The 13th Floor

THE THEATER: a Vintage PC Game With a Nightmarish History

Creepypasta lore is filled with strange and unexplained accounts of hacked, haunted and hallucinatory video games, some of which have allegedly affected the minds of those who played them… or maybe even caused their deaths.

This entry is one of the most ominous of these stories. It’s also sort of a cautionary tale, about the risks of skimming or ignoring those “Terms and Conditions” pop-ups when installing new software…

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Those who claim to have seen or played The Theater usually trace its origins back to 1993, around the same time first-person PC games like Doom were first hitting the market. The game was originally designed by now-defunct UK company Salida Software, but reportedly never passed the Beta phase. Still, a few copies did apparently manage to fall into the hands of users, whether through official channels or by illicit means.

The first reports about The Theater to emerge from the gaming community were its massive technical glitches – particularly a bug which caused the game to freeze during installation. The only known workaround was to reboot the PC with the game CD-ROM still inside, which would allow the installation process to continue from the point of the onscreen licensing agreement. Then all you have to do is click the “I Agree” button, and you’re in.

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The player is then shown a simple game menu, featuring the functions NEW GAME, LOAD and OPTIONS. According to all accounts, the NEW GAME button is the only option which functions properly; the other two buttons cause the PC to crash.

Clicking NEW GAME brings you to the image of an empty movie theater lobby lined with posters, and a ticket-taker — with a creepy red smile and an oversized hand — standing between you and a long, dark hallway. If you approach him, he will say “Thank you, please enjoy the movie,” and let you pass. But once you enter the dark corridor, the image soon fades to black and you find yourself back in the lobby again.

While this also seems like a major flaw in game play, it’s only after going through this cycle multiple times that the player allegedly discovers subtle differences in the environment — changes that go from odd and senseless to deeply unsettling.

Some players have reported strange sounds while venturing down the dark corridor, and others have noticed the arrival of an additional character similar to the ticket-taker, but whose face is warped into a spiral pattern. The appearance of this figure, along with accompanying audio glitches (one of which sounds like a high-pitched scream), is said to trigger physical reactions in the player, including headaches, nausea, temporary paralysis and sensory disorientation.

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This ominous character, which users have nicknamed “Swirly-Head Man,” begins to take over the game environment, interfering with the ticket-taker’s actions and sometimes taking his place entirely. When he’s still onscreen during these cycles, the ticket-taker’s simulated voice is highly distorted and muffled, but players have reported him speaking the phrase “Never reach the other levels.”

Game forums have been buzzing with theories about what those “other levels” might be, since the game never seems to proceed beyond the endlessly-repeating scenarios in the lobby, and the game tends to lock up and crash afterwards.

But that’s not the strangest topic of these discussions: an unsettling thread among those who have played The Theater describes what happens after they’ve stopped playing: they report having strange hallucinations, during which they claim to see the image of the Swirly Head Man at the edge of their peripheral vision, reflected in mirrors, or in their dreams…

To date, no one has tracked down verified play-through footage from the actual game, but intrepid designers from the gaming community have come up with some amusing recreations, like this one:

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