Ah, Internet subculture.
The latest craze to have swept through the online community, capturing thousands of hearts and hours and screenshots in the process, is a little experiment called “Twitch Plays Pokémon,” (or TPP for short).
Now, I’m not very familiar with Twitch (twitch.tv), a live-streaming video site devoted to gaming, but I have been following its recent innovation on imgur (which, if you’re an imgurian or Redditor, has bombarded your front pages and usersub alike), living vicariously through an inescapable torrent of updates, memes, and gifs.
If all this sounds like gobbledygook, here’s the basic premise (albeit with more gobbledygook): TPP has rescued Pokémon Red, that nugget of handheld nineties’ nostalgia, from obsolescence by recasting the single-player game as a group effort. Launched a little over two weeks ago on February 12, 2014, TPP allows Twitch users to play the game collaboratively (!), using the channel’s chat room to parse Game Boy commands (directional movement, “B” button, “A” button, “select,” and “start”) sent in simultaneously from the site’s myriad users.
Here’s where things get interesting. Lest the above description gives the illusion that such a program allows for seamless and fluid gameplay, let me tell you it’s anything but. With the constant influx of user commands, TPP encounters a significant lag time—understandable given an approximate user participation of 658,00 individual players worldwide (though especially in Australia and North America). This is hyperinteractivity at its finest: commands become perpetually redundant as users all enter the same controls for the common purpose of game advancement, commands cancel one another out instantaneously, and—because Internet—of course a handful of those 658,000 users are bound to troll the game and hinder progress. Erratic, chaotic, frustrating, TPP leads “Red,” the game’s onscreen player-character, to walk in endless circles, to toss away invaluable items like a Moon Stone, to jump off ledges and get lost in the game’s mazes and caves, to check the Pokédex compulsively, and to save or open the menu over and over and over and over and….
Added to the mix (as if things weren’t complicated enough), the creator of TPP made its own novel contribution to the gameplay: the Anarchy and Democracy modes. Anarchy was the default mode where each command gets played out on screen, but it was rechristened appropriately enough as “Anarchy” with the introduction of the “Democracy” mode. In Democracy, TPP’s programming somehow selects only one of these entered commands at any given moment by tallying up every command and choosing the highest-voted control to carry out in gameplay. Much disagreement and controversy ensued, with some vocal opponents arguing that Democracy taints the hectic nature and purpose of TPP. Eventually, the issue settled down as users came to realize the necessity of Democracy in navigating the game’s trickier passages or most important battles, though it’s generally agreed upon that Anarchy is the pure and fun mode of the experiment.
Amid all this chaos, a peculiar narrativity and mythos developed around the game and the trusty band of pocket monsters. You can follow the whole story here in recap form (highly recommended), but I’ll share a couple highlights:
1. “The Ledge”: While trying to reach Rock Tunnel, the TPP gang has to follow a straight path by a ledge (easy enough), but all it took was one “down” command to make Red jump off the ledge and have to start the maneuver all over again. Yeah, this took the crew over five hours of madness on day three of the game.
2. “Bloody Sunday”/The Rains of Castaleer: on day 12 of the game, the mob sought to retrieve Zapdos, the legendary electric bird and their recent Master Ball capture, from the PC. Enter the heartbreak: while trying to open the PC, retrieve Zapdos, and close the PC, the Pokémon caught thus far during the game were subject to being “released,” let out into the wild and never to be seen again. Over two-thirds of those captured were let go, including two Venonats, two Nidorans, an Exeggcute, a Paras, a Gloom, a Geodude, a Dux, and a Rattata/Raticate affectionately nicknamed “Digrat” all met their demise.
Such an outcry of legitimate woe is seldom heard from a seasoned online crowd of desensitized and ironical devotees. But the team pressed on, and they did so with characteristic pluck and aplomb. And with the besting of each seemingly insurmountable challenge, TPP grew into a contemporary band of misfits. At long last, the group reached the final challenge of the game: the Elite Four. Many users debated the strategy and preparedness of Red’s go-to group of six Pokémon, but soon enough TPP decided to give the Elite Four a run for it. Lo and behold, yesterday on March 1, 2014, the group won the game after a particularly riveting battle where the party’s last remaining Pokémon—a Venomoth, for Pete’s sake!—helped to best trainer Lance and his entire team of dragons!
By now, the reliable party of six have attained the status of internet legends with some killer (if slightly heretical) monikers: the aforementioned Venomoth aka “ATV” (for “All-Terrain Venomoth), the overused and over-leveled Pidgeot aka “Bird Jesus,” a Lapras aka “AIR” (The Prophet), a Nidoking aka “King Fonz,” an Omastar resurrected from the Great Helix Fossil and known as “Lord Omastar,” and—finally—the infamous Zapdos aka “Angel” or “Anti-Jesus” whose capture immediately preceded the events of “Bloody Sunday.”
Suffice it to say that it’s been quite the couple of weeks for this strange, untamed corner of the Internet. A huge waste of time? You betcha. But I bet we’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of the culture and inner workings of the Internet age, and maybe—just maybe—a glimpse at humanity’s knack for endurance and our search for community in whatever form it takes.
Jacob Schepers (Calvin ’12) is the author of A Bundle of Careful Compromises (2014), a winner of the 2013 Outriders Poetry Project competition. His poetry has appeared in Verse, The Common, PANK, The Destroyer, and others. He lives in South Bend, IN, with his wife, Charis, and two sons, Liam and Oliver. He is both an MFA student and doctoral candidate in English at the University of Notre Dame.