Nine Inch Nails is quickly becoming the nerdiest rock band since Led Zeppelin sang about J.R.R. Tolkien. For that, we salute them.
NIN’s music video for "LESS THAN" — released Thursday — not only samples the recent VR game Polybius, but also delves into the reigning champion of bizarre video game urban legends.
A psychedelic trip of seizure-inducing 80s games style, the video depicts a female player becoming increasingly mesmerized (and zombified) the more she plays.
But there’s more to the hypnotizing visuals than meets the clouded zombie eye. It’s also essentially a retelling of the original mythical arcade game known as Polybius, the mere existence of which can neither be confirmed nor denied.
Image: Sony Interactive Entertainment and Llamasoft
As the legend goes, in 1981, some cabinets featuring a mysterious, unannounced, hallucinatory, and highly addicting game started cropping up in arcades around Portland, Oregon, before quietly vanishing from existence. It was said that men-in-black government agent types were seen routinely tinkering with said cabinets.
So, of course, the most obvious conclusion was that Polybius was a top secret government experiment to collect data on its psychoactive effects.
While no actual record or evidence of the game exists, the conspiracy theory was just too juicy to not solidify into bona fide arcade lore. As truth-seeker Brian Dunning points out in his in-depth investigation into the origins of the urban legend, there actually was a lot of precedent for the conspiracy to take shape.
Aside from a general climate of moral panic around "addicting" video games at the time, there were actual recorded cases of players hospitalized for gaming-induced seizures, migraines, and exhaustion to the point of fainting. Remember: this is 1981 — only 14 years after the confirmed (yet equally batshit) government project known as MKUltra, shut down.
If you don’t know about MKUltra (which, come on, wake up sheeple), it was a top secret CIA mind-control experiment that had government agents giving ungodly amounts of psychedelic drugs to test subject before inflicting unspeakable horrors upon them. All in the name of making sleeper cell super soldiers … or something?
The details of MKUltra are so bonkers and hard to swallow that it’ll make you believe the US government is capable of just about any conspiracy theory. Even one that involves using trippy-ass video games to data-mine the brains of unsuspecting players.
Ironically, one of the real-life video games responsible for hospitalizing players in the 80s was Tempest, which inspired a sequel a decade later created by Jeff Minster. That’s the same designer behind the PSVR game Polybius that Nine Inch Nails uses in their video. And I’d be genuinely surprised if there really weren’t any cases of PSVR Polybius inducing nausea or fainting in players, seeing as it’s a neon fever dream literally strapped to your goddamn face.
But good on Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor — a known lover of arcades — for perfectly summing up all this niche video game lore into a single, three-minute music video. We know a fellow nerd when we see one, Trent. I mean, the album that includes "LESS THAN" is even titled Add Violence, which sounds an awful lot like a note many a AAA video game executive has given.
You can catch the full album once it’s released on July 21.