Why Videogame Speedruns Are So Fascinating to Watch
Videogames are machines masquerading as worlds; conflagrations of code specifically designed to create unreal environments. The best and biggest games can take dozens of hours to explore, and beating them is a serious investment of time.
There are those, however, who zip through at a breakneck pace, beating the game in a fraction of the time required by even the most ardent players. Such people are called speedrunners, and some of the best of them have for the past week competed in Awesome Games Done Quick, an annual charity tournament that draws hundreds of thousands of viewers.
It’s been utterly riveting.
Watching a speedrunner tear through the sprawling world of a AAA title is not at all like watching Interstellar on fast forward. The thrill lies in seeing how the best speedrunners manipulate and break these familiar machines, exposing the fascinating ways they work.
Take, for example, Kingdom Hearts, a Disney-infused role-playing game. It’s one of my favorite games, and at my best I could blow through it in about about 15 hours. On Monday, a speedrunner who uses the handle Zetris beat it in three. Such a feat requires a deep understanding of the rules and logic that govern the game’s world, and an encyclopedic knowledge of the bugs that let you subvert them.
Late in Kingdom Hearts, players encounters Chernabog, the star of the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment of Fantasia. He’s vicious and frightening, a massive serpentine boss capable of doling out remarkable amounts of pain. He’s a formidable opponent, and even an experienced player faces a tough battle that will last several minutes.
Zetris put him down in about 15 seconds. After a quick combo to Chernabog‘s face, he used the game’s summon system to call Mushu (yes, the tiny Eddie Murphy-voiced dragon from Mulan), and lob fireballs at Chernabog’s face. His health bar dropped so fast it looked broken.
It was an amazing trick, one that required knowing about a bug, found in certain versions of the game, in a feature called Experience Zero. Experience Zero doles out double damage in certain scenarios, but the bug lets you do so indefinitely if you use only magical attacks.
This is the beauty of speedrunning: By exploiting the vagaries of these particular machines in order to reach the end as quickly as possible, speedrunners peel back a videogame’s skin to provide a look at what lies beneath and how it works—and how it can be subverted.
Speedrunning has existed in one form or another since the dawn of the Internet. When the seminal shooter Doom arrived in 1993, intrepid players discovered a software feature that let them record their gameplay. That gave rise to online communities of people posting runs through the game and ranking each other based on their time. The same thing happened when Quake was released in 1996. Two years later, the Speed Demos Archive—which hosts Awesome Games Done Quick—became a hub for the nascent speedrunning community.
As the community grew, so too did the number of games it explored. Speedrunners favor deep dives into the technical underpinnings of games, seeking to understand and exploit them. Nintendo’s Super Metroid became a favorite in the early 2000s (and remains so today) because its physics are rife for exploitation. The design includes a number of precise tricks related to its jumping and running that, if used properly, can allow players to do incredible (and likely unintended) feats.
In that way, the best speedruns are highly technical and virtuosic. You can think of it as an optimization problem.”Finding a faster way to accomplish goals, a better route, a more efficient method of movement: all are part of the approach in achieving a good speed run,” reads one piece in the Speed Demo Archive. In that way, beating the game is almost beside the point. The point of a speed run is to come as close as possible to absolute system mastery.
Challenge, Community, and Record-Breaking Runs
People speed run through games for all kinds of reasons. Some simply consider it another way of enjoying a beloved game. Others hope to set a record. And more than a few do it simply for the challenge. There is a certain thrill to subverting the rules of the game—and showing others how to do so as well.
“Speedrunners also value the cooperation the community encourages,” says Matt Merkle, director of operations for Games Done Quick and a guy renowned for running through “bad” games like Sonic Spinball. “Unlike some eSports competitions, where keeping a new trick under wraps is considered a strategy, it is expected of speedrunners to share what they discover. New glitches and tricks are found all the time, and each game’s community will push those discoveries to their maximum potential. Some runners even focus on ‘glitch hunting’, where the objective is just to break the game in some new, unusual manner, rather than just purely speedrunning.”
Earlier this week speedrunner Kungkobra beat the 100-hour RPG Fallout: New Vegas in a record-setting 20 minutes. The modern Fallout games are great for speedrunners; their sheer size and complexity means that there are plenty of places where things break or act strangely, offering a wily speedrunner ample opportunities to bend or break the rules.
You can watch Kungkobra’s run above. It’s a seminar in all the foibles a machine like New Vegas brings with it. By manipulating glitches associated with the game’s quicksave system, for example, Kungkobra skips dialog and moves through walls. Using a glitch speed runners call “Speecripple,” he boosted his walking speed to 160 percent of normal by shooting his feet with a grenade launcher.
But it’s not all about exploiting bugs. The best speed runs require a fair amount of planning. Kungkobra possesses and encyclopedic knowledge of the game world, which allows him to sprint from one location to the next in the shortest time possible. He also tailors his character’s skills—boosting her charisma and communication skills—to most quickly trigger the events needed to advance the plot toward its conclusion. He even selects Italian as the game’s language, as it is ever so slightly faster than the others. These are the types of things that require thousands of careful study to discover.
After watching a run like Kungkobra’s, even the most casual player will have a deeper understanding of the game and its rules. It’s easy to embrace the suspension of disbelief games require, and to see them as machines or software only when they break. Speedrunners excel at revealing those breaking points.
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