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17th October 2017

Speed running

A quick history of the subculture

“Speedrunning” is the act of playing through a game with the sole purpose of completing it in the fastest time possible. Whilst the concept has been around since the very beginning of video games, the practice has evolved over the years to form one of the largest subcultures in gaming today.

Game developers eventually took notice of players’ passion for speedrunning their games, and from as early as the 90’s began to facilitate and incentivise playing through levels as fast as possible.

Classic first-person-shooter DOOM allowed players to save “demonstrations” of their runs using in-game software, whilst 1997’s GoldenEye 007 gave access to cheats if players could complete levels under certain time limits.

Fast-forward to today and speedrunning has transformed from a small number of obsessive players in niche internet forums to a huge, structured community.

Today, many world-class speedrunners make a living from live-streaming their record attempts on popular video games, and the format of live speedruns has proven popular enough to launch a biannual charity marathon named Games Done Quick.

Since its inception in 2010, it has raised over $12 million for the Prevent Cancer Foundation and Doctors Without Borders charities, whilst the youtube page which documents the live runs has clocked up an impressive 100 million views.
Speedrunners compete in different categories such as ‘Any%’ — simply reaching the end of the game as quick as possible, ‘100%’ — reaching the end of the game and picking up all collectibles, as well as variations on these which stipulate whether the player can use glitches or not.

There are also game-specific categories which add extra challenge or fun to the competition — completing the notoriously difficult Dark Souls series whilst blindfolded, for example. My personal favourite of these is undoubtedly a speedrun category for getting banned from Club Penguin in the quickest time possible.

Often, when an Any% speedrun gets shared to mainstream and casual gamers via platforms like the UniLad Gaming and Gaming Bible facebook pages, the comments are flooded with people complaining about the player abusing glitches in their speedruns.

The detractors are quick to label such speedruns as ‘cheating’, with some branching out into philosophical arguments about how speedruns are not how games are meant to be enjoyed.

For me, it’s the exploitation of what are, in many cases, game-breaking glitches that make speedrunning such an artform. Every speedrunner competing for the world record is acutely aware of the same glitches and uses them too. It’s like watching a 100 metre sprint in which every competitor is up to their eyeballs in steroids; a super-enhanced spectacle in which because everyone is cheating, no-one is.

Furthermore, these glitches aren’t just easy, cheap tricks — they’re almost always significantly harder than completing the game using conventional means. I recently watched a speedrun of a Ratchet and Clank title in which the runner proudly admitted to spending over 100 hours perfecting just one jump glitch on the entire run.

Many such glitches are ‘frame-specific’, which means the relevant button(s) must be pressed during one specific frame; which, for 30 fps games means it must be timed to 1/30th of a second.

Because every game and its mechanisms must be studied and manipulated in completely different ways, each title that players speedrun has its own subculture, with its own history, its own jargon, even its own celebrities.

Yes, Any% speedrunners are mostly not playing the game as it was intended to be played, but this does not mean they’re going against the spirit of gaming.

All gamers fundamentally undergo the same competition: player vs game. Speedrunners simply take this one step further: instead of merely competing against the game in its intended format, they compete against its very mechanics and coding, applying pressure every-which-way until something gives, and they can shave one more second off their playthrough.

It’s easy to not immediately realise how technically impressive and complex world record speedruns are. Each one represents the culmination of what is, in some cases, decades of knowledge gained from the tireless trial-and-error of a group of dedicated runners. Each run is like a fleeting piece of art, relevant only until a quicker run is achieved.

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