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The “Twitch Plays Pokémon” Phenomenon

Twitch Plays Pokémon (TPP) is the name of a Twitch.tv channel and social experiment, in which viewers can interact with ongoing streams of various Pokémon games by via inputting commands into the channel’s chat in order to control the game’s player character and navigating menus.

The first TPP stream followed a playthrough of Pokémon Red (1988) and began February 12, 2014. It quickly became a cultural phenomenon, with over 1.16 million people participating.

Essentially, the channel allowed thousands of people to attempt to control a single character through the sprawling Kanto region by all entering controls simultaneously. If you’ve ever played a co-op game with a friend before who insisted on hitting you with their lightsaber or throwing you to your death, you can already guess how chaotic TPP must have been.

Even without the countless trolls that populated the TPP chat and tried to impede the game’s progress, the control scheme made working together to overcome challenges a tricky affair. However, it was precisely due to this chaos that the game took many unexpected turns and an enduring community and lore that grew from it.

The Origins and Mechanisms Behind TPP

Who Programmed TPP?

TPP was coded by an Australian programmer known only as the “Streamer.” Despite numerous attempts by media to confirm his identity, both on and off the record, the TPP creator insisted that he preferred to keep his identity confidential in order to avoid attention and maintain the integrity of the social experiment. He has confirmed himself to be male and has described himself as a self-taught, self-employed programmer.

Though inspired by other interactive streaming games (such as SaltyBet), the concept behind TPP was very much its own thing. The programmer has said that TPP began as a “proof of concept,” and that it was a social experiment to see if a large group could play a single-player video game by crowdsourcing the command inputs.

An automated stream with a focus on audience interaction was something that was very appealing to me, and I wanted to create one myself. I eventually decided on Pokémon being a good game to test a very simple design to see if interacting with a game via Twitch would have any appeal at all.

Source: GameInformer.com

The Streamer also noted that the Pokémon community is known for imposing challenges on themselves to re-contextualize the gameplay, so it seemed like the perfect game for the experiment.

Screenshot from SaltyBet, which partially inspired TPP:

Due to his familiarity managing computers and running programs 24/7, TPP did not pose too much of a burden on the Streamer once it was live. He was able to pay for server rental fees using fan donations alone. Though many people might assume that he was an active participant in the TPP gameplay and community, he was content to leave those things to the users.

How Does TPP Work?

The Streamer coded a Python-based IRC bot for the project, which made use of function libraries that were used for connecting to IRC and simulating keyboard presses. The game itself ran on the VisualBoyAdvance Game Boy emulator.  

Functionality-wise, the IRC bot listens for buttons being said by viewers in the chat (such as “Up,” “Left,” and so on) and simulates pressing the corresponding keyboard key in the OS, and then presses the appropriate button in the emulator. As long as the on-screen character isn’t already executing a command, he will execute the command when the button in the emulator is pressed.

Why Start With Pokémon Red?

When he first came up with the idea of a crowdsource-controlled game, the Streamer settled on Pokémon Red as the inaugural effort for a variety of reasons. For one, Pokémon is a very popular franchise with consistent gameplay. Many gamers, including the Streamer, are nostalgic for the early Pokémon entries. He wanted to make sure that he chose a game with a widespread appeal that wouldn’t be ignored simply because it was too obscure or niche.

The game's protagonist, Red, suffering an existential breakdown (Credit: Alexis Royce, Deviantart)

Additionally, the Streamer chose Pokémon because the turn-based combat lent and lack of platforming elements lent itself perfectly to the crowdsourced, chat-based control structure that he hoped to implement.

“Even when played very poorly it is difficult to not make some progress in Pokémon,” said the Streamer.

A game that required precise, reaction-based input to play effectively would be nigh-impossible with dozens or hundreds of viewers inputting commands all at the same time.

Why the Twitch Trainer believes it's difficult to play Pokémon Red poorly is based on how the title reacts to player actions. "The game always waits for the player's input and doesn't require the player to react quickly to something," anything requiring immediate response would be hellacious when coupled with a Twitch stream's broadcast lag, he added.

Source: engadget.com

An Impossible Challenge?

Despite the advantages that Pokémon Red had going for it, the Streamer feared that some areas of the game, such as the Safari Zone, would be impossible for the TPP players to navigate.

"It's entirely possible that they will be too difficult to complete in this format," the Trainer told Joystiq. "I'm conflicted because I want to interfere as little as possible but I also don't want the game to be impossible to finish."

Source: engadget.com

The Streamer voiced this concern on February 20, 2014, after the stream had been going for 170 hours. For reference, the game as it is ordinarily played usually takes closer to 30 hours to complete.

The Ledge represented one of TPP's first big challenges.

Democracy and Anarchy

As you might assume, the Streamer’s fears about portions of the game being difficult to navigate were realized to a certain extent. The players contributing to the stream spent a full 24 hours attempting to navigate the Team Rocket headquarters.

Team Rocket's Maze

During this ordeal, which took place five days after the stream initially started, the Streamer introduced a new mechanic to the game in order to make difficult sections a little easier for the players to navigate.

This mechanic is called “Democracy mode” and works by tallying up all inputs within a short period of time (somewhere between 10-30 seconds) and executing the command with the most “votes.” Users could also now specify the length of the motion, such as by typing “left4” to mean four left inputs, for example.

This new method was terribly slow but much more effective for negating trolls and navigating complex areas. Using Democracy Mode, the collective users were able to finally escape Team Rocket hell.

The Players Oppose Order

Many users met this new system with resistance and outrage, saying that this system was too much of a crutch and spat in the face of the freedom and chaos that TPP represented. Opponents of democracy mode would spam the command “start9” in order to repeatedly open and close the pause menu nine times and impede the game’s progress.

The Start9 Riots:

Shortly thereafter, on February 19, 2014, the mechanic was refined to allow users to choose between democracy mode and the original way of doing things, known as “anarchy mode.” Players could type “democracy” or “anarchy” into the chat as well as the usual commands.

Once Democracy Mode is activated, Anarchy Mode must receive a majority vote to take over. The same is true the other way around as well, except Democracy Mode requires a supermajority vote to supersede Anarchy Mode. The conflict between Democracy and Anarchy is visualized as a sliding meter above the stream's chat.

In the image below you can see the intense struggle between the two schools of thought:

This more or less appeased the opponents of Democracy Mode, and the users even embraced it in times of extreme peril. Even so, the constant push and pull between the two modes came to represent a philosophical split in the TPP community.

Despite the Streamer’s fears, the stream passed through the Safari Zone on February 21, 2014, and made it through the entire game on March 1, 2014, following 16 days of continuous gameplay.

The final team:

The TPP Community

Popularity and Fanbase

When he launched the TPP stream, the Streamer didn’t think it would become too popular. The first day and a half that it was live the stream didn’t have many viewers, but by day two word had spread via social media and there were tons of viewers and participants.

By the time Pokémon Red had been completed, the stream had an average concurrent viewership of 80,000 viewers, with at least 10% of that number participating. An estimated 1.16 million people participated in the shared effort, and the stream had a total of 55 million views from beginning to end. At its peak, TPP had 121,000 concurrent participants.

The Streamer said:

I didn't think it was going to be this popular, I thought it would gain only a small group of dedicated viewers and many others would check it out briefly before moving on to other things. It's overwhelming how popular it has become.

Source: engadget.com

Though Twitch Plays Pokémon has more or less fallen out of the public eye, it retains an extremely loyal fanbase.

Lore

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the Twitch Plays Pokémon is the strong narratives and in-jokes that have developed surrounding the stream, and the deep lore that the TPP community considers canon.

Much of this lore centers on the bizarre religious narrative that grew organically out of the Pokémon Red playthrough. This narrative started as a joke about the Helix Fossil, an item that is acquired early on in the game and can be used to revive the Pokémon Omanyte.

Throughout the playthrough, the player character had the tendency of opening his inventory and checking the Helix Fossil, leading the TPP community to decide it was a religious artifact that he was consulting for guidance. This brought about the formation of the Church of Helix. Later, the opportunity to resurrect Omanyte on Cinnabar Island sparked debate about whether it was right to give their god mortal flesh.

Many of the primary Pokémon in the party developed traits and lore of their own. Perhaps most notably, perhaps was Bird Jesus, a Pidgeotto (and later Pidgeot) that is the chosen one and champion of Lord Helix.

When Democracy Mode was introduced, many followers of Helix dismissed it as the unfaithful refuge of the Dome Fossil followers. True Helix worshippers always voted for Anarchy Mode.

Certain events in the game became famous or notorious too. Perhaps most well-known is Bloody Sunday, a day that will live in infamy, in which twelve Pokémon were accidentally released into the wild, including notables such as Cabbage, Dux, and Digrat. This occurred when players were trying to use the PC to add Zapdos to their team, and led some viewers to believe that he was a false prophet and servant of the Dome.

[Viewer Discretion Advised] Real footage from the Bloody Sunday tragedy:

These are but a few aspects of the extensive lore from the first generation of TPP. The evolution of the religious narrative is quite fascinating.

The Legacy of Twitch Plays Pokémon

Whatever Happened to TPP?

Early on in the stream of Pokémon Red, the Streamer said he would like to keep the project going through every generation of Pokémon, provided that enough interest remained. TPP began playing the second generation game Pokémon Crystal after the completion of Red, and then Pokémon Emerald shortly after that.

Dramatic Interpretation of the final fight in TPP's playthrough of Crystal, againt the previous protagonist, Red.

Despite the experiment’s novelty wearing off and viewership declining with subsequent generations of the stream, TPP still retains a loyal fanbase and continues to stream today. Now in its fifth year, the stream eventually ran out of official Pokémon games to play and have been playing unofficial ROM hacks instead. Click here for a full list of completed TPP games.

The Departure of the Streamer

Despite the continued success of the TPP channel, the Streamer who was initially responsible for coding and maintaining it is no longer a part of it.

On November 13, 2017, one of the TPP community members who also volunteered to help maintain the channel, The_Chef1337, went rogue on the livestream and accused the Streamer of doxxing him.

The_Chef1337 had leaked outdated screenshots of an in-development overlay without the Streamer’s permission. The Streamer, wanting to respond in kind, overreacted and released The_Chef1337’s name and email, and considered leaking his IP address as well.

The Streamer later issued a half-hearted apology on Reddit, but this did nothing to appease his staff or the TPP community. It is clear from the comments in that Reddit thread, as well as these conversations held in the Streamer’s private chats, that his staff and community no longer trusted the Streamer.

He officially stepped down on November 22, 2017, and handed over the role of admin to another of his staff, Aissurtievos.

TPP’s Influence

Twitch Plays Pokémon may be the first example of a game played through mass crowdsourcing, and it has inspired other such games and channels to follow suit.

Almost immediately after TPP caught on, a number of copycat streams surfaced on Twitch. One such stream was Twitch Plays Pokémon Plays Tetris, in which the commands inputted by viewers in the TPP stream were co-opted and used to control the falling tetromino blocks in a game of Tetris. The blocks would even move toward the top of the screen when up commands were given.

There is also RNG Plays Pokémon, in which a random number generator, rather than a chat, is used to generate the command inputs for the game. Another one, Fish Plays Pokémon, launched in 2014, in which the position of a betta fish was tracked via fishcam and used to control the player character in Pokémon Red. This one did pretty well, peaking at 20,000 concurrent views.

Variations of the classic chat-based system has been applied to numerous other games on Twitch as well, including the likes of Mario, Zelda, Street Fighter, Halo: Combat Evolved, Metal Gear: Ghost Babel,  Dark Souls, Fallout 3, and Pokémon Go (which used location spoofing to simulate the movement of a real person). Some browser games, such as QWOP, were also used for the grand and overarching experiment. Twitch users even worked together to take care of a Tamagotchi.   

Later on, things were really taken to the next level. Twitch Installs Arch Linux allowed viewers to use the TPP Democracy system to install Arch Linux one keystroke at a time via the command terminal. Another channel, Stock Stream, allowed users to invest real money in the stock market using $50,000 supplied by the channel’s founder.

As a more mainstream example, Telltale Games (press F) also took inspiration from TPP and introduced the option to crowdplay starting with their 2016 Batman game, with anywhere from 2 to 2,000 people participating.

Legacy

As a social experiment, most people would probably consider Twitch Plays Pokémon a huge success on the basis of its community and shared narrative alone. At its peak TPP was nothing short of a phenomenon, drawing millions of participants, many of whom became highly invested in the story and lore that developed organically out of the crowdsourced gameplay.

At this point, much of the novelty of TPP has worn off and it seems to have faded from the public consciousness. Despite this, it retains a dedicated community comparable to many other niche interests. The Church of Helix (and related iconography) in particular still maintains a somewhat public presence and has been referenced by Twitch, official Pokémon series entries Omega Ruby and Alpha Saphire, and Final Fantasy XIV. Religious zealots even leave graffiti of the hallowed Helix fossil around so that their lord will know that they believe in him. It is quite possible that the Church of Helix will live even after stuff like Christianity is long gone.

Pictured below: Religious iconography 

While countless of the TPP copycats that surfaced during its heyday have since disappeared, some are still around, and new ones are developed all the time. The success of TPP effectively created a new sub-genre of video game streaming. As far as crowdplay being used by developers for mainstream releases, since Telltale Games died we’ll have to wait and see if any others implement it in the future.

Even if no significant future developments are made using these crowdplay concepts, people that experienced Twitch Plays Pokémon either firsthand or vicariously via word-of-mouth and news outlets will always remember how an unruly mob of came together to craft a wonderfully chaotic experience.

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