February 26, 2014

BLANK | TwitchPlaysPokémon And So Can You

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I remember my most intense Pokémon experience. It was a cable link battle with my camp counselor that we promised we would have for the entire summer. We were both down to our last, most prized Pokémon. Both were down to their last few hit points when we started to psych each other out — him reducing my attack and me weakening his defense. Finally after several attempts, I managed to pull off a solar beam and knock him out, earning bragging rights for the rest of the term as well as the only anecdote I told for the rest of the summer (I wasn’t a very interesting tween).

I hadn’t felt such Pokemon-related pride in almost a decade, but finally managed to while watching the gaming phenomenon that is TwitchPlaysPokémon. On Feb. 14, the website Twitch made a version of Pokémon Red that allowed commands to be executed by submitting comments into a chat box. If you posted “up,” in about 20 seconds you’d see your username come up. And, if there was space for a command in that time, the character would perform it.

You might guess that with a large group constantly inputting commands like this, the game would be total chaos. And you’d be right. Red, Pokémon’s main character, wandered frantically about the map, walking a few steps one way, then doubling back another. The act of walking along an edge a few steps without falling over took more than seven hours to achieve — there would inevitably be a few hundred trolls submitting “down” at the last second. But then something strange happened. We won a gym battle. And then we won another. And another. And it started to look like our ambling Red, as troubled as he was, stood a chance at playing this game. As such, the stream gained popularity. During the ledge debacle on the second day, the number of players in the stream peaked at 25,000.

Then things got weird. Due to the frenetic nature of the gameplay, it was a common occurrence for Red to open his item storage and select the Helix Fossil, one of the first items given to him in the game. For most of the game, the fossil is useless, but commenters in the stream started to think Red was looking to it for guidance. And so the Helix Fossil was seen as a spiritual force — Lord Helix — and a bird Pokemon that Red caught early in the game as Bird Jesus. In order to progress through the game, Red needs to get a water-type Pokemon, either an Eevee or a Lapras. The stream decided to get an Eevee, but accidentally turned it into a fire type using a fire stone. So the stream called the Flareon that was created the “False Prophet,” a servant of Dome, the other fossil Red can collect. Fan art flooded the TwitchPlaysPokémon subreddit and other gaming forums. By the end of day three, the stream peaked at over 75,000 players.

Right around this time — the Sunday before last — I started following TwitchPlaysPokémon constantly. I had the stream in a tab on my browser at all times, stealing glances while attending lectures and writing essays. In an attempt to get rid of Flareon, we accidentally released our first Pokemon, “ABBBBBBK,” (The stream named Red’s Pokémon as well). The stream was devastated. Dome had struck again. Worse yet, we needed to get through a maze in order to defeat Giovanni, the head of one of the game’s criminal organizations. The stream spent 24 hours straight toiling through the maze before Twitch decided to switch things up. If enough players submitted “democracy” into the chatbox, the stream’s format would be changed so that, every 10 seconds, Red would initiate the command that is most submitted by the stream. Players frustrated with the lack of progress rejoiced. Traditionalists called it a cop out. Red managed to finish the maze in Democracy Mode, but fissured the stream in the process. So not only was TPP about Red vs. Giovanni and Helix vs. Dome, but Anarchy vs. Democracy as well.

The stream approached 100,000 active players as it decided to switch back to Anarchy Mode and challenge Giovanni to a trainer battle. After five minutes, each was down to his last Pokemon, Bird Jesus for Red and Kangaskhan for Giovanni. Bird Jesus was brought down to literally one unit of health, but damaged Kangaskhan so much that he only needed to execute one move to defeat him. But the stream instead used Whirlwind, a move that cannot affect Kangaskhan, and with one fell swoop, Bird Jesus was defeated and Red had to recoup two full days’ worth of work.

I can’t remember the last time I got so riled up watching a piece of live media. Not the 2012 elections, certainly not the last few Super Bowls. Watching Red’s slow, but steady progress through the game made tasks you wouldn’t think twice about if you were playing alone into momentous victories. Imagine if you filled the Rose Bowl to capacity and told everyone they would all be controlling the Bruins this time. Now that’s entertainment! Watching the stream, you felt like you were participating in video game history, as nothing like this has ever been attempted, and the incredible outpouring of creativity from its progress is something that will no doubt be attempted to replicate for years to come.

As of writing this, Red has managed to achieve earn all the game’s the badges, and all that’s left is to travel through Victory Road and battle the Elite Four. Lord Helix has been freed from his fossil tomb and stands in Red’s party alongside Bird Jesus, a Zapdos, a Nedoking, a Lapras and a Venomoth. In other words, a God, a messiah, an angel, a king, a prince and an all-terrain vehicle (the Venomoth was named “ATV”). Better get in and start button spamming now so you can claim later that you were part of video game history.