Speed kings

Publication date: 19 March 2011
Originally published 2010 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


There's a Far Side cartoon from the early 90s that depicts "hopeful parents" anticipating, in the far-off future of 2005, numerous high-paying jobs for Nintendo experts like their hunchbacked geek of a son.

The employment market is not yet what you'd call dominated by professional video gaming. And it never will be, unless games expand into some cyberpunkian VR universe with a demand for new, customised game experiences large enough to generate a new class of service job, somewhere between a barista and a session musician.

But there's one tiny segment of the gaming world that's very, very different from the common-or-garden home RPGer (or, yes, teenager shouting sexual insults at other Halo players).

The players in this small community aren't really playing at all, in the recreational sense. Instead, they have the qualities I expect to see in famous scientists and sportspeople.

They'll spend days, weeks, months, honing skills and testing boundaries, swapping notes and ruminating. They'll try again, and again, and again, hundreds of times. And they're seldom satisfied with the result, because competition is hot.

And thus far, they do all this for free. As a hobby.

I am, of course, talking about speedrunners - people who strive to get through a game as fast as possible.

Maybe just getting to the end, by hook or by glitchy crook. Maybe doing a "100%" run, in which you get all the gettables and kill all the killables. Even the hundred-percenters often find ways to completely skip substantial chunks of the game.

There are as many kinds of speedrun as there are speedrunnable games. (Un-speedrunnable games, like scrolling shooters where everybody getting to the end always takes the same time, are instead the domain of the "longplay". I think longplays of Stunt Car Racer, Defender of the Crown and other Amiga classics are an excellent choice for party background-TV.) People even do speedruns in turn-based games.

Speedrunning isn't really a codified sport; there are versions of speedrunning that're as different as off-road rallying and slot-car racing. Some speedruns are "tool-assisted", which can mean just using a bunny-hop macro in a shooter (to save yourself from having to bind "jump" to a dizzying number of buttons...), or can mean totally scripted frame-by-frame control of old, emulated games. This latter type of speedrun is more like writing music than playing a game.

But many speedrunners really do play the game with the same gear the rest of us slackers use. They're like playtesters, except possibly even more miserable.

The parallels with other sports come pretty thick and fast. When saving takes time (as it does in the Grand Theft Auto games, for instance), the best way to get a fast aggregate score is by chaining several missions between saves, even if this gives you five consecutive 95% chances of failure. Picking when and how to save is, then, kind of like pit-stop strategies in motor racing. Possibly worse, actually; the speedrunnner may have to solve travelling-salesman problems regarding the start and end locations of missions that can be done in different orders, and further nuisances like missions that have to be done at some particular time on the in-game clock.

And then there's "marathon" speedrunning, with no saves at all, even in games where saving is easy. That's like orienteering. In a live-fire zone.

(A few hardy souls have even tried live speedrunning. That's a combination of sport and theatre.)

There are parallels between speedrunning and playing a musical instrument, too. Perhaps you're trying to stick as completely as possible to a painstakingly-written script; perhaps you're in a more chaotic system where you have to keep improvising. Either way, you need a lot of practice.

All this is a perfectly pointless pursuit, of course, but so's golf, or running a hundred metres faster than any other human, or making a ship in a bottle, or slicing thousands of innocent tatami mats without actually intending to ever slice a human. I for one am a lot more impressed by Daniel "CannibalK9" Burns getting through the whole main plot of GTA San Andreas in a mere six hours and nine minutes than by Tiger Woods doing... whatever it is that he does. (CannibalK9's videos have an excellent commentary track. And the "high quality" download is a mere 3.97Gb!)

That six hours and nine minutes was broken up into only 28 "segments" - play-periods between saves. Even taking the (thankfully few) unskippable cinematics into account, that's well over ten minutes of play per segment. That may not sound like much, but time telescopes when you're playing a game; a ten-minute walk to the real-world shops is no big deal, but ten minutes is an age in most game-worlds. There are eight missions in a couple of CannibalK9's segments. GTA players: Think about how many times you had to load a save and try again, just to do one mission!

The CannibalK9 San Andreas speedrun has many highlights, not least its avant-garde solution to Wrong Side of the Tracks. Bear in mind that in a game like San Andreas or Oblivion that has a skill-training system, speedrunning the game means you'll be doing the difficult stuff at the end with very lousy skills. If the game has level-scaled enemies and copious glitches like Oblivion, this can still give you an 11-minute completion. San Andreas isn't like that.

(CannibalK9 isn't completely insane. Bloody "Learning To Fly" and sodding "Vertical Bird", and several other teeth-grindingly irritating missions - you know, those ones that don't get any easier even if you use a trainer - each have one segment all to themselves.)

Some games are much more "compressible" than San Andreas. The current record for Morrowind, for instance, stands at four minutes and 19 seconds, thanks to shameless exploitation of sequence-breaking glitches. A 100% San Andreas speedrun is in progress as I write this... and has been for some years.

Perhaps the speedrun is a fad that'll fade away to nothing. If it does, though, I wouldn't be surprised if the reason is that all of the good speedrunners really have gotten the high-paid jobs their dedication deserves. It's true that nothing in the world can take the place of persistence; to be a successful speedrunner, you have to be pretty much made out of persistence.

I don't know who's finally going to invent antigravity or Mr Fusion, or bring peace to the Middle East. But that kid who beat Duke Nukem 3D in less than 21 minutes looks promising to me.

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