Speed Trials: Finishing Video Games As Fast As Possible, For Fun and Profit

Talking to a member of the video game speedrunning community about the appeal of the practice, its status as a sort of performance art, and tensions over encroaching commercialization.

Chris Randle is a writer from Toronto who has written for The Globe and Mail, The...

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Twenty years ago, if you got stuck on a certain level of Sonic the Hedgehog 2—that endless casino labyrinth, for example—you had a few options. You could hand the controller over to your friend and hope they might slog through it. You could go outside to do something else before a spiky blue creature burned itself onto the TV screen. Or, by entering a special sequence of musical tracks on the game’s sound test menu, you could use a level select to cheat your way ahead. However much time that saved me, it got swallowed up by the further secret of the debug mode, which allowed you to place items, objects, and enemies around every stage at will—breaking the game down into a system of elements. Nintendo’s new Super Mario Maker level editor gives players even more control over physics and flux. Along with a tribute to Darude’s “Sandstorm,” not to mention huge numbers of lazy half-finished diversions, the game’s online Course World is hosting some inventively tortuous experiments.

One of the evillest Super Mario Maker stages—it took 11,000 tries before anyone completed it—was created by the speedrunner PangaeaPanga, and beaten by another player from the same community. Speedrunning inverts that debug-mode exploration: Its whole point is dissecting a game to reach the end credits as fast as possible. Sometimes this involves emulators and other third-party tools, so that the action can be slowed down to single frames, while others live by human reflexes alone, but what gets watched online doesn’t much resemble the normal playthrough of a game either way. It’s a central source of programming for the gaming-focused streaming platform Twitch.tv, which now has 100 million monthly visitors and sometimes financial payouts. Speedrunners pass over coveted treasures to seek out the most convenient glitches and impossible shortcuts. The skill their hobby requires is more formalist than kinetic, an obsessive study of the flicker between patterns. Having only played casually for the past decade or so, I liked the strangeness of it. For this occasional series interviewing people from Internet subcultures, I got in touch with Jake Eakle, a speedrunner who’s theorized about the practice before.

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Can you tell me about your background? What was it that first got you into speedrunning?

I think I first learned of speedrunning in college, around 2007, when a friend told me about Speed Demos Archive and TASVideos. That same friend and I happened to already be into N, a lovely game in which the leaderboards are speed-based, so we already had an appreciation for the process of experimentation to find the quickest path through a level (routing) and then trying many times to execute it perfectly (grinding). The speedrunning community just took those concepts and applied them to everything, so it was a natural fit. N also had its share of weird glitches that could be abused to gain speed or skip whole sections of levels, so the speedrunning community’s celebration of glitchiness was also familiar and delightful territory.

The most obviously alluring aspect of speedrunning for me is the richness and easy availability of the Exploration -> Discovery -> Synthesis -> Optimization cycle. This general process is found in just about any discipline, but video games have the nice property of being small, self-contained systems that are designed to react to your inputs in large, meaningful, surprising ways. That makes the cycle much tighter than it is in, say, gardening, where if you try something new, you might not see results for months, and then when you do you don’t know if it was you or the weather that made your plants die.

The way this cycle works in speedrunning is, first, you fire up a game you like with an eye to eventually speedrunning it and just play around—not trying to beat the game, certainly not trying to go fast, just trying to get a feel for the edges of the available space. Usually when you come across something in a game that the designer clearly intended to be impossible, you just walk away—but during the exploration phase, maybe you sit there and try it a hundred times instead, and suddenly discover that it’s not quite impossible after all. Having discovered something new, you add it to your repository of tricks for the game; once you’ve found a few, you start putting them together. Much like vulnerability chaining in computer security, going really fast in video games often requires synthesizing many different techniques (this Pastebin link gives a technical run-down of the five or six different techniques needed to achieve a skip long thought impossible).

Once you’ve got a bunch of tricks and combinations of tricks, and figured out which segments of the game can be sped up through their use, you can start optimizing. This phase is mostly about repetition with subtle iteration, nailing down the exact sequence of inputs that gets the best results and practicing it over and over. It might sound like the boring part, but it has many nice qualities. It can be relaxing, meditative, and flow-y. It can also be a time for intense, minute deconstruction of every movement and shift of attention, a process of gaining mastery over oneself and testing one’s limits. And when you finally beat the cycle, or save the frame, or get the clip, level 1-1 can evoke an intensity of triumph usually reserved for beating the final boss.

This cycle covers a really large range of basic human urges, and it does it all in a very neatly packaged, discrete, and—for many runners, most importantly—already familiar and beloved environment.

It sounds a bit like chess theory in that sense—a game that generates start-to-finish strategy and advanced techniques through intense study. Except that chessboards don’t have glitches to exploit, which makes speedrunning less mathematical and more chaotic. What is the community like socially? Do people still congregate on message boards, or has livestreaming over YouTube or Twitch done away with all that?

The community is … well, there are a few different kinds of speedrunning communities. There are communities of runners, the kind of people who go to Games Done Quick and other marathons. I’ve never done that, but my impression is that it’s quite a pleasant, fairly close-knit community that likes to get together and have a lot of silly fun, with only the occasional outbreak of weird harassment.

Then there are small communities that congregate around particular games and particular runners. These communities vary a lot, from tiny groups of IRL friends, to hypercompetitive, territorial mobs, to welcoming, creative fan clubs. This is where I’ve spent most of my time—places like Pibonacci’s Spelunky stream, or Acmlm’s Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past stream, or Jodenstone’s Ocarina of Time stream. These communities come and go: I would have made all three of those links, but none of them really exist in the same form they did when I was a regular. They’ve fallen apart due to the runner losing interest in the game, a milestone in the game being reached (Joden getting Ocarina of Time’s world record [at any percentage of completion], and then Skater beating it soundly, resulted in everyone pretty much deciding the game was dead), or friction between a few members escalating to community-wide drama.

There are also dedicated theory discussion boards, mostly per-game, mostly scattered across various fora (though there are some attempts at centralization, like the SDA forum, speedrun.com, and of course pretty much all English-language tool-assisted-speedrun work is documented in the TASVideos forum). I personally really like to read threads about games I care about in these places, because they tend to be full of the most knowledgeable runners/routers sharing the most up-to-date info, with a minimum of noise.

Lastly, there’s the Twitch community at large, and the Reddit community, and AGDQ viewers, and other meme-hungry hordes. These are pretty much as bad as any other large group of mostly young, bored males on the internet.

Are there any big-name speedrunners that you find to have a unique playing style, or that generate a particularly memorable social experience when they’re streaming?

Trying to name anyone here feels like it would just be naming the runners who I happen to watch—I think that every streamer has a pretty distinct atmosphere. Hanging out in speedrun streams is primarily a social experience, and how chat is moderated, how much the streamer talks, whether they have a cam, what overlay features they use, etc. can all totally change what being there feels like, before you even factor in what game they are playing or how they are playing it. Some streamers have complex chat-based games/trivia bots/etc. that allow different kinds of interaction with the stream, some have dozens of mods, some don’t have a cam or even a mic and still manage to create unique social spaces by typing in chat during cutscenes or loading screens.

How much does the ruthless pressure of the format allow someone to establish a persona?

There is a real tension here, and sometimes it has unfortunate consequences. In particular, most people want to watch runs, rather than extremely repetitive practice of a short segment of the game. But practice is pretty important to actually getting competitive. This occasionally leads to skilled players practicing less than they should to maintain the social atmosphere they enjoy, or, alternately, to nice communities falling apart as the runner decides to practice off stream, or give up a game entirely.

I was wondering which games are the most popular for speedrunning purposes—do you find that they’ve changed over time?

The most popular games have pretty much always been old-school Nintendo blockbusters, peaking around the N64—every main-series Mario game (especially Super Mario 64), every main-series Zelda (especially Ocarina of Time), every Mega Man game. There’s also another huge segment of the community dedicated to first-person shooters—Doom, GoldenEye, and Half-Life are probably the best-represented. That said, speedrunners will speedrun anything—it’s really worth checking out the Awful Games Done Quick segments at the GDQs to get a taste for this.

It’s pretty easy to understand why it’s mostly old games—the number-one reason people get into speedrunning is because they really, really love their favorite childhood game, they’ve beaten it a million times, and they’re looking for a way to keep it interesting, or to connect with other players of the game, to keep viewers interested in it, etc. As for why the emphasis on Nintendo, you could make an argument that with the Mario games at least, they simply have a great track record of releasing the best platformers with the best movement options. But honestly, I don’t really know why Ocarina of Time is so much more popular than Banjo-Kazooie or the Sega Genesis Sonic games. It’s not like those latter games don’t have healthy speedrunning communities, but there seems to be some invisible force drawing the Nintendo titles to the top of the Twitch popularity rankings every time. Perhaps it’s just that those games were more popular when they were new.

As for them changing over time … yes and no. A feature of speedrunning is that sometimes a game will be pretty dormant for a long time, years even, before someone suddenly discovers a new glitch and then there is a flurry of renewed activity while everyone scrambles for the newly available world record. So in that sense, which games are currently getting a lot of attention is constantly in flux. And of course, plenty of people speedrun new releases as well, so often a small community will spring up around a game when it is new, and then slowly peter out as the game becomes thoroughly explored and people move on to the next thing—The Binding of Isaac and Spelunky are pretty good examples of games in this category.

But over the long run, honestly, no, they don’t change all that much. The Marios and Zeldas were the earliest speedgames, and are pretty much still at the top.

Yeah, it makes sense that old first-person shooter games make up a big chunk of the community after those Nintendo franchises—I read somewhere that Doom was the very first game to develop a dedicated speedrunning following? They’re action-heavy but in a methodical way, with precise measurements of ammo or health, and back then they didn’t really have any dialogue or even a story to slow things down. Kind of like how Pokemon was simple enough for tens of thousands of people to collectively play and complete. I also meant to ask you about your own favourite games for speedrun purposes. I was struck by what you said about the ephemeral nature of these mini-fandoms—whereas a regular player might go through Ocarina of Time or whichever game trying to find all the heart containers, complete every side quest, and then put it aside for a long time, speedrunners exhaust its shortcuts, the exploitable patterns and bugs …

I run really random, weird stuff that nobody cares about. I have uncontested records in 868-HACK, Twump Tower and Minesweeper RPG. And I guess in this weird unfinished game called Dragon Maze that I don’t have a good enough run of yet to publish. I also run Spelunky HD, but I’m nowhere near the top tier of players.

How do outsiders react when they find out this is your hobby?

When it’s, like, my mom, or other people from older generations, it’s indifference or surprise that there are people who take something so trivial seriously, but for the most part, even among non-gamers, people are pretty interested. Just about everyone has fond memories of some video game, so I’ve been pretty amazed how many different kinds of people I’ve been able to really entertain by pulling up a tool-assisted speedrun of their childhood favorite. And I got pretty interested responses when I was in the process of writing my TAS article for [online gaming zine] Zeal, again from both gamers and non-gamers.

How do you think the emergence of Twitch as a free, hugely popular streaming service (literally built into PS4 systems now, I heard) has changed all this?

Twitch has irrevocably and totally changed everything. Unfortunately, I’m not sure I’m the best person to ask about the before times—I was there, watching runs on Speed Demos Archive, but I have no real idea of what it was like to be part of the speedrunning community then, because it was tiny, and there was little to no room for viewer participation. I also have no idea how many non-runner fans there were—the videos hosted there have no view counters or comment sections. From what I’ve heard runners say about those days, it was a far more solitary and passion-driven pursuit. People still shared strategies, and still enjoyed showing off their accomplishments, but the meat of the work was sitting there at home playing the game by yourself.

Nowadays, a stream is as likely to be a social experience for the runner as it is to be a serious attempt to improve a record or practice a strat. In fact, in many cases, runners and their viewers have come to value the experience of hanging out together with the game as a focus more highly than actual accomplishment in speedrunning—which gets to be an issue when the run requires a kind of focus that’s incompatible with reading and chatting at the same time. Those for whom the equation hasn’t tipped quite that far frequently hide chat entirely during hard sections of runs so that they won’t be thrown off. Similarly, having a live audience provides a hugely increased incentive to show off or try dangerous or silly things during a run, making speedrunning into much more of a performance art than it was previously.

On the flip side, the Twitch community has also caused a pretty serious increase in the competitiveness of speedrunning. There’s a well-documented effect in which large numbers of viewers will show up to a run when it has world-record potential, and then vanish as soon as it dies. Since viewer numbers translate directly into popularity, runner ego, and sometimes cash, this puts a lot of pressure on people to grind runs rather than doing important, but less watchable, practice or research. And it means that a lot of runners who might previously have been content to improve their own times, or just enjoy going fast, instead get burned out under the pressure of having to be the best or be ignored.

But that trend too has an opposing counterpart—Twitch has also increased the accessibility, visibility, and popularity of speedrunning beyond anything anyone could have previously imagined, and as a result, there are hundreds or thousands of times more speedrunners than there were before, everywhere along the spectrum from extremely casual to doing it for a living. The Games Done Quick [marathons] have raised millions of dollars for Doctors Without Borders and other charities. SpeedRunsLive races regularly draw dozens, and occasionally hundreds, of participants—real-time races over the Internet weren’t a thing at all before Twitch.

And of course, as alluded to above, Twitch has brought money into the scene for the first time. Nobody is making a lot of money, just yet, but a small handful have gone full time, supported by ad revenue, monthly Twitch subscriptions, and donations. And there has been recent controversy over people selling speedrunning lessons—there is a large element of the scene that sees any hint of commercialization as a threat to the ideological purity of The Art of Speedrunning. This group is destined to lose their battle, but its existence gives us a glimpse of the mindset a lot of older runners have—speedrunning not as performance, not as competition, but as the pursuit of perfection, penetration of the impenetrable, dense, and mysterious black box of a beloved game, in search of its hidden Truth.

I am kind of making fun of this, because I think it has given rise to a silly and unproductive attitude in this case, but it’s actually a lot of the draw for me too, especially when it comes to tool-assisted speedruns. Human runs feel like they are more about human skills, to me, but there really is something beautiful about the discreteness and determinism of a game ROM, and about proving that no matter how much arcane complexity its designers packed into those cartridges, they are still finite, and with enough patience and determination, we can unravel them, lay them bare, expose their secrets.

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