Play faster, play weirder: how speedrunning pushes video games beyond their limits | Games
In the summer of 2017, gamer Beck Abney was sitting in his bedroom playing Mario Kart 64. What happened next has been described as one of the greatest achievements in video game history. Many doubted that it could even be done at all.
He was trying to perform one of the most difficult problems in the game: the Weathertenko, a trick that, if done correctly, can complete a full turn of the Choco Mountain stage in just a few seconds. Doing it once requires immense skill, but Abney wanted to do it three in a row, a feat never before achieved in recorded history. And he wanted to do it incredibly fast.
He had been trying unsuccessfully since August, broadcasting on Twitch for hours almost every day, to his 27,000 subscribers. It was now in October. His attempts numbered in the thousands. It wasn’t until his 26,461st attempt that he made history.
His feat shook the world of speedrunning. Songs have been written about what happened; songs with lyrics like, “You can’t tell me what I can and can’t do, I don’t need to listen to you anymore, I just wanna play on my Nintendo, I just wanna hit the Weathertenko.”
Speedrunning is the art of playing video games as fast as possible. You can speedrun any game – all, or just sections of it. Some world records are incredibly short, like Abney’s, taking only seconds. Others can last for hours. On the internet, they are studied, analyzed and discussed by a thriving community of people who, like me, rejoice in seeing games pushed and warped beyond their limits.
I was drawn to the speedrun via YouTube. In the physical world, history has been recorded by greats like Herodotus or Yuval Noah Hirari. In speedrun, there is Summoning Salt. Named after mispronunciation of ingredients from a 30-year-old box of Heinz Spaghetti Hoops, he’s a YouTuber whose meticulously researched video essays tell the stories of speedrunning across different games.
Watching his account of the events of Choco Mountain for the first time was like stepping into a new world. Although I knew of its existence, I had never shown the slightest interest in speedrun before. Now I was introduced to a whole different way of playing, where video games ceased to be things to play, and instead became structures that could be torn down and rebuilt on a whim, all in the name of the game. speed.
One day, game designer Bennett Foddy was streaming on Twitch as he watched a speedrun from his game, Getting Over It With Bennet Foddy. You play as a naked Greek seated in a metal cauldron, which moves by swinging a large hammer. While he was watching he started to think on the relationship between speedrunner and game designer, noting that in many ways they existed as polar opposites.
“A game designer painstakingly carves a beautiful wooden sculpture,” he said. “First, chisel it out of a rough block. Then gradually round off the rough edges. Make sure it works when viewed from any angle.
“The speedrunner takes this sculpture and examines it carefully, top to bottom, from all angles, and understands it deeply. They appreciate all the work that has gone into the design. Any strengths or weaknesses. And then, having understood it perfectly, they break it on the knee.
The most popular place to download speedruns is the online leaderboard speedrun.com, a gigantic library which, at the time of writing, is serviced by 891,452 people. On it, the speedruns are grouped into categories. Some of them are simple. The two most popular categories are the “100%” category, where you have to complete the game completely, and “Any%”, where you can finish by completing as much or as little as you want.
But beyond that, the categories quickly become absurd, and the speedrun begins to unfold like a pixelated flower. In the game “Mike Tysons Punch-Out !!”, for example, there is a race where you play blindfolded, relying on muscle memory and a rote understanding of the game’s mechanics.
For those who like fleshy demonstrations, a race exists in Super Mario Odyssey where you have to expose the Italian plumber’s nipples as fast as possible by earning enough in-game currency to purchase a pair of swimsuits.
Yes it’s true: it’s “Nipple%”.
You are not limited to the existing categories: each speedrunner can conjure up their own mountain to climb. Recently Australian comedian and speedrun innovator Tom Walker invented a race in Grand Theft Auto IV called “Gervais%”, where the end goal is to reach an in-game TV that shows Ricky Gervais’ stand-up with motion capture.
For me, speedrunning is a demonstration of the best side of the internet, a welcome relief in an often horrible place. The best world records are achieved by individuals, but are held together by the glue of the community.
As the lowest percentage of YouTuber says, “For every trick you see in a speedrun, there is a person behind the find. A whole itinerary is often dependent on years of discovery ”. Optimization takes place over the years and passes through many hands. Taken as a whole, they have built a vehicle that frequently achieves the impossible, in his quest for perfection.