Guest Star

Hopped Up on Speedrunning

Keeping up with the Joneses in the fast lane
Shortly after 2 pm on the afternoon of May 18th, 2005, Brandon Erickson stepped
back from the
Star Wars arcade cabinet
he’d been playing continuously, with no deaths,
extra credits, or nap breaks, for the past 54 hours, having failed to break the
Twin Galaxies record of three hundred
million points in 49 hours established 21 years earlier by one Robert Mruczek.
Perhaps these records of scale are best left in the distant past: all the
golden age games had to offer a master player, after all, was more, more, more
of the same. Let marathon play sessions in pursuit of the biggest score be
consigned to the ashbin of the ’80s along with the big cars, big hair, and
shoulder pads in power suits; the fashion of our times dictates that minimalism
is the new bombast.

One thing game-players in 1993 were not wondering was how quickly they could
blast through DooM — no, they lingered over every atmospherically-flickering
alcove, marveling at its unprecedented immersiveness. It was not until its
maps had been fully savoured that they would raise the bar, culminating in a
powerhouse drive to excel and trump their friends’ achievements under curious
self-imposed limitations
by doing the same, only faster.

By the
time Quake came out in ’96, the FPS community was already conversant with the
notion of proving who could play through a game the fastest (aka speedrunning), often by devising
unexpected strategies (in this case, the rocket jump) to bypass unexpectedly
extraneous portions of the game through what came to be known as sequence

(“Sequence breaking”? To confabulate an example, imagine that the goblin at
the base of the tree won’t let you into the treehouse until you give him the
diamond found at the bottom of the mine. Through some designer oversight
(foolishly assuming some modicum of self-preservation instincts), it turns out
that it’s possible to fly through the air and land in the treehouse from the
adjacent waterfall without having to deal with the goblin or the mine at all:
all you have to do is jump on your own primed grenade before it goes off,
blowing yourself off a clifftop and landing a bloody, shattered heap in the
treehouse — but a bloody heap that’s now shaved twelve minutes off the total
necessary play-through time!)

Keeping up with the Joneses in the fast lane.
1997’s “Quake done
” (a 20-minute continuous promenade from start to end of every Quake
level — ordinarily an all-night session for even the most stalwart mortals)
mainstreamed speedrunning for every hardcore fragger, and six years later,
Morimoto’s astounding tool-assisted 11-minute
completion of Super Mario Bros. 3
(with 99 extra lives, to boot!)
gobsmacked the rest of us. Curiously, with the hours of mapping and
strategising necessarily involved in plotting out an optimised course, like an
assault on a lofty mountain peak, saving time is the last thing on anyone’s
mind when they take up speedrunning. No, these are ambitions as any marathon
gamer of yore might have trained and worked toward — the difference is just
that the extreme du jour has flip-flopped over, formidably high scores after
long, gruelling sessions perversely being replaced with feebly low scores after
long series of short (but still gruelling) sessions.

Despite its myopic Olympian dedication toward shaving off fractions of seconds,
the stubborn attachment to perfecting play of the old games demonstrates
curious sentimentality. The nostalgic appeal of retrogaming is
straightforward, but what does it say about the games being produced today that
droves of hardcore gamers are choosing instead to focus on honing the gameplay
offered by titles from decades past? The rigorous ethic of this cult of
efficiency seems at odds with the self-indulgent goals of fun and exploration
implied in video games, but it may just be the case that some people will turn
anything, even play, into work.

Certainly the thriftiness of the speedrunners is to be applauded, turning dusty
classics into new challenges by casually dismissing their original goals (eat
the fruit, defeat the foozle, rescue the princess) with new ones (ignore the
princess, forget the foozle: instead, find a way to unlock the final treasure
room, and fast.) If the entire video game industry, satisfied with its
achievements, were to shut down operations tomorrow, taking on speedrunning
records could keep game players occupied for years to come. And when every
game’s optimal course had been plotted and documented? Someone will always
find another way to layer on further complication to compound achievements and
one-up their friends; perhaps Morimoto’s granddaughter would set the record for
fastest completion of Super Mario 3 while suspended in a straightjacket
upside-down over a bed of hot coals with rabid weasels fighting in her pants.
The kids will always find ways to breathe new life into old games.

This week’s guest writer is Rowan Lipkovits, a raccordionteur living in Vancouver.

We’re accepting pitches for future articles about videogames and other dismissed artforms — we pay $50 for published articles.

1 reply »

  1. Wow, as a “non-gamer” (I am passingly familiar with video games but don’t play much or often) I had no idea how extensive this speedrunning this thing had become. Thanks for the all the links to examples (even a video!) of the different variations on this. I also loved your confabulated example of fragging yourself past a major obstacle.
    There’s a certain kind of perfectionism behind finding the fastest or most efficient route through a level that reminds me of older gamer goals of getting “perfect scores” or creating the most powerful possible character. But I think what’s most exciting about this is the creative element that is involved in thinking outside the normal parameters of the game.


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