TwitchPlaysPokemon – It is totally a game

Alright, so, TwitchPlaysPokemon, game review, let’s do it. First, let me say that this is definitely a game. It may not look like it right away and, although it technically worth commenting on this on a gaming site based on the heavy involvement of Pokemon (which is, I think we can all agree, a game), there are several solid arguments that say it is not a game. I choose to see things with a little more simplicity, is all. Let’s take a look at the facts:

Fact: Games can be entirely browser based

Fact: Manners of playing games can become games in and off themselves. See this article, if you don’t believe me

Fact: If you enter commands and get results on a screen, even occasionally, then that is the very foundation of what makes a game a game

and finally:

Fact: Things that look, sound and act like ducks are, invariably, ducks.

ADuck
Pictured – A duck

In any event, TwitchPlaysPokemon, in it’s current incarnation where we are playing Pokemon Crystal, is fascinating. I’m not going to go so far as to call it fun but then not all games I’ve played are what everyone would call fun. The game itself, if you’ve missed it, is controlled by commands entered into a chat by the many, many fans of the quickly growing stream. At it’s most basic if someone says “up” in the chat then the pokemon trainer moves up on space. It gets more complex, however.

As a general rule (there are some exceptions but I’ll get to those later) all commands entered into the chat are relayed to the “GameBoy” as they are received. Now, because of the nature of Pokemon Crystal (and Red/Blue before it) not all commands result in a usable action and some are wasted. Much like in the physical version of the game you can mash up four or five times but only move up one space due to the speed of your mashing vs. the speed of your character’s movement. Presses aren’t queued, is what I’m saying. This is one of several ways the game takes direct control away from the players. Second way, the stream is on a time delay from the chat. This is in parts a design limitation but also turns out to be an integral part of the play experience. These two factors, combined with the random factor that is people on the internet, creates the core of the game itself. Keep them in mind, they are important to future discussion.

There are two game modes, at the moment. First, and easiest to understand, is Anarchy. In Anarchy all commands are sent to the game as described above, directly and without prejudice. This makes for an eventful game but one in which very little of substance can be accomplished. You can move in a direction or mash “A” fairly competently and quickly but good luck trying to move an item from one Pokemon to another or teaching a Pokemon a TM. With the three factors described above any of these complex tasks move from complex to nigh impossible. Oh, and you spend a lot of time in Anarchy mode, so get used to it.

Second mode is Democracy. In Democracy mode all action is separated into 30 second intervals. A poll of the chat takes place during each such interval and the result is inputted into the game. All combinations of commands are available in such polls from a simple “Up” to a “start, down, a, a, down, a, down, a” (the commands to move your starting pokemon to the second slot, in case you were curious). In this mode the only possible downside is people but you’ll learn quickly they are a major downside. Democracy mode, much like the form of government which bears its name, gives complete control of the game to the people, for better or worse. And, also similar to a democracy in the real world, the people can always choose to go back to Anarchy. At any time if “anarchy” receives more votes than the leading combination of buttons then democracy is suspended until the top of the real world hour.

That’s the system you’re working in, so where is the fascinating part? When all the moving parts are in place it presents a microcosm of the real world in a much faster time frame. As you play you get to watch the democratic process in action as people choose whether they want to move up one space or open the menu. But the democratic process, while more logical and capable of more complex tasks, is slow. Each action needs at least 30 seconds to vote on. “But that’s fine” you say, “We can just vote on 30 seconds worth of actions and watch them happen”. Yes, that would be great, but can you get more people in the chat to agree to a set of nine buttons to press than will want to move back to the faster paced, more directly controlled Anarchy mode? Or will you, instead, choose to just ask the people to agree to move one space up in the hopes of securing enough votes to maybe try a second up later on? You will see this happen, you will see people take small incremental risks as they struggle valiantly to move down a simple menu one button at a time rather than risk control of the entire system for another hour.

A scenario may serve to explain what I mean a little better. While I watched there was a growing trend where the people (illustrated by their comments in the chat) wanted to move an EXP Share to their Dragonair (affectionately referred to as Katie but actually KT because five letters is hard to get in in this style of play) and away from an Onix. This doesn’t seem like a big deal but twice I watched control of democracy lost in the first five minutes as the vote split between “up” to the next member of the elite four and “start” to open the menu and move this item. Why didn’t everyone agree to just move the EXP share? Because the chat was, and is, as far as I can tell, insisting that Onix evolves into Stellix at 35 and was currently 31. A Steelix would be a boon to actually defeating the elite four but, if you know your Pokemon and, believe me, I really really do, you would know that Onix does not evolve by leveling. So, do you spend minutes, possibly an hour, moving an EXP share to a pokemon that will someday become something wonderful and powerful and trust that the stupid people won’t derail your attempts during this long and arduous process? Or do you keep throwing yourself into the elite four rather than polarize the vote.

Or, a much simpler scenario which comes up more regularly, you need to move somewhere. Do you vote for Up9 (moving up nine times, the max amount you can go in 30 seconds) and have your votes split between people that voted Up2 or Up4 because they didn’t know that 9 was the quickest solution? Or do you stick to the safe, slow option of just Up? Better choose quickly though, because if the pace slows then people tend to switch their vote to Anarchy to get the game moving quickly again.

So yes, if you care about political systems, psychology or the power of the masses to accomplish something while making it alarmingly difficult on themselves then this is the game for you. If you don’t have 30 minutes to watch someone playing Pokemon Crystal try to move an EXP share around, however, then maybe look elsewhere.