A year ago, I was swept up into a world of gods, heroes, villains and strife. Stories of determination and despair filled my waking hours and I discussed, at length, how my worldview had changed.
Am I taking about a gritty new indie novel or an epic saga courtesy of Bioware? No, this was Twitch Plays Pokémon; a seemingly impossible task of thousands of people playing one singular game of Pokémon Red/Blue. Every command in the chat counted and our protagonist would follow their orders. The social experiment garnered 1.1million unique players with views more than twice the population of Shanghai, an impressive 36 million. I was hooked, and I wasn’t alone. Now Twitch Plays Pokémon has returned for its Anniversary run and it feels I have never left the black and white world of Kanto.
Just how did a game that had been out since 1996 in Japan and 1998/99 worldwide capture the imagination of so many gamers?
Perhaps one of the main attractions to the stream is pure nostalgia. Pokémon Red/Blue was many people’s introduction to gaming and one that was shared on the school playground. You used to talk about your team and the cheats you found (or pretended that you found by yourself). Kanto became a micro-world inside your everyday life; and as children we discussed issues such as virtue, resilience, curiosity and character complexity, among many others, without ever fully realising it. Pokémon became a social language that was traded peer-to-peer; however as your own team becomes quite personal to oneself, it became a way of expressing who you were and what you believed in. The team in TPP is the result of a hive-mind, so although it may not personally be the team we would choose ourselves, we are familiar with the Pokémon that appear and populate the line up. This provides not only the nostalgia factor, but a comfortable knowledge of the path the game should take. Freeing up high level confusion and uncertainty by allowing the players to revel in community lore and randomness that could only exist within the internet, or on the school playground!
Just think when that one child managed to sneak a Gameboy into school, they weren’t alone for long as others clustered around to see what he or she were doing. Then followed the comments of “Why haven’t you got XYZ in your team?”, “Have you not gone to XYZ place yet?” and so forth. Some offered help when you appeared stuck; while others could be seen debating between themselves on why Sabrina was a much better Gym leader than Blaine. These memories reside within our childhood for many of us.
Game Design and narrative
At its core, Pokémon is a simple game based around collecting and leveling up to further progress. The gym leaders act as mini boss battles while the Elite Four are a five stage final boss battle. There isn’t much of a story either, with the over arching theme involving the downfall of Team Rocket and trying to beat your village rival while you collect data for Professor Oak. What this does mean however is that being such a vast world (in a, late 90s Gameboy sense) is that the world is ripe to create its own lore. Before TPP we had Missingno, a cheat that took advantage of an error handle, that became infamous for its usefulness in duplicating items, despite being potentially game breaking. What is most interesting however, is how the Pokémon community has taken Missingno into their hearts, many considering it as a canon Pokémon with tales of its grizzly demise. This is only one case of community created lore, with hundreds of others spanning the generations – some of which have even been turned into fan mods such as Lost Silver.
For TPP, the hive-mind is ideal for the creation of narrative with assumed sensibilities unearthed from chaos. Last year we had the hype of the Helix fossil, an item you find which although becomes a fairly useful Pokémon, Omanyte, has never held a great deal of love throughout the series when you compare it to more popular choices. We, as thousands of players entering commands, ended up in a situation where we kept clicking on the fossil in the menu. The helix fossil is useless until later on in the game, so in the chat it became a bit of a joke that we were ‘consulting’ the fossil for advice. It seemed particularly relevant that we kept accidentally clicking on the fossil when we were trying to navigate tricky paths that needed precise movement. By the end of the game, the Helix fossil had turned Godly with other members of our team feeding into an almost religious story of redemption and sacrifice. I wondered if something similar could happen again during the anniversary run; as soon as I saw the despair of the chat when we picked the dome fossil – I knew that we had a whole new story waiting for us to find out. A story created not by the game per se, but the actions and imagination of those around it.
The Pokémon community is a very creative one with fan art being uploaded onto the internet at alarming rate. Linking into community created lore, fans create written stories, artwork, even hymns to go alongside the Twitch stream. Overall, the sense of being a team underpins a lot of the series and people go out of their way to draw up plans on how to progress through the chaos of the stream. Trolls are aplenty, attracted to the popularity, sometimes they do win out, but those who want the social experiment to continue invest time and effort to correct mistakes and to guide others. Luckily, as mentioned previously, most people on the stream know where to go as they have a familiarity with the game’s world and narrative. It is a case of organising the hive to ensure progress rather than an ideal situation.
For onlookers this creates a curious situation where, if they desire, they too can join in to help beat the game. Unlike online multiplayers, in TPP you cannot single out one person for making a mistake – eliminating the chance of abusive comments. Therefore it is a lot easier to simply ‘give it a go’ without messing up a teams’ mission or raid. While it is a little unfair to compare TPP to online multiplayers such as League of Legends, it does have similar traits needed to bring together players to find the most successful communication process to further progress. It just appears more simplistic and less intimidating in TPP than with the it’s full fledged online counterparts.
So where does this leave the discussion now? I feel like I have only scraped the surface of why this social experiment became such a hit. It seems strange that such a mess of a gameplay becomes fascinating in its story and community creation. Could this happen with any game? Probably not, people on Twitch have tried but nothing seems to capture the imagination of the audience quite like Pokémon Red/Blue and while a lot of that probably is nostalgia; I’d like to think that the games’ simplicity in design enabled viewers who had never played it before the chance to feel the wonder that so many of us felt in the late 90s.
And you know what, Twitch Plays Pokémon might have just done that (again!)
As always tweet me @Lady_Scion if you have any questions – don’t expect a reply for a while however. I am buried between the Twitch stream and Reddit updater 😉