How “Twitch Plays Pokemon” is Twitching Narrative

Last week I discovered the captivating madness that is “Twitch Plays Pokemon.” For those who don’t know, it’s a massive multiplayer version of Pokemon Red. I don’t mean multiple people controlling different characters. I mean thousands of people controlling one character at the same time via chatbox inputs.

Like I said, captivating madness.

Obviously, this results in some issues. A 20-ish second lag means that your inputs won’t affect the action right away, so the character spends hours walking back and forth across a room, making useless decisions in battle, and generally making snail-like progress.

From the minute I saw it I had two thoughts. The first was, “This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” The second, because I am a writer, was, “I bet there’s a story here.”

For the most part, single-player video games like Pokemon Red was originally, have very fixed narratives. The way the player moves through the narrative might not always be linear or the same every time, but the story never changes. A boy is sent on a quest to find and train Pokemon, he battles some gym leaders and bad guys on the way, and eventually becomes a Pokemon Master (yes? I’m too lazy to confirm it on Wikipedia).

When you play it as it’s intended, you might capture different Pokemon, do things in a slightly different order, but the narrative isn’t really going to change, at least not significantly.

But Twitch Plays Pokemon has managed to change the narrative. Thousands of people are collectively making decisions for one character, and the result isn’t just that Red is traveling back and forth across the screen a maddening number of times (though that does happen). An entire religion has quickly popped up in the ten days since the game started, for one thing, and I’d argue it’s more than just an elaborate collection of memes, since it’s also ingrained itself into the chat and commentary narrative. The players either see themselves as part of a Borg-like collective, or as the lone hero trying to save Red from a band of trolls (or as trolls themselves). It’s the same software we used when the game first came out 18 years ago. Except for the necessary changes to get the game on the computer and make all Pokemon findable, it’s the same exact game. The player still has to meet the same goals in order to progress through the game and win. But somehow, it’s an entirely different story.

Writers have long been warned that the way we tell stories is changing, and I can’t help but think that this is one of those ways. When a player inputs a command into the chatbox, they’re doing more than just trying to make something happen, whether good or bad. They’re helping to re-write something long-established. Sure, we’ve done plenty of that already, with fanfiction and adaptations. But this is different. It’s not just because it’s a video game. Designers create mods all the time that can alter the narrative of a game.

But this isn’t a new level or new code, and it’s not like the players can accomplish their goals any differently than they did before. There’s just more people trying accomplish the same goals as before. You don’t need to understand the way the game works to get involved, or even to be successful. You just need to type in a box. And the move you make will affect more than just you. It affects the decisions and thoughts of thousands of people. It could create a whole new branch of mythology, and it WILL become part of the larger arc that the game is writing. When you play it by yourself, you’re not altering the arc. When you play Twitch Plays Pokemon, you are.

I think we can learn a lot from social experiments like Twitch Plays Pokemon, about the power and potentially destructive nature of teamwork, about how malleable stories really are, even well-established ones. And I think we’ll learn a lot more as the game progresses.

Or “progresses,” as it were.