The Strange Zen of Speedrunning

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As gaming has ballooned into a billion-dollar industry over the last couple of decades, some of its most ardent supporters and earliest enthusiasts have begun to make a case for games not as a category of the entertainment industry, but as art. Video games are more than just very expensively produced software — this line of argument goes — they’re artistic works of evocative imagery, technical wizardry, themes, narratives, and sound.

Of course, when you get too carried away with that notion, you can lose sight of the fact that the video games are, at their core, pieces of software that execute in the same way that Microsoft Word does — and that video games’ software-ness, far from being a mark against them, can often make them more interesting. That’s one reason that I love Games Done Quick. GDQ is a round-the-clock “speed-running” marathon in which players finish video games as quickly as possible (while also raising money for charity). Players sit down and demonstrate and narrate how they are able to get from the beginning of a game to its end credits, in record time.

There are many different categories of speedrunning, but the default category, and arguably the most fascinating one, is called Any%.

In the course of playing through a game normally, a player would go through the sequence of levels as the game directs, fulfilling all of the requirements in order to get to the credits. This is, generally, known as 100 percent. Any% is the opposite, in that players can use whatever means necessary in order to get to the game’s finale. Almost always, this means finding ingenious ways to exploit a game’s systems or glitches in the code.

Exploiting glitches allows what is known as a sequence break — literally a break in the sequence of events that make up a game’s progression. Speedrunning Super Metroid, the quintessential game for this field, requires sequence breaking to complete in under an hour. According to the site Howlongtobeat.com, an average run is about seven and a half hours. (Donors to GDQ often reference killing or saving animals in their messages, a nod to the final sequence of Super Metroid in which you can either save animals and waste seconds, or leave them to die and get a better time.)

On a regular play-through, certain areas can’t be accessed without acquiring certain necessary items — so players develop new techniques not strictly intended by the game designers, like wall-jumping, or using bombs to get to otherwise inaccessible areas. Speedrunning is a hobby that can lead to impenetrable sentences like this, cribbed from the Metroid wiki entry on sequence breaking: “The Wall Jump can be used to collect Power Bombs before the Grapple Beam, the Wave Beam, Spazer Beam, X-Ray Scope, reach Kraid early, and get into the Wrecked Ship without the Grapple and thus collect an early Gravity Suit.”

Another popular tool of speedrunners is the warp, of which there are many types. There are death warps and save warps, which can move players to different locations in a game if they die or reload a save, respectively. And then there’s something known as the wrong warp, which is what allows runners to beat the classic Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, in 20 minutes. It involves confusing the game into spawning the player into the wrong level.

Here, just before the 16-minute mark, you can see well-known runner Cosmo warp from the game’s very first dungeon to its final boss by exploiting a glitch.

The captivating reason to watch Any% speedruns is not to see someone play the game extremely well as the developer intended, but to see them push the game’s software to its breaking point, finding the seams and ripping them open. Take, for instance, this speedrun of Fallout 3 — a game players can get lost in for hundreds of hours — being beaten in less than 15 minutes. The player clips out of the map — that is, he gets outside of the environment’s boundaries — and then “speedcripples” himself. In layman’s terms, getting injured gives players the ability to move faster for a short period of time, and the runner tricks the computer into giving him that boost permanently by reloading a save file quickly, multiple times.

(Finding small ways to move faster is a key part of speedrunning. It’s why Zelda players often hop to their destination facing backward, rather than running directly forward.)

It takes patience, skill, and tons of work to find all of these methods, and utilizing them requires a deep understanding of a game’s systems. This is apparent even in runs that don’t exploit glitches. Players occasionally perform maneuvers that are “frame perfect,” meaning they have only one frame of animation during which to execute it. Sometimes they’ll play blindfolded, as four people did last winter at the end of a six-hour marathon attaining 100-percent completion in Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.

There’s no other competition like speedrunning. Basketball always has four quarters; baseball always has nine innings. If you want to win Monopoly, you have to buy Boardwalk. But in speedrunning, there are so many technical and design variables in play, so many different vectors from which to approach (or circumvent) a problem, that it comes together in a unique combination of ingenuity and physical dexterity. What it really is, to phrase it in a mawkish way, is a celebration of man over machine. A culmination of hours of study about how computers works, how code executes, and how its flaws can be used to one’s own advantage.

A full GDQ schedule can be found here, but some upcoming highlights today include a Castlevania block all afternoon and a 41-minute run of Super Meat Boy at 8:24.