Twitch Plays Pokémon
After 390 hours and 122 million chat message instructions, the Internet has beaten Pokémon Red.
Twitch Plays Pokémon began as an attempt to play through the 1996 Game Boy release as an online community. Using a live stream and a program that converts text to in-game commands, anyone could jump on and start playing: typing "left" to move left, for example. The interesting bit, though, is that all of these commands were directed at the game's hopelessly overwhelmed single protagonist, Red. The whole thing was hilarious, vaguely upsetting chaos.
From those humble beginnings on February 12th, the game evolved, like a Vulpix into a Ninetales. Into what it evolved, I'm not exactly sure; it could be a testament to the gleeful absurdity of internet culture, a profoundly postmodern social experiment, a glowing affirmation of the power of imagination, or a metaphysical contemplation of deterministic chaos theory and entropy.
Or maybe it was just a million dudes trying to play Pokémon together. Like I said, I'm not sure what to make of it.
As the game gained popularity, and Red shuddered erratically through the world, a community began to form. Dedicated groups of players emerged on websites like Reddit, and Twitch Plays Pokémon began to snowball. The Twitch Plays Pokémon subreddit has just passed 100,000 subscribers. At the game's peak, 120,000 people were concurrently instructing Red on his quest to catch 'em all, getting stuck in corners and spinning on the spot.
The most fascinating part of the whole exercise, though, is the narrative that emerged organically along the way. Each of Red's Pokémon began to develop nicknames and personalities in these online communities, from the first Charmander, named 'ABBBBBBK (' by the community (nicknamed Abby), to the much-derided Flareon, who was dubbed 'The False Prophet'.
The command stream's chaotic nature often led to some serious errors. Items were regularly discarded or purchased unintentionally, and over the course of the now notorious Bloody Sunday, 12 Pokémon were lost. This was all woven into the 'lore' of Twitch Plays Pokémon, which incorporated the accidents and triumphs of the game as they occurred.
Most curious of all was the case of the Helix Fossil, which became the genesis for a fervent in-game religion. Red's inventory was opened incessantly during the play through, as a special few tried to impede progress by typing "start" repeatedly. Each time this menu opened, there was a scramble through the interface, frequently resulting in dropped items. The Helix Stone, however, cannot be dropped, and became a sort of deity as a result of its permanence. Rapidly, the frequent appearances of the Helix Stone were framed as divine consultation within the gaming community. This tongue-in-cheek (at least, I'm pretty sure it was) idolatry became the main vehicle for the narrative that emerged from Twitch Plays Pokémon.
Despite the abounding chaos that fuelled his journey, Red bounced his way through the game world and eventually defeated the Elite Four. Whether this was teamwork on a massive scale or a million-monkeys-on-a-million-typewriters sort of scenario is irrelevant. The Twitch Plays Pokémon phenomenon has captured the imagination of some, and the perverse fascination of others. In a little over a fortnight, it’s become a cultural landmark in its own right. Veteran players protest against 'forced' lore, and there is palpable friction between the different sects of Helix worship. There's seemingly endless fan art, even original choral scores. People love this.
I'm sure the Internet has learnt something about itself over the past few weeks, but what that is is anyone's guess. Like I said earlier, I'm still not sure what to make of it all.
Just in case 16 straight days and nights weren't enough, the Twitch community has moved onto Pokémon Crystal. Check out the madness here: http://www.twitch.tv/twitchplayspokemon
By Jake Ausburn