Sixteen days, seven hours, forty-five minutes and thirty seconds after first stepping foot in Pallet Town, Red defeated Blue and Twitch Plays Pokémon came to an end.
So what was Twitch Plays Pokémon anyway?
This madness was an interactive live stream of the Gameboy classic Pokémon Red. The game was running emulated on a computer, using Visual Boy Advance, and was hooked up to a text recognition programme of the streamer’s own design. The idea being that the programme could pick up chat messages from the stream on Twitch and turn them into inputs. These inputs would be entered into the emulated version of Pokémon and the game would play. The result of this is that the people in Twitch chat were playing Pokémon Red live. Twitch was playing Pokémon.
The motivation behind this move was to allow multiple people to play Pokémon at the same time. This wasn’t a stream that let you just play Pokémon by yourself, this was a live version of the game that people played simultaneously. If you were watching the stream, you could play it by typing in chat and the viewers got up to about 120,000 at a point. That’s a whole lot of people all trying to control one character at the same time.
The way that Pokémon works though, meant that not every command goes through. The game only picks up commands at certain points and doesn’t queue them up. This means that only one person at a time is technically playing Pokémon, but due to the sheer number of chatter it could be anyone. Also the way that Twitch chat works means that there is a lag between the stream and the chat, so nobody is quite playing in real time. You may want the protagonist (Red) to go right – so you type right – however when this is picked up by the game time will have moved on and right may not be the best choice. This makes things a whole lot more difficult and random. It means that progress takes a lot of luck, or a severe amount of coordination.
Against seemingly all odds though, progress was made. It was very slow progress, obviously, but eventually the Twitch community shambled their way through. This was somewhat inevitable, I mean it did take them sixteen days, but not really. After all, a number of actually random streams of Pokémon started, where instead of taking chat inputs they used a random number generator to randomly select inputs. None of these made any real progress at all and were frequently reset. This goes to show that the human element was all important and that the community actually pulled off something impressive.
The human element was the appeal of this stream. The reason it’s so interesting is because it serves as a wonderful social experiment, how do people react in this situation and can they work together? Obviously it’s a game you can complete, but can multiple thousand people really coordinate themselves in such a fashion to get past the many trials of Pokémon Red?
At many points this seemed like a no. Stupidly simple parts of the game served as severe roadblocks. In the Pokémon games there are some ledges you can go down and not up, these became a common enemy. Red would constantly end up going down a ledge that he then couldn’t get back up. This was a real set back because a lot of these ledges force you to restart long sections if you fall down them, and boy did we fall down them… A lot. We were stuck on particularly malicious ledges for hours.
Then there were objects you had to interact with. Some of these were just things you had to talk to or just use, even these were difficult. Walking up to something and pressing A is not hard, it is hard if thousands of people are all trying to control you at once and all have a different idea of what you should do. A straight path to an NPC turns quickly into an awkward dance around an area, and probably down a ledge, all while the NPC stands there waiting. Watching politely, not judging you or questioning your insane actions. Things get a bit harder still when you have to use a specific skill or item. Take cutting a tree for example, this involved:
1) Getting to the tree
2) Opening the menu
3) Selecting the party option
4) Selecting the right Pokémon (before this point you have somehow had to coordinate going in to your menu to teach a Pokémon cut also)
5) Selecting ‘Cut’
It’s not the longest process, but considering that doing one input correctly is a rare occurrence, things like this took a while. It was magical to watch.
Things were of course not helped by the saboteurs, thousands of people were trying to play Pokémon, but a lot of people were trying to ruin Pokémon. Boy did they get their way! At every point there are people purposefully spamming the wrong command in order to mess things up for everybody. This sounds annoying, but it was all part of what made this stream so great. The constant battle against overwhelming odds! It also made for some hugely memorable moments. The first realisation was that you could ruin things for everybody just by opening the start menu all the time. Therefore the good troll thing to do is spam ‘start’ in chat, meaning nobody can progress. This worked so well that the streamer had to edit things so there was a limit on how often start could be used.
Beyond this, stupid and horrible things continued to happen, somewhat by accident and somewhat due to saboteurs. People pressing the wrong button on purpose, combined with the difficulty of timing button presses and tied up together with the sheer volume of people who all honestly want to do different things, made this all very complicated. One of the best examples of this was being stuck in Team Rocket’s maze for a couple of days. This area is littered with floor pieces that move you in a specific direction, meaning that navigating through it requires a certain amount of finesse and planning. This just didn’t happen, it didn’t happen for so long that changes had to be made.
I remember being in the chat when this happened and it stands out as one of the most amazing moments. A moment of pure mob mentality mixed with wonderful coordination. At this point it seemed we were stuck, the stream went down and came back up a short time later with a difference. Gone was the anarchic system of everybody having a say, it had been replaced by a mode called ‘democracy’ where people vote on how to play Pokémon. Every twenty seconds or so the game accepts a command, but it only accepts the command with the most votes. In that period you chat in commands as normal but the programme tallies up how many vote each command is getting and enact only the most popular command. A much more elegant and user friendly system. One that is slow, but would guarantee a greater amount of success.
The problem was, this was all a bit dull. Anarchy was getting us nowhere, but it was fun. It was so crazy and its failure made it so satisfying. It was beautiful chaos and people wanted to keep it that way. Twitch Plays Pokémon brought about some wonderful chat moments, many by people who clearly didn’t get the overall mood. Every now and then you would see somebody shout the equivalent of “everybody chill out, I got this” and tell everybody to stop typing so that they could do it properly. These people were promptly told that if they wanted to play Pokémon, get a Game Boy. Other people begged for coordination, pleading that every person should only type ‘a’ at this point. The contrarian mass that is the internet of course ignored all of this and carried on being wonderful. The best example though was the response to democracy. Democracy allowed people to queue up commands, you could type ‘A5Down2Up2’ and ‘a’ would be pressed five times, down twice then up twice. Of course this had to still be the majority choice to be enacted. Seemingly instantly everybody just started typing ‘Start9’. It was all you could see in the chat room and it was their rebellion to democracy. They wanted chaos and they were almost on strike until they got it back. It was kind of glorious to behold and I couldn’t help but bash out ‘Start9’ with the rest of them. It was this wonderful spontaneous moment of ludicrous unity against what was a decent idea.
Democracy was overthrown and chaos was restored. However it became clear that order was needed if we were to progress; once again things got interesting. A new system was implemented that meant the game could switch between the two modes, now officially labelled ‘anarchy’ and democracy’. As well as typing your commands you could type one of these two words and they would affect a slider at the top. The slider moved with the majority vote and if it hit a certain threshold the game would change to that mode. It was a frankly brilliant and fluid system that really added to the whole experience. The chaos remained but order could be instilled when needed.
On top of this there were multiple other highlights, one being doing the wrong thing all the time. This included teaching Pokémon stupid moves, replacing necessary ones and dropping valuable items willy-nilly. It was hilarious to watch. The best example was releasing Pokémon. Using the PC in the game allows you to release Pokémon, needless to say it happened a lot. It started with losing our relatively high level starter and a rattata nicknamed Jay Leno (it’s actual in game nickname was JLVWHNNOOOO but the chat decided that it was called Jay Leno). This was a real set back and things got way worse on one fateful Sunday.
Twitch Plays Pokémon had its own bloody Sunday (yes it’s being called that) where twelve Pokémon were released in succession. It was brutal. The only Pokémon that knew cut was gun – our beloved Dux – and even the affectionately named (and sometimes maligned) Digrat. Digrat was a raticate that we randomly taught dig. This didn’t really help us much as it led to several wonderfully soul crushing moments when we would get right to the end of a section, then accidentally access Digrat and his Dig move and have to do it all again. A highlight here was spending hours upon hours getting to the top of Pokémon tower, only to be dug out before we got to the boss… It hurt, but it was hilarious to watch.
In spite of brutal releases, saboteurs, ledges and the occasional dig we still made it through. The best thing about the whole thing being the reaction that it caused, the emergent stories that formed around the whole experiment and that took it over. Every random action was given an absurd justification and the internet at large made a wonderful canon to describe our journey. It was like a message board come to life, an interactive fan fiction, a weird group think that at its most basic level turned nonsense into Jay Leno and at its craziest started a new religion.
The religious element all started with getting the Helix fossil. Something we amazingly later capitalised on and used to get to victory with a beautiful Omastar. Due to the random commands one thing that kept happening was looking at items in battle, items that were of no use. One item that we kept looking at was the Helix fossil, so of course the internet decided we were consulting it. Things progressed and soon it was universally agreed to be our deity. This led to every action being reinterpreted with this bizarre logic, turning random events into sensical moves in a nonsense world. Some Pokémon were branded as saviours (we gained a bird Jesus), others were branded heretics (we had a false prophet flareon). The chat just decided to despise certain creatures and celebrate others, it was another example of the beautiful madness that resulted in this brilliant emergent narrative. It was no Pulitzer prize winner, but it was a compelling lore that made you care about the plight of Red and kept you involved in the process. You were a part of something bigger.
Basically Twitch Plays Pokémon was wonderful and I’m going to miss it. There are hundreds of brilliant anecdotes and memorable moments. It showed the internet in all its glory and what can happen if you harness it. It showed the good and the bad, but ultimately it was a brilliant achievement. The nonsense surrounding it was matched with the ingenuity of it to make it weirdly compelling from start to end. It was something really special that I was glad to be a part of. It was a brilliant use of technology and multiplayer. It was truly innovative and totally fascinating. Let’s raise a toast to Twitch Plays Pokémon, you were the very best like no one ever was.