A farce. A social experiment. A pseudo-religion. A beloved pastime. An exercise in stupidity.
Depending on who you ask, "Twitch Plays Pokémon" (also known as TPP) may be many different things, but the one thing it's proven NOT to be is forgettable. ...That is, to everyone who was paying attention to the Pokémon universe back in the early 2000s. Before I go much further, I have a confession to make: prior to a few short weeks ago, I had no idea what "Twitch Plays Pokémon" was.
When I admitted this to my coworkers via Zoom call, their Brady Bunch lineup of reactions ranged from incredulous ("Do you live under a rock?") to alarmingly excited. A flurry of babble and overlapping explanations finally resolved themselves to give me the general gist of the thing. "Twitch Plays Pokémon" was clearly some kind of internet phenomenon that started off as a simple variation on the original Pokémon Red gameplay, and ended up somewhere out in left field. Nothing too strange about that. I could write about this, no problem.
...If only I'd known how deep the rabbit hole goes.
Now, following its debut in 2011, Twitch livestreaming was a relatively new form of both expression and entertainment in gaming communities. That said, its users quickly adopted the accompanying chat feature as a tool to express their approval or disapproval of content—at times even influencing future content creation. There was strength in numbers, they discovered, and this strength could be harnessed by banding together and shouting in all caps at their content creator of choice until they got what they wanted.
Conceptually, "Twitch Plays Pokémon" was fairly simple. It emerged as the ingenious brainchild of an unknown Australian programmer, who apparently wondered what it'd be like to take a popular single-player video game and turn its controls over to the internet at large. By running the game on an emulator, coding the basic controls to correspond to Twitch chat entries, and synthesizing participants' collective input, he hoped to harness chaotic chatroom energy and translate it into a successful playthrough.
He selected GameBoy's Pokémon Red. The controls were straightforward, he reasoned, with simple grid-style movements, and the game was remarkably popular, practically guaranteeing a high level of participation. He also figured that widespread knowledge of how to play and beat the game, even dispersed among players worldwide, would give Red a fighting chance.
Some claim that this anonymous mastermind was inspired by the longstanding infinite monkey theorem, which hypothesizes that a monkey, by hitting random keys on a typewriter over an infinite amount of time, will eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare. It's debatable whether any given internet chatroom is more or less intelligent than the average monkey (personally, my money is on less...much less), but the theory remains the same: given enough time and freedom, people typing in random commands would propel Red through the course of the game…….eventually.
Which leads to some follow-up questions. How long would it take? And with what unpredictable shenanigans occurring along the way?
The experiment launched unceremoniously on February 12th, 2014, under the aptly-named TwitchPlaysPokémon channel. It generated a modest reaction at the start, grabbing the attention of maybe 50 players over the course of its first day. They kicked the game off to an underwhelming start, choosing to keep both the protagonist and antagonist's default names of Red and Blue. Charmander was selected as starter Pokemon, and bestowed with the highly creative moniker of "ABBBBBBK." It was later affectionately nicknamed "Abby". Another early catch, a Rattata called "JLVWNNOOOO", became known as "Jay Leno".
Despite TPP's rather lackluster start, its audience exploded on day two, with viewership reaching 4000+ by midday, and a whopping 16 million by the end of the first week. Not long after its inception, TPP was officially a global phenomenon, with participants hailing from the U.S., Europe, Asia, and Australia. This kind of attention was thus far unprecedented in Twitch history.
Predictably, TwitchPlaysPokémon proved to be an absolute magnet for trolls and other bored denizens of the internet. Commands flooded the chat at unprocessable speed, resulting in a significant lag between player input and their desired actions taking place.
After the first week, TPP's creator stepped in for his first (and definitely not last) intervention: a start button 'throttle' that would hinder its functionality on a deliberately irregular basis, in order to prevent constant spamming. "I dislike this compromise", he was reported as saying, "but unsuppressed start spam was annoying". Annoying indeed—for him, for players, for viewers, and (if he had any feelings to feel) surely for Red himself.
On the other hand, the crowdsourced nature of the gameplay led to some heartwarming collaboration amongst earnest participants from around the world. These players discovered that, by pooling their collective knowledge, they could generate elaborate plans, scripts, and infographics in order to help achieve their goals. (A few diehards went so far as to analyze Twitch user data in an attempt to weed out trolls.) Gameplay staples such as capturing, naming, healing, battling, and healing Pokémon shifted from simple tasks to huge strategic victories, based on the sheer amount of effort it took to complete them.
All that said, there's plenty of entertainment to be found in the early gameplay alone. Red's actions read as bizarrely erratic—and at times, even obsessive-compulsive—with constant pacing back and forth, Pokedex checks, and re-saves. Poor Red frequently found himself jammed into corners, or jumping off of cliffs to his doom again...and again...and again. It's enough to make you feel sorry for the poor kid, who I imagine to be growing more and more frustrated with each misstep.
It didn't take long for TPP's creator to decide further adjustment was needed (or maybe just get impatient), and he instituted another new mechanic: Democracy Mode. With thousands of participants tuning in daily, the Twitch chat free-for-all was keeping gameplay cumbersome and progress slow. In the new system, all TPP chat input over a span of 30 seconds could be tallied, resulting in a single 'elected' command for Red. Commands could also be appended with numbers—for example, "left3"—to indicate multiple movements at a time.
This seemingly innocuous, or even helpful, decision on the anonymous programmer's part unleashed a wave of resistance from anarchy advocates that culminated in what became known as the 'start9 protests'. (I swear I am not making this up.) TPP's mastermind had committed the classic internet sin of provoking the hivemind, when many of its members were perfectly happy with the original status quo. Opponents of the stream's new structure began spamming the Twitch chat with the 'start9' command, which caused the pause menu to open and close nine times in a row.
Predictably, this did not go over well with lawful-leaning fans of the change, as it only caused further delays to progress. Others, including TPP's nameless inventor, were less perturbed. In an attempt to mitigate the growing tension between factions, he made yet another change— this time tweaking the mechanic so that users had the collective ability to vote for either Democracy or Anarchy, and toggle back and forth between the two. Players' preferences were displayed in an on-screen meter, with a supermajority resulting in Democracy, and a regular majority vote, Anarchy.
Did this help? ...Yes and no. What had begun as a goofy little side project was erupting into an all-out philosophical war. Anarchists remained dissatisfied with the changes, because the original randomness of the playthrough was being tempered, and continued to spam 'start9' whenever democracy reigned. Meanwhile, fans of democracy doubled down on their efforts to stamp out trolling, and rededicated themselves to completing a successful playthrough. Neutral participants found themselves forced to take sides as a line in the sand was drawn between order and chaos, and some quit their TPP addiction altogether.
"I find both the modes interesting to watch in their own way", the father of TPP said, revealing just the slightest hint of callousness, "and I think the divisiveness of the community is exciting. I especially like how spamming one's opinion ad nauseum has a tangible effect on something, you don't get that on the Internet a whole lot, plus you can see it in (near) real-time!" (I am not wholly convinced that this man is healthy for the internet.)
I'd like to congratulate you at this point if you're still with me. Because while things have certainly gotten a bit weird...well, they're about to get weirder.
In true internet fashion, it didn't take long for the TPP community to develop a language and lore all their own—and it goes beyond Abby and Jay Leno. Red picked up a Helix Fossil early on in his travels (fairly useless except for the occasional revival), and players began to interpret his repeated selection of it as consultation of an oracle, or even a deity. The Helix came to symbolize the entirety of an anarchist pseudo-religion that developed around gameplay. Not to be outdone, the democracy clan responded with the Dome Fossil—similarly useless except for its revival ability, and just as arbitrary—as their emblem of choice.
Far from ending there, the religious fervor only escalated. Fan-made 'bibles' began popping up, containing origin stories for Red's storyline, among other things, written entirely in traditional biblical prose. TPP chat members referred to themselves as "the Voices", a sort of spiritual guide accompanying Red in his exploits, with the power to direct him towards either 'good' or 'evil' (depending on their political perspective). The man responsible for TPP is appropriately referred to as "Creator".
"The Book of Helix" prose includes the narrative of Red's capturing a simple Pidgey, whose evolution to Pidgeot and remarkable successes in battle led to nicknames such as "Bird Jesus" and "Son of Helix". Otherworldly powers ascribed to it included angel wings and a holy glow. Memes, as you can imagine, abounded. Its longevity is incredible, as it managed to hold its place on the team through the end of the game.
When Red's actions failed to evolve Eevee into a much-needed Vaporeon and ended up with a Flareon instead, players disparagingly dubbed it "the False Prophet".
This opinion only solidified when it cost them their beloved Abby and Jay Leno. Pokemon had been mistakenly released at times throughout the game, though few more beloved than those original two. Things only got worse on Sunday, February 23rd, 2014— a date christened "Sunday Bloody Sunday" by dismayed fans—when 12 Pokémon were abruptly let loose during an ill-fated Zapdos hunt.
Despite its inauspicious start, Zapdos was captured and begrudgingly accepted onto the team as its first legendary Pokemon. Originally named "AA-j", it soon became known by a plethora of different names ("Anarchy Bird", "Fallen Angel", "Archangel of Justice"/"Archangel of Anarchy", "Battery Bird", "John the Zaptist", and my personal favorite, "Bird Jesus 2: Electric Boogaloo")—all according to the participants' various political and religious affiliations.
Entire novels could be, and probably have been, written about the cult-like following that TPP amassed, but I've provided a decent highlight reel. ...It's roughly around this point that I like to imagine TDD's "Creator" sitting in front of his home computer, head in hands, as he bears witness to his creation lurching towards the finish line, a la Dr. Frankenstein. Did he feel proud? Bewildered? Helpless? Regardless of his own feelings about TPP, its participants were now thoroughly invested on multiple levels, and the end was in sight.
After over 16 and a half days and a whopping 36 million views, gameplay reached its conclusion. The warring hivemind had, almost unbelievably, managed to guide Red through conquering all 8 Kanto gyms and march down Victory Road to defeat the Elite Four. After several attempts at the final battle, Red finally used AA-j's Thunder to knock out Blue's Blastoise and officially claimed the title of League Champion. It was a major victory not only for audience members, but also, they claimed, for Lord Helix.
Even as its original participants lost interest and moved on to other things, Twitch Plays Pokemon holds the dubious honor of inspiring an entire series of TwitchPlaysPokémon games, spanning 7 seasons to date, along with a host of imitations. Crowdsourced-command spinoffs began to crop in other game universes, including Halo, Street Fighter, and Legend of Zelda—to name just a few.
Perhaps slightly more well known, TwitchPlaysPokémon was officially awarded the Guinness World Record for "most participants on a single-player online video game" in 2014. Official documentation boasts a total participation of 1,165,140 players over the course of Red's journey. It also received a Game Award in the "Best Fan Creation" category that same year. High-ranking Twitch employees have commented personally on the phenomenon, praising its interactivity, and the company subsequently evolved to encourage this facet of the platform.
Whether you were a loyal proponent of democracy, a diehard anarchist, or even blissfully oblivious like me, this internet legend lives on in meme culture, and holds a secure place in Poké-history.