It was not my intention to become invested in the quest known as Twitch Plays Pokemon, or “TPP,” but once every few refresh cycles, we see the alignment of two nebulous digital bodies and what comes pouring forth from the void are indescribably luscious fruits from their holy union. When a certain game becomes such a phenomenal shared experience, it can be like like a communal hookah or a cookie jar full of crack rocks. There is enough to satisfy all, and yet a hunger that can never be sated.
I hate when I miss these things as they happen.
I remember back around 2007 seeing “The cake is a lie” pasted about the internet like a kind of “Frodo lives” tag among gamers and subsequently learning the ins and outs of Portal before even trying the game out for myself. There was that time in late 2011 when “taking an arrow to the knee,” meant “it would probably be for the best if you dedicated a couple hundred hours to Skyrim, yourself if you really want in on the joke.” And I would arrive at these parties very late, indeed, with the hookah still burning, but no one to pass the hose to.
Twitch Plays Pokemon, to sum up in 50 words or less, is 50,000 people playing a single shared game of Pokemon Red for the Gameboy by inputting commands via Internet chat. And it’s fucking bonkers.
Hey man, I played Pokemon Red back in the day, and though I never managed to catch ’em all, I had a healthy respect for its solid RPG structure and the initial thrill of its gameplay. It’s very weird to see it being played today in this bizarre collective experience, and even weirder to cop to the fact that I’m playing it now. Again. With all these people.
You can see it being played out here: http://twitch.tv/twitchplayspokemon on a live stream and the endless stream of commands from its viewers directly to the right. “Up down A B B start anarchy down B A left,” is an example of a single second’s worth of commands in TPP, and only a fraction of those actually being submitted. With such an impossibly large number of players, the gameplay is erratic, but not by precise definition “chaotic,” as progress is actually being made.
The law of averages is on the side of those with a common goal in mind, and by true grit they have captured Pokemon common and rare, named them, trained them, fought seven out of the eight gym leaders, and managed to keep the game going for almost two weeks straight.
Folks often refer to a shared effort like this as that of the Internet’s “hive mind,” and it is fascinating indeed to see its character revealed as the generally well-intended schizophrenic wisecracking self-destructive asshole genius that it is.
They have additionally managed to throw away valuable items, release Pokemon that can never be encountered again, waste thousands of dollars of in-game money, and create a fervent religious dialogue surrounding the game by deifying its creatures and items.
It’s this last bit that really compelled me to see just what in the fuck was going on here. Sometime around the eighth day in, I noticed the phrase, “Praise be to Helix” popping up all over the place and I could immediately sense the in-joke like reefer burning in another room. The Helix fossil is an in-game item that can later be “revived” as the ancient Pokemon, Omanyte. And somehow, Helix/Omanyte had become the players’ incarnation of God.
It was easy to laugh and joke about it at first, but I was surprised at how much flak I received for the trespass of using the Helix’s name in vain on a certain Internet message board. I do believe I might have been burned as a heretic, were the congregation any more corporeal. There was something more serious at work here, and where there was once a playful division between “Helix followers” and “Dome followers” (Dome being the other fossil you have the chance to acquire), it was clear that conversions to Helix were more or less becoming the price of admission for anyone claiming to be “for” the completion of the game. Those who intentionally thwart the efforts of the party by making the character suicidally jump off ledges and tangle up the gameplay by trying to access the start menu were not just trolls, but wicked followers of Dome.
I learned to show some respect and it was with great anticipation that the team eventually reached the important scientist who would revive the divine Helix. It not only took a long-ass time, but just a couple of days before, the team had accidentally released a whole shitload of valuable and beloved Pokemon into the wild due to communication fuckups (and of course, followers of Dome). There were fears that the same fate might befall their lord and savior. This picture pretty much sums it up for me:
But praise be to Helix, He survived the extraction process and now lives and fights with the team as they make their way to the final gym, and on to Victory Road.
They’ll probably crucify me for saying this, but I learned that it’s really fun to have a made-up god and to create a mythology around your existence. It’s probably how a lot of actual religions got started, and this one, for all its mock-seriousness is pretty fucking fantastic at not only creating salutations among community members but also rallying the people toward the common goals of success and survival. There will someday be religious studies courses that point to TPP in order to further examine this social phenomenon, and I won’t be able to take it, but perhaps my grandchildren will. To be present for the moment of the Resurrection is an event that I hope to recount to them someday when they’re playing whatever weird games they get up to, most likely involving Mario Party and bungee jumping from IV tubes full of psychedelic drugs not yet invented.
It’s a weird time to be alive, all right. I can’t believe I’m about to go play more Pokemon now.