It’s both bewildering and oddly encouraging that in a year which should have been dominated by shiny, expensive, powerful new boxes from Microsoft and Sony, the two biggest video game stories to have emerged in the first months of 2014 have been distinctly atypical.
The first was Flappy Bird, a free iOS game created by Vietnamese developer Dong Nguyen. A one-button infinite runner (flapper?) in which players had to navigate a maze of familiar-looking green pipes, Flappy Bird was basic, derivative and maddeningly hard. It also, at its peak, was raking in over $50,000 of ad revenue. Daily.
Nguyen pulled Flappy Bird from both Apple and Google’s app stores last month, citing the game’s addictiveness as the primary reason, and in the aftermath of its removal, dozens of ‘Flappy clones’ emerged, attempting to capitalise on the game’s baffling popularity. eBay, too, was flooded with smartphones pre-loaded with Flappy Bird, with listings attracting bids of thousands of dollars before being removed for breaching the auction site’s terms of service.
You could be forgiven for thinking that with Flappy Bird’s sensational, albeit short-lived success, 2014 had peaked early in terms of weird, outrageous video game stories. Normal service would resume shortly, and everyone could get back to talking about Titanfall, Assassin’s Creed, and FIFA. Not so. Enter Twitch Plays Pokémon – a gaming phenomenon so bizarre that it requires a little explanation.
For those who are unfamiliar, Twitch is a popular website used to broadcast live streams of all manner of games. Millions of people tune in each month to watch professional players competing in tournaments, or simply to chat and watch their friends play something new. If you grew up in the 90s, chances are you know what Pokémon is. It’s almost 15 years since Nintendo’s original monster-catching adventures were released for the GameBoy, but by combining the series’ classic mechanics with the technology behind Twitch, an anonymous Australian programmer has given the games a new lease of life.
The system works by having multiple viewers control a single Pokémon game through typing commands into Twitch’s chat box, a simple enough premise that is complicated significantly when there are tens of thousands of players inputting conflicting commands concurrently. The result is a state of complete anarchy, which has only intensified as the game has increased in popularity. And my, is it popular. The TPP stream has clocked up over 30 million views, and there is a consistent audience of between 30,000 and 120,000 people watching the ‘action’ unfold.
Oddly enough however, there’s often very little action to be seen in Twitch Plays Pokémon. It’s not uncommon for the onscreen avatar to spend an inordinate amount of time repeatedly walking into walls before jumping over a ledge and losing hours’ worth of progress. It’s utter chaos. So much so that a more precise ‘Democracy’ mode, where individual moves are voted on, had to be introduced in order to advance through certain areas. Indeed, it’s a wonder that the game functions at all – yet players have somehow managed to make slow, but consistent progress over the past several weeks.
More surprising still is that despite, or perhaps because of, its total ridiculousness, TPP has spawned a thriving community, and a peculiarly compelling narrative, filled with moments of drama and tension, triumph and tragedy, and a colourful (well, monochrome) cast of characters with such snappy names as ‘aaabaaajss’ (or ‘Bird Jesus’), ‘AAAAAAAAAA’ (‘The Fonz’), and ‘AATTVVV’ (‘All-Terrain Venemoth’). Anyone pondering using Twitch to crowdsource baby names may want to reconsider.
At the time of writing, players have reached the Elite Four, the game’s final, gruelling challenge, and are currently blundering their way their way toward victory with all the finesse of a blind man peeling an orange with a tennis racket. In all likelihood, by the time you read this they will, remarkably, have succeeded.
So what comes next? As the game nears completion, there is already talk of continuing the experiment with the next generation of Pokémon titles, but beyond that there really is no way of knowing what will be the new Flappy Bird, or TPP. Indeed, if the success of Twitch Plays Pokémon has taught us anything, it’s that predicting the next craze in contemporary gaming is an exercise in futility. Better to simply sit back and enjoy whatever strange, silly or sublime experience is waiting just around the corner.