Speedruns ignore story and character for velocity: the gamers who find beauty in speed
Cosmo Wright might be as famous in the gaming community for his painted fingernails as he is for his ability to blast his way through games like Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and The Wind Waker – games for which he holds the world record. Wright is a speedrunner, and he recently shared some interesting insight into this classic gaming hobby and subculture-within-a-subculture with the Report.
Wright and fellow runner Daniel Hart are co-founders of SpeedRunsLive, a website dedicated to the collection and hosting of video game speedruns. A speedrun is when someone attempts to complete a game, sometimes with various goals in place, such as all hidden areas explored, all stars collected, etc., as fast as possible. Wright’s time for Wind Waker, for example, is just over 4.5 hours.
The site, the two men told me, is aimed at creating a home for speedrun competitions, as well as the community at large. That means everyone, from the runners themselves, to the audience who watches their streams. Wright even called out what he referred to as “discoverers,” who may never perform a single run, yet contribute to the community by finding and explaining exploits within the game’s code.
SpeedRunsLive hosts a bevvy of Twitch streams of single user speedruns, as well as races, where multiple users compete simultaneously for the best time. It also features a chat room, a game list of titles with recorded times that numbers in the hundreds, a leaderboard of the top 200 players, and handy list of tools and program extensions for those thinking of entering the speedrun community. There’s even a handy glossary full of relevant speedrun-related terms for the uninitiated.
The one-stop nature of SpeedRunsLive and its focus on livestream competitions places it in a similar position to Riot Games, who just earlier this month made live their own site for League of Legends stat-tracking and stream viewing. I asked Hart and Wright if this was intentional; did they see speedruns as a form of eSports?
“I think they don’t quite fit the same group,” Wright told me. “Speedrunning is kind of separate from that. You can do it from your own home, and there’s no issues with lag or latency. If you can stream, you’re in. It lets there be a larger player base, and that way more people get to participate. It’s sort of like a different format than eSports.”
Hart agreed, but sounded optimistic for the future. “Speedrunning is still kind of obscure,” he said. “But, it’s grown ridiculous amounts over the past couple years. Speed Demos Archive marathons—only a couple years ago they had maybe a couple thousand viewers, this year they had like 50 thousand, and it shows no sign of slowing down in popularity.”
“There are actually people who race for money, and I predict this is gonna become more common as the years go by, people are going to want something on the line when they race. I think racing is where the eSports part of speedruns is gonna be.”
Gotta go fast
Wright got his start as a speedrunner with Ocarina of Time. He described his time playing the game as “a period of discovery,” a statement Hart agreed with. “One of the biggest things speedrunning has taught me is, it’s shown me what matters when creating or designing a game,” Hart said. “I never really understood what makes a game good until I started speedrunning because then you’re putting the game to the test, like, ‘what can this game do?’”
“Super Mario 64 is this really simplistic game when you first play it, but it has infinite possibility for speedrunning, and the fact they could make this game that’s so good for casual playing and has such deep mechanics, the way you move around and such…”
Hart trailed off, and Wright chimed in. “Games where you feel like you have more control and do whatever you want, where you’re not limited… games like that, it seems like there aren’t many of them. Mario 64 is a great example of a game that gives you these options. You can wall-kick off any wall if your timing is good, you can dive around and go really fast, there’s just a bunch of different things you can do.”
Both men agreed that speedruns increase replay value of a given game. A good speedrun necessitates a deeper understanding of the game’s mechanics, and thus forces players to look at it in a new light. By exploring a game’s systems individually, Hart and Wright can deconstruct them and, in a sense, rediscover a game all over again.
So, interested in becoming a speedrunner? Hart and Wright have some tips. First, don’t be afraid of abusing the game. Many speedruns take advantage of glitches and exploits within the game; a “no stars” run of Super Mario 64, for example, is only possible by jumping backwards up the castle stairs, thus gaining enough speed to phase through the doors which normally prevent entry.
Curious as to where the line is between taking advantage of a game and cheating? Wright said it’s all about what the game deems acceptable. “The way we look at speedrunning is that, if you plug in your controller, and you’re feeding your game input, pressing different directions on the joystick, or the d-pad, or pressing buttons… whatever those button presses result in is fair game, because the game is accepting it,” he said.
“I’d compare that to back in the Halo 2 MLG days where people would use different techniques that were not intended, and it becomes part of the game.” Wright pointed to the exploit referred to as “BXR,” where, if players pressed the X button, B button, and right trigger in rapid succession, they could perform what was essentially an instant-kill.
“It’s not intended, but it became a standard way of playing the game, just because that’s how the game evolved,” Wright said.
Second, don’t feel intimidated. SpeedRunsLive is open to players of all skill levels, and a planned revamp of the leaderboard system means people will be able to score themselves in relation to others a bit more accurately. “For a lot of games in the past, people would say ‘Oh, this person’s the best at this game, so there’s no point in me playing this game. I can’t get the record.’ I think that’s a really bad attitude, and I think if we launch this leaderboard thing, people will have pride in being 10th best out of say, 100 people, or being in the top half, or being under a certain time,” Wright said.
“There’s still an appeal to playing a game even if the record is really good, just to see what you can get, and what kind of goals you can achieve. It’s not always getting the record; sometimes it’s just getting a good time and being better.”
Third, practice, practice, practice. Practicing for a speedrun combines the endurance training of a marathon with the knowledge-cram before a science test. You’ll need to redo specific sections over, and over, and over… and over. “When you start out playing a game, you need to just memorize everything,” Hart said. “And when you start practicing, just keep drilling the same parts over and over until you have them where you want them. Then you can start doing full runs of the game, and then you can go back, practice, and improve certain parts.”
“Tons of practice, tons of playing through the whole game.” Of course, the monotony of training can be mentally exhausting. Hart keeps himself motivated by focusing not on the end goal of a specific time, but by taking joy in the knowledge that he’s becoming a better player.
“What I enjoy from speedrunning is self-improvement. I like to get good at it and know that I’m good at it. Not necessarily do I have a really good time or a goal time, I just think, ‘all this work, and look how good I am at this game,’” Hart told me. “When I was playing Mega Man 10, when I got the world record, the only improvement I could make was only from luck. I felt like it wasn’t worth improving if I couldn’t do it through skill and execution. If I’m improving through luck, then it just doesn’t feel good to me.”
Lastly, don’t be afraid to move on. Even Wright knew he had to eventually leave behind the game that got him interested in speedrunning, Ocarina of Time. “At the end of 2011, I had been playing Ocarina of Time a lot, and there’s this category where we beat all the dungeons, and I had the best time for several minutes. I sort of felt like I was done,” Wright said. “I could still push it a little further, but I had no competition at the time and I was several minutes ahead of my next-best competitor, so I stopped playing because I felt I’d accomplished my goals.”
“Some people will keep playing until they… they want to meet their goal time or whatever, do the best run they can possibly do, and I think for a lot of people, that never happens. Any time they beat their own best time they see room for improvement,” he told me. “You could spend years and still not be satisfied. Eventually, you have to figure out where you want to draw the line.”