Right now, as you read these words, hundreds of thousands of people are celebrating a victory over Pokémon Red/Blue. Not individually, each holding a GameBoy loaded with an eighteen-year-old game cartridge.
No, this is something entirely different: Tens of thousands of users sighing with relief after two weeks of controlling a single character as he made his hero's journey and ran into plenty of walls along the way.
This is Twitch Plays Pokémon.
Twitch.tv is a video site that live-streams video games as they happen. One doesn't, as one Gawker editor conjectured, "sit there watching some eight-year-old with a controller"—rather, the site directly streams the gameplay of Starcraft 2, League of Legends, or whatever it is the kids are into these days. You're basically spying on the computer screen of whoever is streaming their game. It's weirdly captivating.
Twitch is also home to more group-oriented game activities like professional video game tournaments and prerecorded game walkthroughs. It may sound like some obscure corner of the web, but never underestimate a nerd: at peak internet hours in the U.S., the site reportedly hosts the fourth-largest audience on the internet, beating out even Facebook and Hulu.
What Twitch is not normally used for is actual gameplay. How could it be? It's a video site designed to stream games, not a server meant to host any. Save for the chat box on the side of the video screen, there's no way to interact with the onscreen game itself.
Unless, of course, that game is a basic role-playing game from 1998, with step-by-step, turn-based play and extremely simple commands.
The original Pokémon games, as it turns out, are the perfect platform to show what Twitch can do if you get creative. One anonymous Twitch user decided to see what would happen if they combined the collaborative gameplay of something like Minecraft with the totally non-collaborative nature of passive video streams. It all came down to the chat box: users can type commands (a, b, up, down, left, right, start), which are then fed into a VisualBoy Gameboy emulator.
The character on screen (dubbed Red) reacts appropriately–and that's where things get fun.
Pokemon Red/Blue, you see, is a single-player game. As players approached the end last night, over 90,000 people were playing this single-player game. When tens of thousands of people try to control a single character, interesting things start happening. Red runs into a lot of walls. He ambles around town like a crazy person, and he enters stores multiple times before finally coming in and deciding what to buy. He gets lost in mazes, and his Pokémon faint a lot.
In the beginning, players had no option but to go along with moves as they happened, totally at the mercy of the crowd (and the trolls). But when Red spent over 24 hours trying to get through Team Rocket's maze–one false step will send a player back to the beginning–the creator decided enough was enough. They changed gameplay so that the program chose "the most popular input provided during a 20 second voting period." Unfortunately, democracy didn't work out so well.
Protesters entered in droves, spamming the chat box with the phrase "start9," which would stall the game by opening and closing the main menu nine times in a row. Yep: you can filibuster Pokémon.
Eventually the angry players made their point, and the creator introduced a compromise: if 50 percent of players voted for "anarchy mode" at any given time, the game would be played as originally intended, with all the frustration that brought. If 80 percent voted for "democracy mode," the voting system would prevail. Democracy worked for puzzles (such as a different maze that only allows a certain number of moves), but overall the internet's tendency was, predictably, anarchic.
On top of the cooperation issue, there was the problem of lag. The creator explains, "Twitch's servers introduce a lot of delay in order to support streaming to many people simultaneously. The amount of delay is approximately 20~40 seconds depending on connection quality." The lag is great for video quality, but not so much for live gameplay.
Of course, there's nothing like adversity to bring people together. The 20-second lag led to some interesting events over more than two weeks of gameplay, and not just the kind that results from running into a wall. Repeatedly.
Because this is the internet, trolls, of course, invaded the game from time to time, taking advantage of the lag by opening the menu and letting subsequent moves wreak chaos. This led to plenty of Pokémon with names like "AATTVVV" (a Venomoth nicknamed All-Terrain Venomoth) and "AIIIIIIRRR" (a Lapras colloquially known as the Fresh Prince). It also led to taking things out, looking at them, and putting them back again. Over and over. And over.
One of the things Red liked to take out when the trolls struck was an object called the Helix Fossil, which he got toward the beginning of the game. In fact, Red consulted the Helix Fossil so much that players formed a religion around it: the Helix Fossil must be a god to whom Red constantly looked for answers. Lord Helix, as the object has henceforth been known, was eventually revived a an Omanyte. The apparently useless Helix could finally be used in fights alongside Bird Jesus (a Pidgeot that against all mob-mentality odds managed to actually win fights from the beginning and soon became the game's ringer).
There's plenty of other Twitch Plays Pokémon lore out there, including a TV Tropes page, a Wikipedia article, and a subreddit with play-by-play commentary. And there's doubtless more to come: although the game is done, the subreddit update page mysteriously tells readers, "WAIT UNTIL SUNDAY, 12 PM GMT." What are we waiting for? Will we have another chance to play a game with thousands and run into walls around Pallet Town for three days straight? We'll soon know.
One thing is certain: if Twitch plays Pokémon again, we'll all have plenty of time to watch. Average play time for Pokémon Red is reportedly 46.6 hours. When Twitch beat the final boss, they had been playing for over 16 days.