Dialogue Tree is a feature series in which members of the Ready Up team bat ideas back and forth on a multitude of topics from analysis of current events, to discussions of particular themes in gaming, to full on debates. This time Susan and Dean discuss the massive social gaming experiment that was Twitch Plays Pokémon.
Susan (23/02/14, 17:21)
I thought it sounded insane to even begin with – how does someone decide that they’re going to experiment on the Internet using Pokémon Red? But just dropping in to watch the stream, my heart swelled at hearing that glorious music. Of course, I thought. Why wouldn’t you choose Pokémon? It’s such a uniting franchise of great popularity, a great game to boot, and that it’s a light JRPG fitted the terms of the experiment perfectly. But that nostalgia kick! I don’t think I was ready for it. I don’t think I was quite ready to spend several minutes watching Red run himself into a wall and frantically open the Start menu several times, either. But it’s oddly compelling…
Dean (26/02/14, 01:37)
I didn’t really have the hit of nostalgia that you experienced, as I’ve never actually played a Pokémon game, but the thing that initially impressed me was the fact that something so ridiculous was happening on such a grand scale. But because there was so much earnestness behind it all, the endeavour manages to transcend the ridiculous into the sublime and quickly won me over. It’s a collective human force of will, bent towards an insurmountable challenge. Not only does this seem to have become something of a microcosm of civilisation, especially since they introduced the two political paradigms anarchy and democracy, I think in many ways it also marks one of the great battles between the two diametrically opposed forces on the Internet: the spirit of cooperation on one side and the trolls on the other. If they can get through this game, in spite of all the obstacles stacked against them, then it will be a triumph for human ingenuity.
Susan (26/02/14, 20:14)
I agree with you that it does seem to have become a kind of microcosm of the Internet, but without the mean-spirit that many pockets of the Internet contain. It doesn’t really feel much about co-operation versus trolls, since the beautiful irony of anarchy is that you still have to collaborate in a way to get your move voted in. It feels more about chaos versus order, but they each contain flavours of each other. It’s wonderfully murky and absolutely hilarious too, which is why I say that it’s without the mean-spirit. There have been so many moments in the course of the game where everything could have gone absolutely, horribly wrong; like when Red had to fight the cursed ledge, or was stuck between an NPC trainer and a wall… But really everyone in a way has still managed to get through those moments without devolving into massive slagging matches, or trying to hack the game, or break it in a malicious way that would ruin it for everyone. Plus amidst it all, there’s been this thread of humour that’s lightened everything and made it not a battle for the heart of the Internet, but more one giant laugh-fest with two factions still trying to reach the same goal, just battling over how to do it.
Dean (26/02/14, 22:55)
You’re right, even with the influx of saboteurs that its growing popularity inevitably lured in, the whole thing does have a really light-hearted charm to it. Memes are forming in this heady mix of creativity, geek culture and sleeplessness like stars in a nebula, creating a really weird meta narrative. In particular I think it’s really interesting that the whole endeavour has become couched in the language of religious prophesy. The article in Dorkly you showed me, for instance, describes the events that have occurred each day like some creation myth, in which the oddly named Pokémon are given names like ‘Bird Jesus’, a mundane item called the helix fossil has become a god (and even now has a hymn dedicated to it) and Red is like some kind of prophet (or just a mad man with voices in his head, which is similar in many ways). Even if it is all playful fun, I can’t help but feel this is all quite important. It might not be too far a stretch to look at this as an example of how religious ritual develops in large communities of people. Perhaps this all contributes more to our understanding of how human society works than we think and the aftermath of this is sure to fuel dozens of PhDs. Would you agree?
Oh definitely, and a part of me wonders about the true motive of the Anon who set this all up. It’s part technological experiment and part social experiment but I don’t think even Anon realised what would actually happen with the tongue-in-cheek establishment of an entire religious mythos heavily influenced by Judeo-Christian imagery. I would love to see academic discussion on this particular phenomenon, but I think the implications for fandom and pop culture are far-reaching as well. Yes, there are the multitude of memes that have popped up but remember that Pokémon itself has been around for over a decade and has well-established canon and fandom of its own. This has been a bizarre and brilliant creation of an entire sub-fandom with its own story, characters and art – fiction on Red’s further exploits, even if it’s a joking paragraph or two, isn’t far off I don’t think, if it hasn’t happened already.
Dean (04/03/14, 00:46)
Mechanically it’s interesting too. Because of the large quantities of inputs, the 30-or-so second lag on the Twitch stream and the fact that the game only parses one command at a time, players are not only having to work together, but are effectively trying to predict the future. I remember in junior school we had this stupid robot that you could program with basic commands (forward 4, left 3 etc) and then watch it bump into every piece of furniture in the class room. Red is kind of like that robot, except he is being programmed and reprogrammed by thousands of excited school kids, many of whom would rather see what would happen if Rob trundled over the edge of the stairs than along the tidy slalom constructed by the frustrated teacher. It’s also a bit like a board game by Magic the Gathering creator Richard Garfield, called Robo Rally. Here players attempt to guide their robot around a grid board full of hazards by programming in a series of movement cards drawn from a deck. Each action is resolved simultaneously for every player, meaning that your projected cruise to the finish line can be royally screwed when your rival shunts you off course and into a pit. With eight players that game can last for an age, but certainly not to the extent of TPP. 16 days, 7 hours, 45 minutes and 30 seconds to completion and now they are moving onto Pokémon Crystal! Do you think they’ll beat their record here?
Susan (27/02/14, 19:52)
I think they will, in equivalent terms of earning the first eight badges and beating the Elite Four. Crystal is a longer game because the player gains access to Kanto as well, so the play through might take longer in that sense. At this early stage it already feels like everyone is making better progress although I think that might be largely because of the new anarchy/democracy mechanic. But a big part of it is that it’s demonstrably possible – the ledge was eventually defeated, Victory Road was conquered and the Champion was defeated by a comparatively low-level All-Terrain Venomoth who was aptly crowned ‘Dragon Slayer’. Even with the lag issues, the technical troubles and the logistics of thousands of people attempting to program in commands, it was still done and everyone rejoiced and praised Helix. The overall collective still seems geared towards completion. Now that we’re into the second game though, I wonder how long the hype will continue. Red was huge and we’ve made massive steps in the field of live ‘co-operative’ gaming, but we only had a brief break before we’ve gone straight into Crystal. The humour is still there, but to me it lacks the fresh sparkle of the memes and the like that sprung out of the first play through. I wouldn’t want this play through to die in the water as it’s one of my favourite Pokémon games, but after this one I wonder whether it’ll be as fun to continue with the franchise. Perhaps after this it will be time to try the format with a different game although I’m not sure what other game would be quite as perfect.
Yes, Pokémon works because it is turn based and even in the over-world the inputs are very defined. Games that have more analogue controls, require any kind of timing, or punish defeat more than Pokémon’s ‘fainting’ would be unthinkable. Can you imagine a play through of Dark Souls for instance? Or Spelunky? JRPGs like the Final Fantasy games would probably be doable. I’d quite like to see it done with Persona 4. Roleplaying the protagonist as a socially incompetent dimwit who walks into walls and always says the wrong thing to girls would be pretty funny. Although there might be too many cutscenes… Or how about splitting the users into four teams and playing Bomberman? Twitch seems keen to harness the momentum caused by the phenomenon, even if it did almost grind their service to a halt. They came out with a press release detailing some interesting stats about the play through and seemed to suggest they were thinking of building on the idea. I’m wondering if it has the legs to be a sustained, more official thing, or whether its value was being an incredibly vibrant, collaborative, one off, live, artistic performance.
Susan (10/03/14, 06:11)
I think that the first round was popular enough that it will be replicated again with different games. I was surprised that someone didn’t go for Final Fantasy, that would have been my next thought as a good RPG to do although perhaps it wouldn’t be as humorous as the Pokémon play through given how serious Final Fantasy can be and the lack of character numbers in comparison. I’m half hoping they don’t try and go through all of the Pokémon games although they probably will because, like you said, it has value as a one-off artistic performance. Perhaps they should just quit while they’re ahead. But the popularity and the official interest from Twitch does seem to suggest that another mass-play through will happen but its success will be in applying the formula to something new rather than repeatedly rehashing a play through of the same game. Even within the Pokémon franchise there are other games – Mystery Dungeon might be an interesting one to do although bits of those games are frustrating enough as a single player.