A warrior in studded leather armor careens into a brick wall, statically running for minutes as if on an invisible treadmill before falling into a pit below. A ladder there enables this madness to repeat. The definition of insanity is doing a thing repeatedly expecting different results, but here more than 2,000 people are trying not do that same thing, and they invariably fail. Back to the pit.

The Twitch community has been playing FromSoftware’s Dark Souls, a brutally difficult 2011 game, for the past four days. As I write this more than 2,500 players are collectively attempting to form a syncretic hive-mind, hampered only by the inevitable nature of chaos. Not unlike last year’s achievement when Twitch successfully played Pokemon Red, Twitch’s attempt to play Dark Souls has been an elegant yet grotesque social exercise. It’s a thousand voices shouting at once, their failing as poetic as their tiny increments of success. Merely to create a character was a minor miracle.

As of now Twitch Plays Dark Souls has a while before the mob can finish off the first boss, if they can even get to him (previous attempts end with a swiftness). Finishing Pokemon Red took a solid 16 days, so this will be a gradual process. Here’s a primer to help you sort through this madness.

So what the hell am I watching?

Twitch playing Dark Souls. Twitch, a live-streaming platform owned by Amazon, has fostered a large community of gamers who are into watching people play games in real time. It borders on voyeurism, especially if the gamers themselves are easy on the eyes or have affable personalities, but for the most part it’s just gamers watching the stuff they like be played.

Dark Souls is a dark fantasy game from Namco Bandai and FromSoftware. The whole series is made of extremely difficult games that require the utmost patience and willpower to play. Their dark atmospheres add to the hopelessness, as well as looking badass. But the real meat of the game is the controller-breaking challenge.

Couple that with thousands of people playing a single-player game all at once, and what you have is peak internet.

Wait, so people actually spend time watching other people play video games?

It’s just like looking over shoulders at the arcade, but with Twitch you can stay at home eating pizza or something.

I thought that was a stupid joke from South Park?

They weren’t joking.

Sure, but how do 2,000 people play a video game at once?

The streamer gathers input commands from users in the live chat that it reads and translates to in-game action. The streamer who began Twitch Plays Pokemon had some kind of homemade IRC code.

It’s usually mapped out pretty simply. When Twitch played Pokemon, moving left and right was as simple as users typing “left” or “right” in the chat. But Dark Souls, a much more immersive, deeper, fully 3-D game, the controls are more nuanced. So this will definitely take longer than two weeks.

If so many are playing at once, how is it organized?

It’s not. It’s organized havoc. You’re watching a cross between a beautiful display of teamwork and a highway disaster-by-committee. The pandemonium would be significant even without the inevitable saboteurs …

There’s gotta be some way to filter out the trolls.

There is, and it helped Twitch complete Pokemon Red but it may not be enough to help them in Dark Souls.

During their Pokemon effort last year, they quickly implemented a “democracy vs. anarchy” system. Kotaku spelled it out best:

In democracy, the most votes for a particular action over a set period of time — a few seconds — dictates the next move. In anarchy, the inputs are immediately applied as they come in. What this means is that Twitch players are constantly streaming inputs into the game while also having a vote about how the inputs are perceived by the game. No surprise, it’s total chaos.

So is everyone doing this for two weeks straight?

Of course not. I’m sure a few go to sleep.

Doesn’t it get boring after awhile?

Yup. You can only watch an avatar roll to his death or run in a corner for five minutes before opening up another tab. Or go outside. But that’s kind of the hysterical part: thousands of people directing one character to just run straight. It’s a busload of backseat drivers all with a finger on the wheel.

What do they get when they beat the game?

They beat the game.

There’s nothing to gain from it? No prize?


So what’s the point?!

To beat the game.

This is ridiculous.

It is absolutely fascinating.

What’s the point in watching, then?

When the Romans fed their slaves to the lions, there were a few who rooted for the slaves. Our favorite sports movies are all about Davids beating out the Goliaths in baseball/hockey/football/golf/more baseball.

Here, David is made up of thousands of bored gamers and Goliath is a soul-crushing single-player game. We think of games as a challenge, but we hardly think of the circumstance to play them as well. We’ve seen gamers play this very game with Rock Band drums and Super Mario Bros. with a violin with total awe.

We’ve been moved by amputee athletes. We’ve been moved by comedians with a speech impairment.

Coming soon is Everest, a movie all about people trying to survive against the most stacked odds.

We like underdogs! The grimmer the odds, the better.

Can’t they organize outside the chat?

They can, and they have. But it hasn’t helped much, but it’s clear some people are taking this more seriously than others.

What happens in the end?

Of Dark Souls?

No, of this Twitch effort.

Oh. Well, they complete the game move on to the next challenge. I don’t know. Why do people climb mountains? Why do anything? Why be alive?

This week you can keep a tab open on the thousand-strong gamers trying to beat each other to beat a game. Someday there will be an actual scientific study on the “groupgame” phenomenon, but until then enjoy the show while it’s still punk rock.