Twitch Plays Pokemon conquers Elite Four, beating game after 390 hours

The wild, weird social experiment that has enraptured Pokemon fanatics for the last two and a half weeks has succeeding in beating the game's final foes.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
6 min read
Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET

In a stunning display of sheer perseverance and impressive strategizing, the players participating in the endlessly strange and wondrous Twitch Plays Pokemon have, after more than 390 hours, reached the end of the game's main plot and bested the final frontier, the Elite Four. It's surely a sign that if the Internet spends enough time at something, it can achieve the seemingly impossible.

Throughout the course of the first series of attempts at defeating the Elite Four -- which began shortly before 11 a.m. PT on Friday and ended around 1 a.m. PT Saturday -- viewership on the stream doubled to around 100,000 and hovered there, only dipping down when especially ill-fated failures seemed to dampen the spirit. Though many had postulated that it might potentially take weeks to overcome the final hurdle, it in fact took only less than two dozen attempts in a single day.

Thanks to what ended up being a rather fortuitous set of circumstances involving the game's final lineup of Pokemon, the team was well-suited to the challenge and only needed to grind -- or increase one's levels and thus strength through repetitious enemy battling -- into the 17th day of the stream before overcoming the challenge.

The final blow. Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET

Tracing Twitch Plays Pokemon
Having started on February 12, the massively multiplayer Pokemon game began as a "proof of concept," says the anonymous Australian programmer who devised the genius social experiment and brought it to life on the game-streaming site Twitch.tv. The original intent was to see whether a group could effectively play a single-player video game by crowdsourcing the button commands. It turns out that the 1998 classic Pokemon Red for the original Game Boy was the perfect title to test such an effort.

One of many impressive pieces of fan art to come out of Twitch Plays Pokemon, Redditor whoaconstrictor's "A Most Sacred Tablet" depicts the evolution of the stream's religious narrative in hieroglyphic fashion. Redditor whoaconstrictor

Through the use of an IRC chat bot set up by the channel creator, tens of thousands of players have been typing in button commands like up, down, a, and b into the Twitch stream's comment box in an effort to control the main character on an emulated version of the game. But though it started simple and small, Twitch Plays Pokemon has grown into a Internet phenomenon: Throughout the last two and a half weeks, the stream has garnered more than 35 million views with active viewer amounts ranging from 50,000 to peaks of nearly 120,000. Estimates put total player participation at more than 650,000 Twitch users.

Progress was slow -- and its pace and the startling suddenness of major setbacks sometimes infuriating -- but it was always astounding to see a complex task accomplished by the group in real time and the subsequent eruption of jubilant celebration in the comment box.

Along the way, lives were lost -- Pokemon let out into the wild due to uncontrollable errant button presses -- and many a meme was created. Built from the ground up was a community to rival the most well-established of Web collectives with a subreddit awash in fan art, multiple Twitter accounts, a crowdsourced Google site, and a slew of standalone Web sites.

The momentum of the community was due in part to the game's elaborately crowd-created religious narrative centered on the Helix Fossil, an in-game key item that would later manifest itself as a Pokemon that was hailed by the group as a deity. Yes, things were weird, and only got weirder as Twitch Plays Pokemon rolled on.

Furthering the game's intensely curated and mind-boggling wacky culture -- as well as the ability for the group to maneuver intricate obstacles -- was the addition of "democracy" and "anarchy" game modes seven days into the stream.

Anarchy mode retained the game's original makeup in which a free-for-all of button inputs was used to sporadically move the character around, while democracy was a true voting system that was painfully slow but careful. Switching between modes was also handed over to the crowd, with a supermajority needed to go from anarchy to democracy and a simple majority required to revert back.

Fan artwork inspired by the push-pull between democracy and anarchy began pouring into Web communities and shared via Reddit and Twitter as soon as the game modes were introduced. Redditor JohnMarkParker

The tug-of-war between the two modes was instantaneously absorbed into the narrative, oftentimes representing both a philosophical split between how the participants viewed the "true" way to play Twitch Plays Pokemon and a battle played out between the trigger-happy trolls and those who favored meaningful and speedy progress.

Yet it was only a matter of hours before a routine strategy was established: Use democracy only when it was absolutely necessary to maneuver, and then switch quickly back to anarchy for everything else. The use of the two modes in tandem towards a unified goal became one of the more stunning strategic tricks employed by the collective hive mind.

Onward to round two, and just maybe an all-new game platform
Throughout the lifespan of the stream, Twitch has been more than supportive, revealing in a blog post last week that it loved the experiment. It's also taught the company a few things. "The incredibly high volume of chat activity has helped us to hone our chat system to deal with massive loads like we're experiencing. It has also made us all think deeply about creative social experiments that can be done on Twitch," Twitch's VP of marketing, Matthew DiPietro, Polygon reported.

DiPietro also thinks that Twitch Plays Pokemon may have unleashed a whole new game platform: "When you consider how game developers might capitalize on features and functionality like this, the sky is the limit," he said.

There have already been copycat streams of not only other Pokemon titles, but games like Zelda, Mario, and Street Fighter. Where this goes from here, as DiPietro points out, is uncharted territory in gaming and will only prove to bolster the popularity of live game-streaming sites like Twitch.

As for the future of the one stream that started it all, beating the Elite Four woudln't have meant that it all ends here. However, it appears that, despite the group having selected 'continue' after returning to the start screen post-credits, the channel creator is laying it to rest.

"A new adventure will begin," reads the current image if you load up Twitch Plays Pokemon, accompanied by a countdown clock set to hit zero at 4:00 a.m. PT tomorrow morning. Given that that the creator of the stream is an Australia native, that makes sense.

Speaking with the Guardian last month, the creator expanded on his future plans. "I've received a lot of requests to continue with the Pokémon franchise after the Elite Four and the Pokémon Champion get defeated, so I'm going to do that. I'm still deciding which of the generation 2 Pokémon games to go with," he said. While the move to the next generation of Pokemon games is the most likely of outcomes when the countdown runs out, many are eagerly anticipating what kind of twist will be employed to make the next official run, or runs if it involves simultaneous streams, more novel.

Unfortunately, that the stream is over means that the group won't get a chance to try its collective hand at catching Mewtwo, a goal many consider to be a high point of the original classic Pokemon games. Though without the master ball, used to catch another legendary earlier, and the ability to rely on a handy save file for multiple retires, it's unlikely that task could have been overcome, even with democracy mode. And the oft-heard directive of our childhoods to "catch them all" was always impossible without the use of cheat codes or hacks given that trading with Pokemon Red's companion game, Blue, is imperative to succeed in that quest.

So perhaps it's for the best that the original Twitch Plays Pokemon has concluded and we can all, for now, close that browser tab and get on with our Web-based lives. Countless fans and the dedicated team of documenters that spent hundreds of hours live updating Twitter and Reddit and strategizing into the night can at last rest knowing both the Internet and gaming have been changed forever.

That is until the next stream pops up -- and we're reminded yet again that a little time, tactical problem solving, and massive collaboration goes a long way when 100,000 people put their minds together.

Update at 9:10 a.m. PT: Added details regarding the future of the channel to reflect that the original stream does in fact appear to be over for now.