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The Narrative Malleability of Pokemon Games

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I'm watching Twitch Plays Pokemon right now. At this moment, the tens of thousands of people are controlling a single character in Pokemon Red, fumbling through mazes, randomly calling attacks in battle, and acting overall silly in their mission to complete the game as a group. It's stupid, frustrating, hilarious, insightful, and inspiring all at the same time. As a social experiment, a meme, and a phenomenon, there are so many things that could be said for it. But there's one thing about it that hit me pretty hard, specifically as a veteran Pokemon fan. It's the reminder of an important detail about the series as a whole, and why it's so special to all of us.

We may not realize it, but the mechanics of a main-series game allows us to weave our own story. Beyond all modern-day assumptions of what an "Open World RPG" is supposed to be like, the Pokemon games have embodied the essence of this concept since their inception. The customization of teams, the many trainers to battle, and the resulting number of possibilities that each battle can play out results in a fertile playground for which to mold a narrative. And while the goal of becoming the champion stands in as what we would call "plot", the most important parts are all kept open-ended. The fact that people are so quick to forge a narrative out of this- taking the events of Red's journey, crafting a lore around them, and interpreting the personality of their Pokemon down to every unpronounceable nickname- is no accident.

In Twitch Plays Pokemon, every battle becomes a story in on itself, blown up in epic proportion like the battles of a war. Those of us in the chat depend on our strongest Pokemon Pidgeot, rallying behind it. We cheer on farfetch'd to pull another "clutch victory". We berate our digging Rattata, but soon warm up to him when he helps us fight off the Lavender Tower Ghosts. Twitch's own internet anarchy breathes life into the blank slate of each Pokemon.

Does this sound familiar?

If you can't draw the connections, take a trip down memory lane to when you first played a Pokemon game. It is exactly what we all did when we were younger, little kids just discovering the franchise. We were exploring a frontier, without any experience or knowledge of the game mechanics, with nothing to depend on except our Pokemon.

Do you remember when you had that one Pokemon that you always counted on to get the job done? Do you remember the times when you shouted to your screen, if not at least mentally, for your last Pokemon to land that last attack, endure just one more hit, and make it through for you? Do you remember sharing the wonderful moment of relief when you won, and the pain of failure?

As an older Pokemon fan (at least old enough to get put in a Masters division tournament), this actually works against me. It's really hard to recall that far back. To recall what it was like to struggle against the unknown, fight against trainers you didn't know you could win against, and be in a position where you could do nothing but put faith into your Pokemon to carry you through.

Living in real life for too long can really kill your imagination.

And yet, all of these magical moments are being experienced by the twitch viewers right now. All of us cheered in the chat when Charmeleon managed to survive Lt. Surge's Raichu and win by unleashing Bide. We shared the laughs when an Electrode's Selfdestruct missed because Pidgeot threw enough sand at it. We all screamed hax when Sabrina's Kadabra swept nearly the entire team in an onslaught of unfair super-effectives and crits. We collectively begged for merciful death as our christened Pidgeot could do nothing but stand and be walled by Gastly. As the battle came down to the wire against Giovanni, people came to admit they shouted out in real life for Pidgeot to deal the final blow.

All 70,000 of us are fighting tooth and nail for every step, every experience point, and every obstacle. Of course, the challenges are a bit different now compared to when we first played Pokemon Red. The challenge of the seemingly inescapable Viridian Forest is now replaced with nefarious Cut bushes. Rock Tunnel is once again a daunting challenge, stumbling not just because we forgot Flash, but because we were blind to begin with. Dilemma comes not from whether or not to teach a TM, but whether or not you can prevent yourself from tossing it. And every trainer battle is once again an epic struggle, this time not because we aren't versed in type-matchups, but because we can't coordinate. People resort to intricate think-ahead strategies and crowd meta-gaming just to clear a ledge.

Unexpectedly, there's even the added twist of permanent death, as Twitch-Red can never pass by a PC without being tempted to access it, which has resulted in the release of several beloved Pokemon.

Through all of this, we share our experiences together. We all bask in the same glory of victory, and wallow in the same pit of shame. We gain friends, and part with them. As time goes on, and happenstances occur- memorable battle moments and swerving turns of the tide- we absorb them into our tale, and continue to develop it. We journey through highs and lows alike, each of them something to look back on when all is said and done. For many of us, it's the experience of rediscovering Pokemon. Some might not have even played Pokemon Red, or are just getting into Pokemon because of this very stream. The Internet, in its ability to overreact and exaggerate, has filled the missing role of childhood imagination. And once more, a Pokemon adventure is made magical again.

This is the kind of imagination that drives us to write fan fiction. The kind that takes a Nuzlocke and dramatizes it into a comic. It tempts even competitive battlers to write out decorated warstories. It's what compels us to draw our hearts out with fan art, reminisce about the irreplaceable memories we shared with these creatures, and wish that perhaps one day this game world could be real.

This is a concept at the very heart of Pokemon that very few, if any, Pokemon-like games have been able to imitate. It is the soul of the game, and the reason why the experiences we've had with our two-dimensional bits of data are so precious to us. And this is what everyone on Twitch Plays Pokemon is feeling right now.

So thank you, TPP, for letting me experience this feeling once more, and share it with tens of thousands of other people around the world. All I can say is that when all is said and done, I'm just glad to be a part of this.

Praise Helix.

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  1. Codface's Avatar
    Currently its being massively spoiled by bots spamming up and start making progress impossible since they need to surf down.

    Real shame as the last day or so trolls/bots have started to take over and are killing the teams chances.....
  2. Jack Pschitt's Avatar
    Best post about TwitchPlaysPokemon I've seen so far.
  3. 33Whimsicott33's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Codface
    Currently its being massively spoiled by bots spamming up and start making progress impossible since they need to surf down.

    Real shame as the last day or so trolls/bots have started to take over and are killing the teams chances.....
    Yeah, I saw that yesterday. There was also a strange anarchy botting storm. It seems to have cleared now, though. The only thing stopping Twitch at this time is hordes and hordes of Koffing.
  4. Yang Xiao Long's Avatar
    Praise Helix. One badge to go.


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