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Speedrunning Video Games: Amazing, Entertaining, Charitable

The wonderful rabbit hole that is Youtube recently recommended to me a new form of video entertainment that I’d never considered: Speedruns in video games. I’ve long been a fan of watching the Grand Finals of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Dragon Ball FigtherZ, and even enjoy watching a few Youtubers play Pokemon TCG Online. But a whole game?

The first one that popped up was a run of Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time that was completed in just over 17 minutes (NSFW due to language, but a fascinating watch!) SEVENTEEN MINUTES, yo. That game took me dozens of hours, no doubt! How is that even possible?!

I watched the insane run and my curiosity grew. I learned that there are different types of speedruns, that there is an entire community of speedrunners, and that there are even entire multi-day conventions dedicated entirely to speedruns.

While I have no desire to attempt any speedruns myself, let me explain why this phenomenon has my attention and appreciation.

Variations on the Theme

Speedruns come in a number of flavors, each with dedicated “runners,” communities, forums, and records. The attempts are usually one of two varieties (though you will see a “Low %” from time to time):

  • Any %. It’s on the tin. You race to the credits as fast as you can, skipping as much as you can.
  • 100%. This usually involves collecting all items, defeating all bosses, or both. Many games will even award you a completion percentage at the end, and runners will determine exactly what is required to achieve 100% and do no more.

Then there are variations on those two themes:

  • Glitchless (Take no advantages of glitches inherent in the game’s code)
  • TAS (Tool assisted)
  • Blind (Speedrunning a game with which you’re totally unfamiliar)
  • Blindfolded (Yep, that’s a thing)
  • Deathless (On the tin)
  • Intended (Just as the game designers wanted you to do it!)
  • New Game + (A new game, but with bonuses carried over from previously completed files)
  • Warpless (No secret warp zones allowed)
  • Race (Two or more speedrunners attempt the same game at the same time with the same win conditions to see who is fastest)
  • And more…

So catching a speedrun of a game might well be like visiting one of those Coca-Cola Freestyle machines where you have your base (say, Ocarina of Time) and your add-ins/ons (Any % Glitchless). There are a lot of combinations! Some speedruns take less than 20 minutes, others require nearly a dozen hours – depends on the title and mode!

Hugely Collaborative and Communal

One of my absolute favorite things about watching a speedrun is listening to the runner give credit or shoutouts to other runners who discovered such and such strat (that’s speedrunner shorthand for “strategy”). Speedrunning is ultimately competitive and collaborative, and both to a very high degree.

And these runners know their stuff in part because they know the history of speedrunning for their game of choice as well as the other runners. That makes them über fans of the game and collaborators within a community with a shared goal. There’s even at least one entire website dedicated solely to that collaboration and competition.

Strategies, exploits, and routes are worked out through thousands upon thousands of shared hours and then combined in a myriad of ways. This also makes speedrunning a bit like solving a puzzle. Which route and which combination of strategies and techniques will lead to the fastest possible time?

And they tweak and test everything to save on seconds: the length of character names, the platform its played on, movement efficiency, the language of the game itself, when and how to skip cutscenes…even memorizing menus and inventory screens to such a degree that they navigate them so fast you can’t tell what they’ve done!

A Metroid Prime runner who is “out of bounds.” He is moving outside of any rendered space within the game – another favorite time-saving strategy of many runners.

But even then, the runner’s work is not done. He or she must then master and execute their plan; sometimes having to hit pixel perfect or frame perfect maneuvers. Even a single failure could cost them precious seconds – or even milliseconds! With dozens if not hundreds of runs of the same type on the same game, they play so fast and with such precision that everything appears to be running on rails – even when they’re performing the most difficult stunts and exploits.

Games Done Quick

Although there are other speedrunning conventions out there, I want to specifically highlight GDQ (Games Done Quick). GDQ’s current iteration is a solid week of non-stop speedrunning. Since its first event in 2010, GDQ has raised over $19 million dollars for various fundraisers; the two largest benefactors being Doctors Without Borders and The Prevent Cancer Foundation, although they’ve also held “one-shot” marathons to raise funds for current event needs like the displaced families of Hurricane Harvey.

Runners do their thing while a couch full of other runners and friends explain the various techniques and glitches and often provide quite a bit of humorous commentary so the runner can focus on his or her task. I personally have found it difficult to watch a speedrun that is devoid of commentary because a sizable amount of my enjoyment comes from the runners explaining what I’m seeing!

Some funds are donated to “unlock” certain goals and challenges for the run-throughs of specific games – everything from the custom name of characters to the type of game (see above) played or added challenges. Other funds come in alongside comments from the donors giving in memory of loved ones lost to cancer or to their favorite runner or game.

So these runners are showcasing their talents for charity’s sake instead of for some accolade on some dark corner of the internet. That is downright admirable; I don’t care who you are.

Your Speedrunning Experience

I invite you to search Youtube for a speedrun of your favorite game and give it a looksy. And before you think, “They’re not playing this game, they’re breaking it!”, remember that these runners love the game they’re running. They’ve got more hours invested in that game than some have invested in their Master’s Degrees (and that might not be an exaggeration at all). The way they love that game might just look different than the way you do, and both are valid.

Even if it doesn’t prove your thing, consider tuning in to the Twitch stream of the next GDQ (SGQD for Summer Games Done Quick, scheduled for June 23-30, 2019) when your favorite game is being run and donate to a good cause for nostalgia’s sake.

Alternatively, you could plug in to the community and give speedrunning a try yourself. Instructional videos abound explaining routes and techniques. The community is not closed or exclusive by any means! You may never hold a world record, but that doesn’t mean you stand to gain nothing by trying.