Speedrunning: An Amateur Perspective

Awesome Games Done Quick 2014 was my first exposure to the speedrunning community. I saw the hashtag trending on Twitter and wondered what all the fuss was about. Twitch? Streaming? Glitches? Kill The Animals? It was all a bit disturbing and alien. One night I decided to blindly tune in to the livestream, I can’t remember why but a game I was familiar with must have been trending. It’s quite a plunge sometimes to look into something you don’t understand, but I opened the stream and almost instantly I got it. A group of gamers in a room together doing what they do best, playing! I could hear that warm love for gaming in the commentary, I could see it in the intense gameplay, and I could feel it as the room got hyped for a good run. These are people who are only there because they play so much, and truly respect videogames to the point of dedicating their lives to them.

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Speedrunning has a different mindset to competitive gaming, it’s more of a personal journey. Taking the fastest route possible through a game involves learning a game inside-out, executing the fastest possible movement, and often using unintended glitches to skip major areas. Furthermore is the community aspect; it’s not just runners who contribute to the speedrun of a game. Most notable with big games like Ocarina of Time or Yoshi’s Island, there are large communities digging inside each game every day finding ways to implement new routes, glitches and movement tech to improve a run. The beauty in getting a world record time is the video must be uploaded somewhere, and the whole community can see it. When a game is in the spotlight it’s not uncommon to see world records beaten multiple times as people do runs of it every day and bring out the best in each other.

In the last year I’ve watched speedruns from various marathons like SGDQ 2014, AGDQ 2015 and on Youtube whenever I can. I’ve truly become fascinated with the skill and spectacle, it’s like a racing game with 50 minute laps. There is a stupid amount to remember and execute, and every run has its unique key strategies and hard parts. There are risky glitches or shortcuts that only work 10% of the time, which pose some hard questions to the runner. Do you go for those strats when you’re on a good run? Do you sacrifice world record pace? Do you have a backup strat? Despite many games being decades old and optimised to the brim, there is still a dynamic aspect to every speedrun where the runner has to react on the fly. The nature of how intense and perfect some of these inputs have to be means there will never be a perfect run. Just outstanding ones.

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So can an average gamer recreate this feeling without dedicating 12 hours a day to a single game? I think yes, and I’ve been experimenting with both Tropical Freeze and Metroid Zero Mission. My times are nowhere near world record pace, and there’s some glitches and tricks I can’t do, but it’s still a very cool feeling to be on “a run” and compete with your personal best time. Doing a playthrough of Tropical Freeze for me usually means a few deaths. Depending on where, you lose Cranky or Dixie and suddenly you need a new strategy through the level. Suddenly you don’t have enough height to take a secret exit. Now you’re starting the next level with a different Kong. It’s a really intense experience just knowing you can beat your personal best time, and doing your best to keep a run going. Of course you actually need to care about your performance for this to be a fun thing, which is one reason why it’s not for everyone.

A common concern is whether attempting a speedrun (or watching speedruns) can ruin a game you love. Watching something you hold dear get absolutely destroyed in a new way can be traumatising, just ask Sonic fans. In my experience so far this hasn’t happened, in fact I’ve only seen benefits from learning more about my games. In Zero Mission for example I know all the best places to refill missiles quickly, and all the important times to do so. Watching Ocarina of Time speedruns has taught me a lot about how the game is programmed. Watching Siglemic playing Mario 64 is one of the coolest displays of skill I’ve ever seen, and shows just how creative you can be with platforming in that game. I will say there are some BAD speedrun games, like long RPGs and games with too many random elements, but even those are good for a laugh sometimes.

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I had to write this piece because getting immersed in speedrunning has been the most positive change in my life the past year, and the community truly is full of wonderful people. On top of their awesome gaming efforts, the Games Done Quick marathons have grown to raise over $1 million for charities at each event. A massive statement about the positive impact gaming can have. While wrapping this up I’ll have to throw a shout out to The Final Split, a bunch of cool guys who do a great job every week updating everyone on the speedrunning world. For upcoming marathons, there’s RPG Limit Break next month, and Summer Games Done Quick 2015 in August. I also have to highlight this 4-way Super Metroid race, which is still one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen. This race was the moment when I realised the potential of playing games quick, it still blows my mind. Super Metroid is possibly the most highly optimised speedgame in the world, and these players display exactly why.

If anyone has any personal speedrunning stories I’d love to hear them in the comments. I’m going to continue enjoying Tropical Freeze and see how many other 2D platformers stack up, just to get a different experience with them.

3 thoughts on “Speedrunning: An Amateur Perspective”

  1. Ever since I was a kid and learned about the different endings, I’ve always tried to complete Super Metroid quickly. It’s not quite the same as what these guys do though…I don’t use any glitches which make the game less enjoyable to play (aiming up and down while running to go faster), and I don’t try to take an optimized route. I find it most enjoyable to make up the route and sequence break as I go along. Since I only do it every few years, there’s always a fun moment where I forget what to do next. Last time, I forgot how to get out of lower Norfair after the Ridley fight, so I went through the big acid room backwards with just barely enough health to pull it off.

    Mega Man Zero Collection is another favorite for this. The game is designed for you to blaze through the levels with speed, precision, and no power ups. Space Invaders Extreme 2, which in my opinion is the most well-designed game in the arcade genre, also has a time attack mode. Because of the game’s “shoot four of a color, get a certain power up” mechanic, there is loads of potential for planning out an incredible run with precise execution.

    Speed running is the mark of a sophisticated player. Like you said, only a person who truly understands a game inside and out, and has the passion and devotion to said game will engage in speed running. It is born from the deepest enjoyment of a game, and those which have an active speed running community should be recognized as among the highest level of the craft.

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  2. For me, speed running, and all other forms of “perfecting your game” can ruin games… It’s addicting, it’s fun, the community is a riot and is exciting, but there’s a very fine line between perfecting your game and losing the point of the game.

    For game genres such as platformers, it makes sense. After all, you’re attempting to work your way around a puzzle, and speed-running a platformer is like timing yourself with a rubix cube.
    But what happens when you play adventure games? Strategy games? Etc?
    Sure, many can argue “well, if you’ve already beaten it…”
    But what happens to games like pokemon? A game that used to fill us all with excitement whenever we got our favorite pokemon in a team and battled each other… now it’s all about breeding the PERFECT pokemon to make your team fit into one of seven categories…
    It’s still fun. There’s still strategy involved. There’s still personality in there. And the community is helpful and willing if you know where to look. It can breathe life into pokemon games after you’ve grown bored of it.

    … but it also loses that sense of “this is my pokemon”. There is no “my pokemon” anymore. It’s a breed, a pedigree, and if it fails, then you toss it to the side and breed a better one. You’ll find it difficult to play the game again without seeing nothing but stats and numbers.

    I understand that’s different from speed-running, yet, it’s also the same. It’s just less of a relay race and more of a chess tournament. It’s still a form of competition, whether against yourself or others, that detract from the original intent of the game…
    This isn’t a ghost race in mario kart, because it’s not a mode that’s so specific that it rarely ever bleeds into the other modes (racing against yourself doesn’t translate well into racing against others with blue shells and red shells about)… it’s something that affects the community – the ones you speak to and interact with, and ones that feed you concepts of the game rather than you figuring it out yourself. You’re told of shortcuts and glitches to get past in Zelda and Mario (and in other console games like Bloodborne), and though you can refuse to participate in using them, you still know they’re there – and it makes you see a beautiful scenery as flawed… You’re told the exact timing and form you must take in order to push through an enemy as fast and as efficient as possible, and you’ll only see them as hit boxes…

    Take Smash Bros… I loved that game, and still do. But before I started playing competitively, I had a blast playing with ANYONE. I even had fun playing against those who were 100x better than me. It was fun, and funny. It was just a game.
    Then a Super Smash Bros Brawl contest came up at a local game store, with $200 in-store credit as first prize. 2nd and 3rd place prizes got $50 in-store credit. There were good games releasing around that time, so the prizes were appealing. I wanted to at least try.
    So I trained. I trained and I trained and I trained. I trained so hard that I could face 2 Lvl 9 CPUs in a team, and win against them every single time. (I won only a few times against 3 lvl 9 CPU team)

    … I lost in the tournament due to stage fright.

    But I kept my skill still. And for several months, I had a blast. I’d 1v1 against pro players and actually make them sweat, if not surprise them with a victory. And I trained my girlfriend to be a pro as well, and we’d double team other players, absolutely decimating them and high-fiving after the efforts. … this was very fun…

    Then Smash Bros 3DS and Wii U came out… by now I made some new friends. … I played with them… and … had no fun…
    I beat them too easily. Even when I was trying hard to go easy on them.
    I put items on, put them in teams with stronger people, and— still no fun. Because they weren’t having fun. They weren’t having fun because my wife (my gf back then) and I were too good at the game, and they couldn’t keep up even when they trained.
    It was at that moment that I thought “… when did this game stop being fun /all/ the time…?” “When did I only start seeing characters for their movesets and hitboxes?”

    It was then that I realized… the game was only fun because I had put myself into a niche community. One that blocked others out “because they weren’t ready” or attempted to “indoctrinate them into their ways”. It was as if this game COULDN’T be TRULY fun unless you were PRO-SKILLZ (or close) at it.
    But no. That’s wrong. I remember playing this series every Christmas with my family, laughing, having a blast, especially when we had no idea what was going on… It was about the mascots, the games they came from, the items, the frenzy…
    But now it was all about movesets and damage percentages… this wasn’t the game, this was the PROGRAMMING of the game. It was similar to seeing the world as equations and formulas, rather than just enjoying it for what it is.

    This… ruined Smash Bros for me, and for all those that played with me.
    I still play it. I’m still fairly good at it. But goddamn do I despise how much I’ve lost by gaining so much.
    It’s the same with pokemon. I set up tournaments with my friends to extend the life of the games – and now we can’t help but want to EV-IV every pokemon we see, regardless of personal attachment to them.

    Speed-running? Different, but not so different. It’s a similar concept.
    It’s hard to separate that feeling of wanting to perfect your gameplay and just playing the game.
    It’s what turned me off from Mirror’s Edge, which was beautiful and stunning for me in its style — all I could focus on was the leaderboards with every playthrough – and I had to stop myself from that or else I’d turn tunnel-visioned and see nothing else but the “right paths”…

    I can’t say this for Zelda games or Mario games… Because I NEVER EVER consider speedrunning in Zelda worlds, and I’m not exactly the best platformer-player nor do I care to be so speedrunning just isn’t an option for me in Mario games… but I don’t doubt the same problems can be said for those games. It becomes about the community and the beating a previous run, and less about just having fun (outside of GTA-style faffing about). Not to say that’s the only thing you can experience after/during speedrunning… but it is to say it’s difficult to *not* see it that way after doing so.

    … though this does bring a question… Do certain game designs prevent this “highscore immersion”? Can certain game designs allow players to switch between mindsets without losing one’s self entirely to one side?
    Perhaps for games like DKC and Zelda and Mario, their designs (stage, character, enemy, etc) can actually *help* with this problem – and I’m just simply unaware of it because I don’t play those games in those manners…

    But anyways, those are my two very large cents.

    TL;DR
    Once you go for the high score, it becomes hard to see the game through the game character’s eyes like you used to. Everything starts to look like numbers and patterns… and the community just makes it seem more welcoming through meme-style humors and commentaries.

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    1. Fair enough, I see where you’re coming from and if it feels wrong there’s no reason to do it. Interesting you bring up Pokemon though, because I really enjoyed those speedruns. They actually put more purpose on your Pokemon and the journey than the normal competitive IV / EV breedathon that makes up Pokemon today (which I agree, is incredibly mundane and needs a revamp). Speedrunning though feels like a real adventure. You’re short on money, your starter is always with you, you get out of caves ASAP, you minimise grinding, berries and potions aren’t expendable. I definitely still feel like a Pokemon Trainer dealing with those things.

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