On March 1st, after 16 days and almost 8 hours of continuous play, Twitch finally beat Pokémon. At least, Pokémon Red Version. At the time of writing players are making their way through Pokémon Crystal, and I’d be a little surprised if the channel didn’t just take things all the way and play through every generation of the games eventually. It’s been a bizarre, exciting ride, not least of which because it’s been the exact opposite kind of content that Twitch and services like it have traditionally nurtured. Generally video game livestreams either pull crowds by showcasing players who are particularly skilled at a game, by featuring players we enjoy as people, or both. Whatever angle they’re going for, the focus is almost always on a small group of players or more commonly a single player. By their nature, all of these streams are also about watching someone else compete at a game. Twitch Plays Pokémon turned all of this on its head.
It took an experience meant to be about passive observation and turned it into one about active participation, and took entertainment that would have normally been centred on a single exceptional person or small group of exceptional people, and made it about over 60,000 normal, everyday gamers. In fact, TPP even shirked a lot of the traditional conventions we associate with games full stop. The basic idea of the player character just reacting to the inputs we give it was thrown out the window. In this game your actions as an individual are drowned out in the sea of commands the rest of the players contribute. Not only do you lack a serious degree of control over the player character, but it’s often hard to see the exact effect your input had on the game at all. It makes the whole thing a wonderfully weird experience.
The stream was billed as a “social experiment”, and arguably we did learn something from it, but it really became more of a fun activity in itself and a social and cultural touchstone for people than anything else. It had its own in-jokes, like the religion that built up around Omanyte and the Helix Fossil, and its own notable events, like that occasion when a succession of valuable Pokémon got released all at once. And while the viewing figures for TPP were trumped by professional gaming streams on a few occasions, it had a kind of consistent popularity which outlasted a lot of the content around it, as people tuned in at all hours of the day, every day of the adventure to check in on the progress of the game and play along themselves. Many people were regular players, returning to the game on a frequent basis for its entire duration.
TPP is the kind of phenomenon which shows that rarely are you able to manufacture or predict what will “go viral”. Nobody saw Twitch Plays Pokémon coming, it’s so unusual that it’s unlikely that anyone would have created it assured that it would be the next great success, but none the less here it is. There have been other channels that have tried to pick up and run with the idea, and maybe they’ll see some attention in the future, but streams like Twitch Plays Final Fantasy just haven’t gotten off the ground, because while they may be based around the same concept and using a similar game, they don’t have that same social buzz which exists around TPP. Of course, just because the game was important to people and was in some ways taken very seriously doesn’t mean that it also wasn’t capable of being very silly.
The light-heartedness and the humour of Twitch Plays Pokémon comes from seeing people stumble over themselves and struggle with what should be very basic tasks. Not that playing through the entirely of Pokémon Red is something you can do in your sleep, but walking your character in a straight line or selecting a simple menu option are actions we can all easily perform without a second thought. So to see the player character constantly failing to carry out these simple tasks without opening the Pokédex seven consecutive times or walking up and down the same set of stairs for fifteen minutes has an almost Mr. Beanish comedic quality to it. Anywhere which included a lot of ledges, staircases, or mazes became a particular problem for players, as just one wrong step here or there could represent a significant setback. The Team Rocket base was probably the most nightmarish of all these areas, prompting an unlikely intervention by the creator of the stream to change the rules of the game itself, adding the “Anarchy/Democracy” system.
The Democracy Mode allows the body of players to vote for the next input, instead of the game executing every individual button press given to it. Fascinatingly, while this would have almost certainly allowed the players a huge advantage in the game, Twitch deliberately opted to keep the game in Anarchy Mode for about 99% of the remaining time. Probably because the anarchy made the game what it was. The madness of it all is what we were there for in the first place, and when the players managed to make progress and eventually even beat the game under these restrictions it was all the more amazing. Perhaps praising the players of TPP overall for beating the game is inaccurate however. In classic internet fashion plenty of people were there to have a little fun throwing a wrench into the works, trying to actively impede progress, and advancement through the game was often the result of some portion of cooperative players managing to assert themselves over these troublesome players, as opposed to everyone working as a collective team. However, that’s not to say progress was always down to direct coordination between those cooperative users either.
Again, with so many people inputting commands at the same time and the enormous lag between input and response, it was just about impossible to have proper control over the game, even if everyone had been trying to work together. You might know that the player character needs to move up on the screen to get one step closer to Lavender Town, but you can’t know every move that’s going to be made between now and twenty seconds from now, so you can only really point the Pokémon Trainer in the general direction they need to go, or prime them with a certain command and hope it’s still relevant when it’s going to be executed. When things worked, perhaps it wasn’t always a case of people putting in the right inputs, but the right inputs just happening to line up at the right time by chance.
Still, hammering away at that game, shifting that character bit by bit towards the end took a lot of diligence, and at its conclusion there was a surprising amount of teamwork between the players. One of the reasons it was such a joy to watch Twitch take on the Elite Four was not just because it was the culmination of all the work put into the game, but also because in those final moments the players were more in-sync and cooperative than they had been at just about any other time. Of course there were outliers still trying to cause difficulty for everyone else, but on the whole when those guys knew they had to press A, boy did they come together to press A. In many ways Twitch Plays Pokémon is not just silly and enjoyable and weird and what’s in right now, it’s a miniaturised version of human behaviour on the internet in general. It’s chaotic, it’s unorganised, and it’s full of people trying to make things harder for everyone else, but it’s captivating, and in it there are still people able to come together and work together to do things that are impressive and unexpected. Thanks for reading.