Reliving Twitch Plays Pokémon: the social experiment which birthed a religion

With Twitch turning ten this month, we relive the finest meta the platform's ever produced

A depiction of Lord Helix the Omanyte in Twitch Plays Pokémon

The infinite monkey theorem suggests that if you have an unlimited number of monkeys typing away, eventually they’ll produce something substantial like the complete works of William Shakespeare. For two unforgettable weeks back in 2014, I myself became a spam monkey – except in this instance it was to do something much better than writing sonnets.

For a fortnight, I was locked into a Twitch chat, surrounded by thousands of other apes furiously smashing commands into a poor, dishevelled relay bot in order to try and clear Pokémon Red. With Twitch recently celebrating its tenth birthday, I want to revisit what is undoubtedly the finest meta the platform has ever produced. Forget Bob Ross, hot tubs, and Among Us – this was it.

The concept behind TPP was simple enough – you have a group of people typing commands into Twitch, which are then relayed through an Internet Relay Chat bot into an emulated copy of the game. You type ‘Up’, the protagonist moves up. Someone else types ‘Start’, the start menu pops open – you get the idea.

While TPP doesn’t seem as spicy as some of Twitch’s more current metas initially, don’t be fooled – herein lies a tale of love, loss, and bitter conflict.

The Pokémon Red-aissance

TPP had a fairly innocuous beginning, with the anonymous ‘streamer’ setting their social experiment into motion without much of a reception. This was great news for the handful of players making their way through its early stages without too much hassle.

However, word of what was transpiring quickly began to reach the far reaches of the internet, with a fuss being kicked up and a slew of fresh participants pulling out their keyboards by the time the first gym leader, Brock, had been defeated.

The monkeys had found religion, and it was an inanimate slab of crusty stone

Following Brock’s defeat, the growing hive mind would eventually battle its way through Mt. Moon, going on to obtain the Helix Fossil. This completely useless item became a source of divine inspiration after the chat kept accidentally trying to use it from its bag.

Consulting Lord Helix became a pivotal meme within the community, establishing the fossil as the one, true god, with the other Mt. Moon fossil, the Dome Fossil, taking on a satanic position within the lore.

With the community rallying around its central deity, there was a cultural flourishing unseen since the Renaissance, with art, memes, and any other form of media you can think of being pumped out at unfathomable speeds. The monkeys had found religion, and it was an inanimate slab of crusty stone.

Excuse me sir… from twitchplayspokemon

This new, monotheistic direction would even influence the nicknames of certain ‘mon, including Bird Jesus – the fan-favourite Pidgey-turned-Pidgeot which carried the chat through much of the game – and Eevee, the False Prophet of the Dome Fossil who would reveal their final, hideous form to it later on.

With a rapidly growing audience, and therefore an increasingly hectic chat, it would only be a matter of time before the chaos of thousands of simultaneous inputs would cause progress to grind to a halt – and it all started with a few spinning tiles.

Anarchy vs. Democracy

While in Celadon City – home of the fourth gym leader, Erika – the chimps in chat were tasked with navigating Team Rocket’s hideout – a maze laden with floor tiles that would send the protagonist spinning off in a set direction. With chaos in full-flow, the hive mind became dysfunctional, and after an entire day had failed to make any meaningful progress.

To fix this, Twitch Plays Pokémon became Twitch Plays Politics. With the introduction of the Democracy system – which saw players vote on which move to take next – the chat was finally able to navigate its way through the hideout after many, many hours.

Although progress was once again being made, it was painful. Though the Democracy mode provided a safe passage for those earnestly trying to clear the game, it was infinitely slower than the instantaneous inputs of the Anarchy mode which had preceded it. Unrest among the masses began to swell, and the ‘Start9 Riots’ broke out.

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Pockets of disgruntled players began spamming the ‘Start9’ command, causing progress to once again grind to a halt as the start menu continuously opened and closed itself. Democracy had been subverted, and Anarchy, it appeared, was the only way forward. With Anarchy reinstated, Democracy was relegated to an optional mode that could be activated with a majority vote.

For the remainder of the run, the chat would flip between Anarchy and Democracy, usually depending on which mode was necessary to most-quickly progress through the next passage of the game. While anti-Democracy factions would continue to spam Start9 until the game flipped back into Anarchy mode, a somewhat healthy compromise was finally found.

However, peace was never an option for TPP’s greatest antagonists, and pandemonium would later set in after streamer Steven ‘Destiny’ Bonnell II hatched a plan to assassinate Bird Jesus.

Whenever people in chat say that we "need" to use democracy to beat the Elite 4… from twitchplayspokemon

On day 11, the day that the hive mind had managed to orchestrate its way through the Power Plant and capture the legendary bird Zapdos – known otherwise as Battery Jesus or John the Zaptist – what was supposed to be a time of celebration quickly became the single-worst day of the entire run – Bloody Sunday.

For Dux sake

Members of Destiny’s community had already had an attempt to take control of the chat rebuffed prior to Zapdos’ capture, though another opportunity would arise when it came to actually withdrawing the legendary Pokémon from the PC. The chat had already released its starter, Abby the Charmeleon, by accident, so was eager to avoid another disaster.

Tensions were high, and with the knowledge that Destiny’s mob would pounce and eliminate Bird Jesus the second it slipped into Democracy mode, the operation was carried out in Anarchy – and it went as well as you could imagine.

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Players initially managed to deposit both Air Jordan (Lapras) and Bird Jesus into the PC, with the intention of subsequently withdrawing Battery Jesus and The Fonz (Nidorino). However, as players began to dance back and forth in the PC menu – the shadow of the executioner’s axe looming ominously above the ‘Release Pokémon’ option – nerves got the better of them, and chaos ensued.

“Once released, this Pokémon will be gone forever. Ok?”

“Yes”

SHWING, down goes Cabbage the Gloom. Shrieks of terror rang out in the chat. “Yes”. SHWING, Digrat the Raticate followed suit. The frenzied outcry only made trying to coordinate escaping from the PC more difficult. “Yes”. SHWING, Dux the Farfetch’d falls too. After several hours of pure, unadulterated mayhem, 12 loyal Pokémon were released, never to be seen again.

Although Bird Jesus was saved, and Destiny’s dastardly plot foiled, the cost was great. As Dux – the only team member who knew the Hidden Move Cut – was now six pixels under, the chat would once again have to navigate the Rock Tunnel – a pitch-black cave that is difficult to navigate without the Hidden Move Flash. The False Prophet Flareon smiled a wicked smile.

Read more: how to evolve Eevee in Pokémon Sword/Shield and GO

Despite being jaded and crestfallen from the day’s events, the chat allocated little time to mourning, as it was keen to ensure its lost members’ sacrifices weren’t in vain. It licked its wounds, and pressed on into that all-too-familiar darkness.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom for the chat, though. After all, it was now rocking a double Jesus composition, with Bird Jesus and Battery Jesus featuring prominently. The Fonz was a Moon Stone away from becoming a mighty Nidoking, and Air Jordan would become a pivotal part of the team after learning both HMs for Surf and Strength.

He is risen! from twitchplayspokemon

Lord Helix himself was eventually resurrected on Cinnabar Island as a glorious Omanyte, and the gang added a sweet set of wheels in the form of an ATV – that’s ‘All-Terrain Venomoth’, a trusty Venomoth that would play a big role in the run’s closing stages.

After several more days, which involved taking down Giovanni and getting through Victory Road thanks to the power of Democracy, Twitch chat had made its way to the Elite Four. After 15 arduous days, the end was in sight.

Proving the infinite Mankey theorem

Anyone who knows how difficult Gen 1’s Elite Four is can probably hazard a guess as to how successful the chat was in its initial attempts. For those who don’t know – not very.

It only took an hour to best Lorelai and Bruno, and just over two to make it to Lance. While that all sounds well and good, Lance was only beaten the first time thanks to a clutch play by the then level 36 All-Terrain Venomoth, who took a page from the Borgias and poisoned Lance’s final Dragonite to death.

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All-Terrain Venomoth, however, could not repeat the feat against Blue’s mighty team. Over 12 hours and a whole lot of levelling from repeated failures later, we returned to settle the score.

Little did they know, we apes had just achieved something far beyond what their hairless bodies could comprehend

Finally, on March 1, 2014, after 16 days of carefully-coordinated spamming, the impossible happened. Most adult humans had spent their mornings eating human food, putting on their human clothes, and travelling to their human jobs. However, little did they know, we apes had just achieved something far beyond what their hairless bodies could comprehend.

We beat Blue.

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Anarchy, Democracy, Helix, Dome. None of that mattered anymore. Over 100,000 cries of victory could be heard around the world (or at least from next door), as Battery Jesus delivered the final blow to our rival. We were the champions. We too had become gods.

Staff writer used Reflect

The case study of Twitch Plays Pokémon is fascinating for a myriad of reasons. Obviously, the fact that an anonymous mass of gamers – with a few outliers – managed to get along for long enough to achieve something of this magnitude collectively is a small miracle in itself.

It also reminds us that, even within a game like Pokémon which has a fairly simple macro structure (catch Pokémon, beat gyms, beat big bad, beat Elite Four), there is a huge amount of variation in how players can go about their journey. Debates on a huge scale were being orchestrated in online forums over the minutiae of the run – from deciding which ‘mon to try and capture, to who should learn which move, there was discussion at every level.

We need to catch Snorlax. He can learn surf. from twitchplayspokemon

As such, it’s ultimately disingenuous of me to simply brand TPP’s participants as mere keyboard-smashing monkeys, because much of the game was really being played in those spaces behind the scenes. Okay, we may have murdered a few of our 8-bit buddies on the way, but overall the math was solid.

TPP’s lasting impact on Twitch itself is also clear to see. The platform’s former VP of marketing, Matthew DiPietro, said to MCV during the run that developers should be looking at it as an example of how to integrate Twitch into their games. Now, seven years later, that influence can be felt at varying levels.

From being able to see your chat messages pop up in Overland, to being able to activate modifiers in Dead Cells, many developers have gone out and explored how viewers can have an impact on a livestreamed game. Ubisoft last year even went so far as to release Hyper Scape – a battle royale built explicitly with Twitch in mind, where a streamer’s chances of victory could be decided by the in-game events chat voted to put into play.

Now into its seventh season, Twitch Plays Pokémon regularly averages a more modest 150 viewers. But while TPP may not quite have the same pull as it did during its heyday, its legacy pulses deep within the heart of modern Twitch. And it still occasionally has its copycats.

For example, last December Matthew ‘Mizkif’ Rinaudo tasked his chat with completing Fire Red – the Game Boy Advance remake of Gen 1 – while he was away on holiday. After just over 12 days, Mizkif’s 10,000-strong chat was able to reenact the feat – a clear indication that the community appetite for a challenge like Twitch Plays Pokémon remains as ravenous as ever.

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