The graveyard in Pokémon Red's Lavender City has always been an odd place, capable of spinning out myths and legends of its own, but seeing 80,000 people trying to shepherd a single character through its maze of tombstones has turned it into something else entirely.
It's become an apt stage, complete with props of madness and despair, for the bumbling, insane genius that is Twitch Plays Pokémon.
At the time of writing, the experiment is 180 hours in with four gym badges somehow acquired [Editor's note: Since Martin wrote this piece, they're now up to seven as of February 25, 2014], and the graveyard's become another sticking point for the thousands playing this, a hack of the 1996 Game Boy title that allows commands to be input via Twitch's chat channel. It's not the first -- famously there was the ledge on route 9 that halted progress for six hours or so -- or the strangest, either.
Take the cult that's risen around the Helix Fossil, an item acquired early on in Pokemon Red that's useless until the latter stages of the game, but thanks to the spammed menu inputs one that's pulled out of the player's inventory at regular intervals and 'consulted'. The stone has been turned into a meme overnight, and it's just one small part of a brilliant stream of religious mania being transposed on to the adventure.
Like Flareon, the Pokemon acquired early on the fourth day that was declared a False Prophet before being jettisoned a day later -- alongside 'Jay Leno' and 'Abby', two faithful Pokemon that had been there since the project's start who were released in error and have been openly mourned ever since. Then there's Bird Jesus, the Pidgeotto that soloed the Dojo Master before several thousand spamming players renamed him 'AAABAAAJSS' -- or Abba Jesus, as it's now known. Then there's the meta-struggle introduced by the Anarchy versus Democracy counter -- whereby players can vote whether to let commands be filtered through via general consensus or on an individual basis -- that's made the chat channel sound like a screaming match at a student union.
There's something neat about how Twitch Plays Pokemon manages to wrestle together some of the grandest themes of the gaming zeitgeist: it's about the subversion of older games, the mass sharing of them, and it's also about crowd-sourcing whereby it's not just financial backing the audience provides. They're creating the story and pulling the reins, one tiny input at a time.
Everyone tapping away at that Twitch stream is part of a grand performance, and it comes at a golden time for gaming as spectacular theater. Video games have always had as much in common with the stage as they have with any of the other arts, and the very best ones provide a well-furnished platform for players to perform on. It's not just about playing the solo from Pat Benatar's Hit Me With Your Best Shot with the guitar behind your back, either -- think of the role you take on when invading another player's world in Dark Souls, arms outstretched in cocky defiance, or the posturing from both sides in a Street Fighter match.
What's wonderful about Twitch is that we can all share those performances now -- or just discover them for ourselves. There are the automated oddities like SaltyBet -- which is just as entertaining now as it was when it started up last year -- or the strange productions you can find when browsing some of the darker corners. I lost the best part of an evening this week watching speed runs of a Mario 64 ROM hack, seeing a world I never even knew existed unfurl with an expert acting as my guide.
Then there are the grander moments shared by millions, such as Twitch Plays Pokémon. Once was the time when such feats would have been legends heard only in passing, but thanks to the rise of streaming it feels like a new Evo Moment #37 is being crafted somewhere every day, and it's getting easier and easier to be there when it happens.
The brilliance of all this is that, like the crowd-funding phenomenon, so far it's been too unpredictable for big business to bottle down and sell on. Microsoft tried to position Xbox One alongside the phenomenon when it loudly announced the console's integration of Twitch, although so far it has failed to deliver the functionality, but even on PlayStation 4, where it's been a core feature from day one, it already feels like something bigger than the console. As the appeal of the launch line-up has started to wane, it's the part of the dashboard I find myself gravitating towards more and more, but I go there to stare through a magical window to other places that lie beyond the games industry's control. A thousand magical windows, in fact, where you can witness a thousand different performances take place. Or where you can see an eight-year-old in Bolton being insulted by randoms while her father looks on bemused.
There's an unpredictability to it all, a mad energizing chaos that's impossible to own but thrilling to embrace. Back in Lavender City, a stairwell proved to be a sticking point for a couple of hours, and Abba Jesus tore through another one of the Gastlies that haunt the graveyard. A few thousand more people have joined the stream, and there's a slew of votes coming in for Democracy. Anarchy is winning out, though, and it's absolutely glorious.