By now, most gamers who spend any amount of time on game-centric websites have heard the thunderous roar that has been Twitch Plays Pokemon, the out-of-left-field Twitch live stream experiment that has ballooned into a meme-creating exercise in community. But it’s not even the event itself which has become such a spectacle, but the mythology that has spawned from it. And it’s here, that I believe, the event has harkened back to the days of pen-and-paper table top roleplaying!
For those of you that don’t know what Twitch Plays Pokemon is, let me get you caught up. It’s the classic Game Boy game Pokemon Red played by committee. Using a system that translates chat-spoken control prompts to actual control inputs, the live-streaming of the game is controlled entirely by the chat. By simply typing “Up”, the chat will command the game to press the “Up” button on the Game Boy. During it’s first few days, there were few people so it ran smoothly, but as word-of-mouth and many big-named sites and entertainers began promoting it, it snow-balled into a massive cluster with over 100k people entering commands at once! As you can imagine: it got chaotic in a hurry.
But that’s where the appeal has come from. Watching the character wander aimlessly around an elevator for half a day has become somewhat of an endearing in-joke. Dealing with the horrors of ledges or that pesky tree in front of Lt. Surge’s gym has become an epic struggle. Randomness vs. deliberate game programming.
Perhaps what is most striking though, is the relationships and stories that have formed in this random series of events. There has formed an entire backstory, an entire world mythology that was created wholly by the online community as the game unfolded.
For instance, each pokemon, for lack of a better term accidentally, caught has spawned it’s own nickname. It’s own personality. With characters like “Bird Jesus”, the Pidgeot that’s been with Red since the beginning and became a one-bird wrecking machine, developing into a beloved character worthy of multiple pieces of fan art. And perhaps the most well-known meme to come from it: the mighty Helix Fossil. An item that, through constant random attempts at examination in the inventory, became somewhat of a God figure among the community. “Consult The Helix” became an overnight sensation online, and through the revival of the fossil, a God figure has been born into the party. Going so far as to lead to websites and plenty of images to flesh out it’s relevance in gaming culture.
What is it about this that has become so appealing? Besides the hilarious nature of watching a game played horrendously by thousands upon thousand of random people, it’s the development of personality and story that has become the drawing aspect.
During the notorious “Bloody Sunday”, people who had dedicated the last two weeks of their life to this randomness watched as Pokemon they had grown attached to were “killed” via random PC release. RIP DigRat. Never forget!
It was at this point I realized that most of this “game” was being played outside of the actual Twitch stream, and outside of the actual game. This was a straight-up text-based roleplaying game that drew comparison to things such as Dungeons & Dragons in my mind. Taking the initial ruleset of a game and expanding on it, roleplaying, crafting characters, giving them backstories and purpose outside of being random pixels on a screen.
In a way, it’s rather impressive. That some random social experiment in game form has turned into a means for thousands of people who have likely never played a tabletop RPG inadvertently experiencing one for the first time. By giving them a familiar format, a chatroom and a classic well-loved video game, we’ve slowly eased them into the early stages of a genre of game that a lot of modern gamers known nothing about. I mean, would Flareon, the False Prophet or Dux, The Slayer Of Trees, really be that out of place in a D&D game?
Was this the intention? Probably not. But it shows just how powerful the concept of roleplaying can be. That character creation, telling stories with tools given to players, attachment to completely made-up elements, is not an art that is lost on modern gamers. This is something the game development circuit can learn from, perhaps allowing the concept of creative roleplaying to be taped into more frequently, and in new and exciting ways. It’s bridging a gap between two different kinds of gamer through something as completely ridiculous as memes and random chat-based gameplay on a live stream.
And that, if you ask me, is pretty awesome.
Praise Lord Helix!