You've seen The Truman Show, right? Oh, no? Okay, go ahead and do that. It's cool. I'll wait.
Good movie, right? Now imagine if Truman had an earpiece, and into that earpiece is piped the reactions of every single audience member across the land. Now imagine that they are all shouting commands at him, and Truman must do the first one he hears after finishing a task, regardless of what it is.
Walk. Run. Dig. Rifle through your pockets. Switch directions. Break some shit. Fight that guy. Throw your wallet away. Jump off that cliff.
Something very much like that is happening right now on the Internet. It is a phenomenon called Twitch Plays Pokemon, and even if you are like me and care nothing at all about Pokemon, I urge you to keep up with it. It is endlessly fascinating.
Twitch is a content provider where people can stream videos and interact with fans and fellow Twitchers. One user, called Twitch Plays Pokemon, set up a system where an old Nintendo Gameboy game called Pokemon Red can be played by anyone in the audience. If you're watching it, all you have to do is type any of the standard Gameboy commands into the chat window - Up, Down, Left, Right, B, A, or Start. Which command the game's protagonist Red obeys depends on the timing. Like a skeet shooting event with a few thousand people all using cumbersome blunderbusses (not the actor who plays the BBC's Sherlock Holmes), only a very few people will be able to aim their shots in the exact right time and place - and many of those will be pure luck. But everyone is free to try, and they're launching skeet 24/7.
That doesn't even sound like it would work with a hundred people. The Twitch Plays Pokemon stream hosts several thousand, up to 75,000 at its peak. And yes, the gameplay consists of mostly pointless button-mashing and running in circles, but you know something? The players have actually made decent progress. With a lot of mishaps and setbacks, yes, but somehow they have managed to keep moving forward in what is a complex and difficult game even when one is playing it on one's own.
A bit of Pokemon background, just to put this whole thing into context. The Pokemon manga, television show, movies, and video games all revolve around the premise of people called Trainers capturing creatures with magical powers called Pokemon (a portmanteau of "pocket monster"), and forcing them to beat the living piss out of one another for sport. It's children's entertainment of the highest degree.
Why should you care? Well, I told you that so I could tell you this: what began as maybe the world's first MMSPORG (massively multiplayer single player online role-playing game) has become a focal point by which we can observe patterns of human behavior which would ordinarily take years or even centuries to become clear.
Probably the most interesting and hilarious aspect of this whole ordeal is the gripping religious mythology that has sprung up around the game, its characters, and the events which have transpired thus far. The players find comfort and amusement in pretending that the events they experience are not the result of thousands of random chaotic factors over which they can only exert minimal control. No, each of these events is part of a bigger picture, a bigger story. Sound familiar?
The players of the game have turned Red's tendency to repeatedly select an item from his inventory called the Helix Fossil into the backbone of their mythology. Red's obsession with this item isn't due to the commands whizzing past at 200 mph, oh no. According to the game's religious lore, he is consulting the Helix Fossil. He is praying to it. An item with no sentience and limited significance has taken on the role of the benevolent god figure. "ALL HAIL THE HELIX FOSSIL," the players chant when something fortuitous occurs, and also whenever they feel like it.
A relatively unremarkable Pokemon named Pidgey just happened to be the one Pokemon who was never released and who was always upgraded appropriately to the point where he became the heavy hitter of the team. He became so revered for his victories, the players began calling him Bird Jesus.
It doesn't stop there. Another Pokemon called Flareon who showed promise but who evolved poorly, stunting the group's forward progress, became known as the False Prophet. Another item called the Dome Fossil, rejected early on in favor of the Helix Fossil, has become a stand-in for Satan, and all misfortune is now said to be wrought by the Dome Fossil or its agents.
In addition to spawning a new (if derivative) religion, the game has also become a microcosm for certain socio-political structures. After a protracted and frustrating period of zero progress, the Twitch channel's creator introduced a new dynamic to the gameplay. Up until now, it had operated under the Anarchy system, where every individual command flies past at lightning speed, and every voice is equally tiny. The newer system is Democracy, which consists of a 20-second pause in gameplay while the players vote on which command goes next. Players also vote on which of these systems to use at any given time. The result is a constant tug of war between two factions regarding how to play the game: the purists who believe that Anarchy is the only true way to play, and the others who believe Democracy is more effective - and also trolls who have discovered that Democracy is the better system by which to sabotage the game.
Predictably, the religious and the political have mixed. Anarchy is now said to reflect one's trust in the guiding hand of the Helix Fossil, and to embrace Democracy is to turn away from the Helix Fossil and begin worshiping the Dome Fossil. Anarcho-Helixists have gone so far as to call it Domecracy, even while grudgingly accepting that sometimes it is a necessary evil. Watching the followers of each ideology brawl in the game's chat window - and all across the internet, including on Tumblr, Imgur, Twitter, and many other places - has been a humorously exhilarating mirror image of how religious, philosophical, and political ideology has developed over thousands of years... all condensed into the past two weeks, and centered around an old Gameboy game. This story continues on the next page.
As for why the game's progress is so gripping to so many of us who don't care at all about Pokemon, just consider the depth given to the narrative as it develops. One Pokemon, called Ratatat and nicknamed DigRat, had a morale-crushing effect on the players because his Dig power, when selected in the game's frenetically Anarchist manner, would put them right back at the start of whatever level they were on. They lost a lot of time and retread a lot of ground because of DigRat, yet all attempts to discard him from the team failed. Every non-troll player lamented his inescapable presence. However, eventually the players came to a tower which was filled with Ghost Pokemon, who are immune to most standard attacks. One of the few attacks they weren't immune to? DigRat's Dig. And so the Pokemon they had hated and tried to get rid of wound up carrying the group through that level almost completely by itself, earning the nickname Tower Savior. Tower cleared, of course, DigRat then went right back to being a progress-resetting little bastard until he was finally released into the wild - to the lamentations of many.
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That one pixelated grayscale sprite went through more character development over four days of gameplay than many TV shows can manage in four seasons. Every character so far has its own story arc. Twitch Plays Pokemon, much like its titular creatures, has evolved into something much grander than what it started out as. It's gone from a simple group exercise to a wellspring of mythology, narrative, and memes to a battle for the very soul of the internet. Who will win in the end: the earnest players who are honestly trying their best to beat the game, or the sadistic trolls determined to sabotage them at every turn? Can Order spring from Chaos? Can Good defeat Evil? Is this merely Luck versus Fate?
Just the other day, the owner of a rival Twitch channel with a sizable following instructed his fans to troll the game. They succeeded in releasing several beloved Pokemon permanently in a virtual massacre which is now being referred to as Bloody Sunday or Red's Wedding. Other attacks have been attempted and only barely stifled. Bird Jesus escaped expulsion by the breadth of one single command.
The struggle is ongoing. The narrative is still being written, by perhaps more people than have ever before collectively constructed a narrative. Like any good epic tale, it can only be steered, never fully controlled. Yes, at its core it's just a computer game, but it's a computer game we're all playing together. The slow, stumbling, and ethically erratic nature of Anarchy and the more streamlined but also more easily corruptible Democracy are eerily familiar reflections of similar political processes in the real world. The war between people who want to play the game and people who want to destroy it models real-life examples all over the place - those who play fair and those who cheat, those who help and those who torment, those who dare to create and those who can only aspire to tear down. Just like our own existences, we don't yet know if this story we are a part of will end in tragedy, triumph, or a bizarre mixture of both those things. It might not even end at all.
We can only keep playing and keep hoping. All Hail the Helix Fossil.