For the last four days, tens of thousands of people have been attempting to play the same game of Pokémon Red, fighting over the controls by shouting their commands into the internet, like one of those awful phone-in games from kids' telly in the 90s. The specially modified version of the Game Boy RPG has been adapted to take crowd-sourced inputs from the TwitchPlaysPokemon comment stream, creating one of the largest and most bizarre social experiments undertaken in games.
Last night they spent two hours trying to cut down a single tree. An hour ago they released their one-of-a-kind Charmeleon into the wild, and right now they're hopelessly stuck in a stairwell in Celadon City. But they're filling up the Pokédex. Their Pidgey has evolved into a Pidgeot, and they've beaten four gym leaders.
Guided by 50,000 invisible hands pulling in four directions, the tormented puppet of a Pokémon trainer strolls around apparently randomly, falling off ledges and bumping into walls. Through the brute force of the number of well-meaning inputs being thrown at the game by Twitch users however, the player gradually and broadly moves in the correct direction over time.
When not walking the main character in circles, the game is instead constantly flitting into and out of the menu screen, opening and shutting the Pokédex, revealing the player's inventory and the few items that have survived due to their inability to be discarded or used. Inspecting the Helix Fossil has become a celebrated ritual. Accidentally saving the game happens relatively often. Entering the Pokémon management screen on the PCs kept in Pokémon Centers puts everybody on edge, as it brings the player just a few terrifying inputs away from releasing Pokémon back into the wild.
Watching is equal parts tension and frustration, while actually contributing feels utterly pointless, your solitary plea for the trainer to press A getting utterly lost in the deafening stream of only-slightly-better-than-random inputs being levelled at the game. Controls are further confounded by the 30-40 second delay inherent in all Twitch streams.
The inspiration, says the anonymous creator of this crowd-sourced playthrough, was bizarre 2D fighter and Twitch-based pseudo-gambling stream SaltyBet. "I thought that a collaborative attempt to complete a game would be entertaining to watch and participate in," he or she writes. "Pokemon seemed like a natural choice due to its lack of reaction-demanding gameplay and very forgiving difficulty. When making it I didn't know if anyone would be interested, it was intended more as a proof-of-concept. I didn't have any expectations of how people would interact with the stream, but I was very curious."
"I thought most people would play around with it for a few minutes and leave but it's very engrossing to a surprising amount of people. I never planned on this many players so I'm glad that it's holding up as well as it is."