard. Not only did the motherfucker have the same twisted cover of flesh and screaming faces, albeit with a lock on its pages, but … it had the same effects. And they named it. They actually named it. 
And … I will just say it. Deadites were there. Fucking Deadites. Deadites somehow manifested, along with the Necronomicon Libre Ex Mortis, outside of Evil Dead into Creepshow.

And Norm, the Bob Ross analogue who is balding in contrast, shares the artist’s former military background and … I was so glad he wasn’t killed in the first part. He, the producer, and his assistant band together to fight the Deadites and keep the Necronomicon from being read on television. It was beautiful, this strange fusion of different aspects of my childhood that played in the background that … works, so well.

I still can’t believe they had the balls, or ovaries, or sheer metaphorical gall to introduce Deadites into another world, though given where they come from, and the other stories involved, it makes a lot of sense. After all, the Necronomicon gets around. Of course, the story has an … open-ending, as you would expect from an Evil Dead homage, that makes me glad I took the time to watch the core films this Pandemic. So while the monsters are not friendly in the latter story, they are a hearkening back to another time that, mixed with an earlier period of reassurance, shows us that the past was not always pleasant but like the past and its conflicts, the present will find its own equilibrium as well: or the very least, the stories will never end. And if either story in this first episode of the second season of Creepshow demonstrates anything, it’s that its stories have only just begun.

For What It Is: Steven Kostanski’s Manborg

They say that when you dissect a joke, it just isn’t funny anymore. And in my mind, “funny” comes from “fun.” That is the best adjective I would ascribe to Steven Kostanski’s 2011 film Manborg.

I’ve taken on the guise of a mad, false doctor and scientist as a writer of this Blog. And in the vein, if you will pardon the pun considering that the movie is all about rendering infernal, fascist vampires into pulp, of such — and in remembrance of the late and lamented Doctor Scorpius — I would like to put this cinematic creation on the table, and look at it in the following manner.

Imagine a pulp film utilizing a combination of early Mortal Kombat digitization and Ray Harryhausen claymated monstrosities created by Troma Productions, and you might get something like Manborg. Maybe. You can also make a compelling argument that it also feels like a spiritual bootleg version of the id software Doom game universe. Seriously, I almost wrote this entire article just to have an excuse to make that sentence, but there is more to it than that.

The main protagonists themselves look like they can belong in a Mortal Kombat game: the awkwardly cybernetic Manborg himself, the sassy Aussie-accented Justice, the incongruously voice-dubbed #1 Man, and the short-tempered Mina (and clearly no relation to Mina Harker) are all fighters in an arena where Hell’s minions — having conquered the Earth — force humans to fight one another, and their technologically-augmented demons. You can even, loosely, argue that this film is a Dracula-based creation in that the leader of the forces of Hell is a monstrosity named Count Draculon who kills Manborg’s brother and himself as a human soldier at the beginning of the movie and during Earth’s War against Hell: which it loses. And hey, one of the female protagonists is Mina who is lured by the Count back to the arena to rescue a former friend or … sister of hers (totally not Lucy Westenra) who has been made into a demon-human hybrid, I guess?

Right. I am being very generous.

But I really like this film. The jerking, even janky movements of the camera and the figures against the Chroma key backdrops makes this world truly nightmarish, and unrealistic. It’s like watching someone dreaming various composites of characters and situations, and making it into a narrative. The sound effects sound like something from Power Rangers or the 8-bit era of video games. There are various skips in logic and character development, but the film knows that — and it knows how lampoonish and parodic it truly is.

The characters are all true to what they are. Manborg is a former soldier wanting to avenge his brother’s death, and has no idea how to survive in his altered state until a hologram of his creator — or his soul, or something — finally does so. #1 Man just wants to makeup for his cowardice in saving his own life and training the Count’s minions in martial arts to fight for something more. Justice wants to protect his sister Mina, and battles either illiteracy or dyslexia to do so, and Mina desires to fight, and save Shadow Mega from being a slave of the Count. Even the antagonists are straightforward: the Count wants a challenge in fighting Manborg, Shadow Mega desires to defeat Mina, Doctor Scorpius seeks to recant his past mistakes and aid Manborg, and the Baron — another vampire and general asshole — has a crush on Mina, his prisoner, and awkwardly attempts to flirt with her.

What you see is what you get, and yet those little touches show genuine love of the story and characters. A long time ago, I used to only want to read and watch serious works. I didn’t know what to think of something that was just strange, and campy, and over-the-top, and weird as all hell. But then I went to the Toronto After Dark and watched RoboGeisha for the first time, and even before that was Bubba Ho-Tep. And there is just something about watching these silly elements at play that still manage to manifest genuine feelings and a story that is just … inspiring. It’s like high school or college friends sitting down, and making a narrative they want to see and be as ridiculous as ever, and very clearly demonstrate a knowledge of the craft they parody even if it’s for the first time. It’s just … inspiring to see someone through stuff at that wall, like explosions, Nazi vampires, weird cyborgs, martial artists, arenas of doom, and just … ridiculous moments that makes things fun.

Manborg is fun. It is one of the things that I look at to see what is possible, and it’s something I genuinely enjoyed watching. I bought the comic back at the Toronto Comics Arts Festival years ago, and I always meant to watch this movie. In fact, as fun as the film is, I love the comic as it makes fun of its own nostalgia. Think Ninja Turtles comics that were adapted into cartoons and the films, or hellishly faded and septia-coloured dystopian G.I. Joe, He-Man, and She-Ra stories except Manborg‘s adventures are fleshed out, and actually continue with his group of friends.

Also, Bio-Cop, the “preview” Astron-6 has at the end of the film — whose quality is already made to look faded and grainy like it’s an old VHS tape rental — is utterly hilarious. Again, think The Toxic Avenger, but in chronic agony and body horror and seriously to die … in a buddy cop parody.

I mean, someone calling themselves the Horror Doctor has to have a twisted sense of humour.