By Isaac Smith
Gaming is a mainstream form of entertainment, like sports, or film, or even reading. It can build skills, tell stories, or just be fun, addictive, relaxing or exhilarating. It’s got its own history, its own culture, its own celebrities, its own EVERYTHING.
I love telling people that, by the way. It’s the smug, ivory-tower statement I use to validate all those hours I spent playing Pokemon Red and Diablo II. “I was just studying preemptively for my video game history major. Gosh.” But it’s a little early in the post to be digressing.
Like most things in life, there are people who are better at video games than others. (Understatement of the year right there.) “Pro Gaming” is a thing. There are intercollegiate (and international) gaming leagues. People leave their homes to move in with their teammates and train for 8-12 hours a day (some train more… *cough*SouthKorea*cough*). League of Legends has a huge following of people who enjoy watching their favorite players team up and fight against each other. To lend even more professional credence, these players have corporate sponsors.
I love telling people that, too, but it still makes me feel a little bit weird imagining corporations holding meetings about whether or not to sponsor a pasty, unshaven 20-something white guy who lives in a small 1-bedroom apartment and only leaves to get more Rockstar and Hot Pockets. (Hooray, stereotypes!)
But there’s a specific type of gamer elite that has grown popular in recent years that I’m utterly fascinated with: the speedrunner.
(This has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that my friend Cameron recently set the world’s fastest time for a complete low-percent run of the game Shovel Knight which may or may not be viewable here!)
Speedruns are self-explanatory: you get from tutorial mission to final boss in as little time as possible. Sound simple? Anything but.
The first question is: what’s the fastest way to do it? In open-world games, where do you go first? In games with optional items, is the time an item shaves off the run worth the time it takes to get it in the first place? With many old console games: is there a game-breaking bug that can let me skip 90% of the fricking game?
People think up really creative ways to make game runs faster: in Super Metroid, speedrunners will purposefully jump on spikes because the knockback will boost them further through the room. In The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, playing the game in Chinese speeds up significantly the pace at which dialog appears on the screen. In Super Metroid, pointing your weapon at the diagonals shifts the character forward one pixel, meaning rapidly doing this increases run speed, and slowly doing it can allow careful positioning for pixel-perfect jumps. In nearly every game, there is at least one strategy or maneuver specifically designed to shave a few seconds off an area or boss fight, or to allow the player to break the sequence of the game (or skip parts of it completely). Sequence breaking is something every speedrunner does, which is loosely defined as: “doing crap you’re not supposed to be able to do yet, by merit of you being a complete badass.”
So it’s complicated.
There are also specific types of speedruns: Any% (the % stands for item collection percentage). Any% means they can collect whatever items they want, but usually there’s a specific set of items to collect that enables them to go through the game fastest), Low%, 100%, no glitches, segmented, single-segment, tool-assisted… the list goes on and on for how people define and decide how they’re going to attempt to play the game.
There’s even a biannual festival called “Awesome Games Done Quick” (it should be “Quickly”, but ignore my inner grammar Nazi). The best people in the community get together for live (and online) audiences and speedrun games for charity.
Nope, I am not making this up. Remember the whole ridiculous thing about corporate sponsors? This is equally ridiculous, albeit way more awesome.
I’ve given you an overview of what speedruns are, but you really need to watch one yourself to get a true idea of what I’m talking about (and the tremendous skill and preparation it takes to successfully complete one).
Games that have great speedruns (and speedrunners):
(Please note: it’s a 100% speedrun with lots of great commentary. It’s a masterwork)
(Glitchy speedrun, also with lots of great background/commentary)
(Race between two speedrunners, game starts at about 12 minutes in)
Basically, pick a game that you enjoy (or think you know pretty well), find a speedrun video of it, and watch it. You’ll quickly see how they make playing that game look like a work of art.
P.S. Stay away from Final Fantasy speedruns. They’re impressive but inevitably 8 – 10 hours long. Yeesh.
P.P.S. If you find this as fascinating as I do, look up speedrunners on AGDQ or SDGQ, and find streamers on Twitch. There’s plenty of them, and you end up learning a lot while being entertained. Game on, folks!