Years on the Inside

Many people are aware of Nintendo’s ill-fated stab at 3D game play, the Virtual Boy. But few have heard about  Illustr8’s attempt at a fully immersive gaming experience. Much like Nintendo, they attempted a very ambitious project with technology that was not fully developed or realized.

Illustr8 was primarily an educational game company, churning out text adventures in the mid-to-late eighties, but it was their attempt to corner the market on a new fad that would lead to their dissolution and infamy.  “Virtual reality” gaming experiences had been around for a year or so at the time, booths set up at state fairs and tech conventions. A lead developer for Illustr8(whose identity has never been confirmed) experienced a booth one year and brought a new idea back to his fellow developers. They would make the first “totally submersive” arcade experience, according to a memo that popped up in a few court cases.

The situation was often hit by setbacks and stagnation. Long after VR games had fallen out of vogue and the first home “3D” consoles had gained in popularity, Illustr8 still struggled with their magnum opus.  Finally, after years of development, a single prototype booth was ready for beta-testing.

Fellow designers Rick Oscen and Tom Ballard have both gone on record accusing the other of inducing programmer Ned Bates to be the first guinea pig, neither claim has been substantially proven. The only thing that is certain is that hours later, they managed to get the booth open again and extract Ned, who was by this time “coated in vomit”

OSCEN: you realize we never installed anything like a locking mechanism. We weren’t stupid, we allowed for cases where the faint-of-heart and those prone to epileptic fits could be extricated easily and with no fuss.

THE COURT: then why the alleged difficulty of opening doors?

OSCEN: it took us a while to figure it out, too. Turns out they were holding the doors closed. And we only really caught on when Ted Jackson nearly got his arm ripped off.

(Excerpt from court transcript)

To this day no one cohesive story has been pieced together of actual game content employed by the booth. Oscen swears that the company was attempting its first ever rail-shooter, Ballard that it was a side scrolling beat’em up. Other employees have replies ranging from serious (light-gun shooter) to probably sarcastic (“hell”)

Unable to get Bates to talk about his experiences or rouse him from his apparent stupor, no further testing was attempted while they committed Ned to the hospital. The next tester, Rhoda Jenkins, was part of the scripting team. She is currently undergoing treatment for PTSD and severe claustrophobia. She is still unwilling to talk about her experience inside “the hate box”(as it came to be known) except for one in response to an offhand comment that she was “only a few hours” inside the machine. Rhoda was heard to reply “longer than that” but refused to further elaborate.

Illustr8 was a relatively unknown company at the time with a fairly isolated headquarters, which may go some way towards explaining why the “tests” went on for as long as they did. Tom Ballard has gone on record to say that “after a while, we just started sticking people in there to see what would happen.” When asked why neither of the two lead developers ever entered the machine, both Ballard and Oscen have replied to the effect of “someone had to stay outside.”(Greenfield 30)

Testers were required to stay in the booth anywhere from three to thirty hours at a time. Symptoms of a term in the box ranged from catatonia, convulsions, violent outbursts, to total mental shutdown. Usually they were found “curled up in a corner like lab rats”(DNE6) but a few had different responses. Mark Bronwell  launched himself at the beta team once the door was forced open. An unnamed female employee(dubbed “the coffee girl” by Oscen and Ballard) was found clinging upside-down to the ceiling of the booth, staring at the demo team. She took half an hour to extricate because she was “creeping everyone out and no one wanted to touch her.”(DNE 18)

However, employee reaction was not always severe. Often, if the stay in the booth did not exceed a few hours, the employee recovered enough that they were deemed fit for work again even though they now suffered from paranoia and claustrophobia. One employee gave anonymous testimony at the trial:

EMPLOYEE: that door shut and you were alone in there. Just…cut off. From everything. You had no outside frame of reference or anything like that.

THE COURT: were any employees wearing a watch at the time of their stay in the booth?

EMPLOYEE: (laughs nervously) yeah, not that it did anything. You weren’t …they weren’t right on the inside. Time went wrong…you ended up smashing ‘em anyway, because it didn’t like them.

THE COURT: I’m sorry, what didn’t like them?

EMPLOYEE: (whispering) they told him he’d be fine, you know that? They’d already pushed him in once, then they did it again. Guess they wanted to finish the job. (begins laughing hysterically)

THE COURT: what are you talking about?

(whereupon EMPLOYEE continues laughter until a paramedic is called forward and sedates them)

(Excerpt from court transcript)

The “him” in the testimony undoubtedly refers to Anthony Prentiss, the only employee to go into the booth a second time and the reason for Illustr8’s eventual dissolution. He was, in Ballard’s words “the best of the flock” that had survived the experience with relatively little mental trauma. They packed some survival supplies into a duffel bag and gave a number of timepieces to Prentiss to have on his person at all times. At 4:30 July 25, Anthony Prentiss entered the booth for a second time. Three days later, an employee called the police.

Tom Ballard: the thing you have to understand is we didn’t really know what we were doing at that point. You do something for so long you stop wondering about the reasons behind it. I think we were all just sitting around, waiting for him to come out of that thing.  No one had even thought about calling the police, no one even suggested it. Gave me a real start when they showed up.(DNE 48)

Squad cars responding to the call found the game company’s headquarters mostly deserted, as the employees gathered in the testing room at the end of the building. According to the police report the employees were “grouped around a booth, watching it in complete silence.” A total evacuation was called in, and the jaws of life were used to open the booth. Immediately after, paramedics were summoned. The coroner’s report has yet to be released.

Both the bottles of water and the various sealed food packages were untouched, but death has been attributed to neither dehydration nor starvation. One officer at the scene commented that it Prentiss appeared “welded” to the wall of the machine, upon extrication the body promptly “fell apart.” Ballard and Oscen were escorted from the scene in handcuffs. Illustr8 was quickly dissolved; those employees still capable of functioning in the work force went on to careers in other areas than game development, the rest were committed to various mental institutions. When sought after for comments, most employees have been notoriously close-mouthed on their experiences, either out of perceived loyalty to the developers or perhaps mental trauma. One of the only direct descriptions of the experience was given by the anonymous court employee during the trial of Ballard and Oscen:

It’s like…it’s like a punishment, in there. Like you don’t know what you did wrong but you’re hurting and something’s making you hurt and you can’t fight back and you can’t hit it and eventually you get to thinking you deserve it

Both developers were found guilty of reckless endangerment and manslaughter. Oscen had his sentence shortened for good behavior and is currently out of prison, working somewhere in Dayton, Ohio. Ballard just recently made his fifth appeal, rejected as well.  After many court trials, a documentary(“The Hell Box” Pine Creek Video, MN) and countless articles, there is still much left unanswered about the Box, an independent games company’s first, and last, foray into other areas of gaming. No source has yet come forward with the current whereabouts of the booth.

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