In the first-generation Pokémon games (Red and Blue), players can earn an item called the Helix Fossil in the caves of Mt. Moon. It’s not a particularly important object, and it serves no purpose other than allowing you to capture a rare mollusk-looking monster called an Omanyte. (And Omanyte itself isn’t all that special, either.) However, to the millions of people who flocked to the video game streaming site Twitch over the last several weeks, the Helix Fossil is an object of religious significance. It’s a tribute to the power of anarchy and a symbol of what thousands of people can accomplish by almost working together to achieve goals they sort-of share. No one planned it like that, though. When the Twitch Plays Pokémon community encountered the Helix Fossil, they did the same thing humans have always done when confronted with something they can’t explain: They made a story out of it.
For those who remain uninitiated in the cult of the Helix, Twitch Plays Pokémon is a crowdsourced approach to Nintendo’s classic monster-collecting role-playing game. The system uses a modified version of Pokémon Red streaming on Twitch that allows players to type commands into a chat window. These commands correspond to the buttons on a Game Boy, with the character on screen acting them out accordingly. In other words, type “up,” and the character goes up. Type “start,” and the pause menu opens. It’s straightforward, at least until more than one person starts entering commands — let alone more than 10,000 or 100,000. With participation on that scale, the game is madness.
Twitch Plays Pokémon operated in that chaotic state for its first week or so, making unsurprisingly little progress along the way, before the anonymous programmer who created it (referred to as The Creator) instituted “Democracy Mode.” Under the new rules, the game would compile votes every 10 seconds and respond only to whatever button input was the most popular. In an interview with Polygon, The Creator lamented the lack of progress that Twitch Plays Pokémon was making, so the idea likely came from a desire to see the game move on and give the players a chance to finish its later puzzles.
Still, if enough people consistently voted for chaos over order in the chat, the game would suspend Democracy Mode and revert back to the original system (which, at that point, had been renamed Anarchy Mode). The community saw Democracy Mode as a last resort, only to be used when progressing without it would be practically impossible. Most people preferred Anarchy Mode since it was more unpredictable and thus more fun.
It was in the anything-goes insanity of Anarchy Mode that a Reddit page was created for fans to discuss the various goings on of Twitch Plays Pokémon. However, rather than use the Subreddit to talk about Pokémon Red itself, some users used it to share their own explanations for the bizarre events taking place in the stream. They may not have been doing it with such a lofty goal in mind, but in effect, these commenters were building a new lore on top of the pre-existing storyline of the Pokémon games.
It started with the Helix Fossil. The Helix can’t be discarded or used until a specific, story-driven moment—the game calls it a “key item.” The Helix Fossil’s precise moment comes late in the story when you discover a Pokémon Laboratory that can do some Jurassic Park magic on the fossil and turn it into the Omanyte. If you try to use Helix early, nothing happens. Being a slave to the whims of a schizophrenic hive-mind, Twitch Plays Pokémon accidentally tried to use the Helix Fossil all the time.
It happened so often that the community decided to refer to this action as “Consulting the Helix Fossil.” The idea was that the player character (given the default name “Red”) would get lost—as evidenced by his tendency to walk around in circles and not get anything done—so he’d ask the Helix Fossil what he should do next. It was basically the Magic Conch Shell from that episode of Spongebob where the gang uses an ersatz Magic 8-Ball to dictate their every move.
Since Twitch Plays Pokémon was consulting the Helix so often, the community came to attribute positive developments to its influence. After several days of this, the Helix was promoted from “magic advice giver” to “messiah,” which is certainly a reasonable leap to make. Cries of “Praise Helix!” arose from the chat whenever things went well, and it became so integral to the adventure that some people thought bringing the fossil to the Pokémon Laboratory was more important than actually beating the game. After 11 straight days of lugging around a useless rock, Twitch Plays Pokémon reached the lab and earned its Omanyte. He was proclaimed Lord Helix, god of anarchy, and there was much rejoicing.
If Lord Helix represented everything good that happened in Twitch Plays Pokémon, then a creature called Flareon was the opposite. In the Pokémon games, most monsters can evolve into other monsters once they become strong enough, but one in particular, Evee, can take a few different forms depending on what the player wants to do with it. The Twitch community collectively decided that it wanted its Evee to become Vaporeon, a water-type Pokémon that could be used to traverse certain watery areas.
Thanks to the unpredictable nature of crowdsourced controls, however, it didn’t work out like that. After a series of mishaps, the Evee became Flareon, a fire-type Pokémon that was essentially useless. This was such a setback for the players that Flareon became a pariah. They needed someone to blame. Everything bad was his fault, and not in a funny Jerry Gergich way, but in a pure evil way. Just as the Omanyte was Lord Helix, beloved god of anarchy, Flareon was known as “The False Prophet.” Forget Team Rocket, the usual Pokémon antagonists. Twitch Plays Pokémon had discovered an even more sinister villain all on its own.
Storytelling like that, all of it taking place outside of the game, also made heroes of the crowd’s most-used Pokémon fighters. Members of the stream audience invented character traits for their heavy hitters, along with cool nicknames to replace the horrible ones that Anarchy Mode had left them with. A fan-favorite Pidgeot named aaabaaajss was referred to as Bird Jesus due to the way it quickly became one of the most reliable fighters. ABBBBBBK) the Charmander was known as Abby, and AATTVVV the Venomoth was called ATV (short for “All-Terrain Venomoth”).
Alas, Twitch Plays Pokémon would later prove the axiom that you shouldn’t name something that’s destined to die soon anyway. As seen on this collection of notable events from the playthrough, Abby the Charmander was among a handful of Pokémon who were “released” relatively early in the game—effectively deleting them forever—but the real nightmare came in the 11th day of the stream when a dozen Pokémon were let go, gutting the crowd’s slowly growing collection of monsters. The community, which never missed an opportunity to heighten drama, referred to this event as Bloody Sunday. (And you can be damn sure Flareon was involved somehow.)
In moments like this, the meta-narrative turned back against those who created it. One of the monsters lost on Bloody Sunday was a Rattata, for instance, but not just any Rattata. It was Dig Rat, who had acquired a reputation as a mischief-maker: He often hilariously used his special “dig” power to warp the players all the way back to the start of a difficult area just as they were about to grab an important item. The players didn’t let problems like that hold them back, though. Acolytes of the Helix still sang the praises of Bird Jesus and talked about how they’d overcome the evils that stood in their way. Everything that happened, good or bad, fueled the meta-narrative they were creating. The player-created story was more insane and more exciting to follow than the “actual” story in any Pokémon game.
Finally, after 16 days, seven hours, 45 minutes, and 30 seconds, the players completed Pokémon Red. It’s impressive that they managed to do it at all, but nothing illustrates the madness of the endeavor better than the official victory announcement that Twitch posted in a congratulatory blog. Loaded with references to a “final prophecy,” nods to “fallen descendants,” and lamentations of “the struggle between Anarchy and Democracy,” it reads like the manifesto of a crazy person. In fact, it’s a victorious salute to the millions of people who made this spectacle happen. If the mysterious Creator revealed themselves and said “Good job, you did it,” it wouldn’t encapsulate the journey nearly as well as someone spray-painting “Praise Helix” on a discarded hunk of concrete. Twitch Plays Pokémon belonged to the people by design, but nobody predicted the extent to which they would make it their own.
(Top photo: The Massacre Of Bloody Sunday by Aeuma.)