On Speedrunning

A while back I decided to start speedrunning.

To begin the story, I started streaming last year. It had always seemed like a fun way to share games, so I put together a basic setup. As part of that endeavor, I made a promise to the few friends who at that point were tuning in: when I reached affiliate (a fairly easy task, as long as you just keep at it), I would begin speedrunning a game on stream.

Admittedly, this story makes it seem like a promise for the purpose of drawing attention, when really it was just as much for me. I’ve been interested in speedrunning for a long time. I used to watch a lot of the Games Done Quick events back in the day, and even after stopping now and then I would still watch speedruns for games that I had already played and wanted to see how they could be broken open. There’s something fascinating about speedrunning itself, and of course the charities that GDQ raises money for are worth supporting.

So once I did, in fact, reach affiliate status, I began the process. I would be running Hollow Knight, playing in a specific category: (effectively the current patch) No Major Glitches. Meaning that I would be trying to beat the game as quickly as possible without doing things like warping through walls. This probably started somewhere around mid-October, give or take. Time seems to blur after a while.

I figure I would share a bit about the experience of learning a speedrun and slowly whittling down the time. As well as some of the frustrations that I sense are pretty natural to the process. But for this essay I just wanted to talk about speedrunning as a concept. Why is it so interesting? What makes it feel like a massive accomplishment?

Skill and Dedication

From the outside looking in, the obvious answer to why speedrunning is impressive is that it looks cool. Often we’re watching someone play a game that we know well, and they are performing tricks we might never have thought possible. Or performing tricks that shouldn’t be possible, were it not for some quirk in the game’s design.

But even games that don’t involve lots of neat glitches and skips can still be interesting to watch. Because what a speedrun really shows off is a level of skill and knowledge with the game that greatly surpasses anything we cultivate in our everyday playing. We might think we’re good, but speedrunners can take it to an entirely different level. Because, of course, they aren’t just working to beat the game quickly…but to do so consistently. So they’ve put in hours upon hours upon hours of practice to build up that muscle memory.

Which is something that also makes speedrunning just a bit more impressive: how effortless some people make it look. If you ever watch a GDQ event, you’ll likely see whoever is running a game offering commentary, explaining tricks or just making jokes. If you’ve ever tried to carry on any kind of conversation while playing a game, you probably have experienced the struggle of literally trying to focus on two things at once. And how at least one of your activities needs to suffer: either you start messing up in the game, or you forget what you’re talking about. For someone to effectively describe what they’re doing in clear language while pulling off difficult tricks is a testament to how much skill they’ve developed over weeks, months, or years of practice.

On top of the skill, though, is the knowledge. Even if you watch someone pull off a trick and think “I can do that,” you’re likely to struggle unless you actually have some sense of what’s going on behind the scenes. Why does this trick work? Likewise, the purpose of speedrunning is to find the fastest route through the game…but what is the fastest route? Why do runners take one pathway, rather than another? If they’re playing a bigger game, why do they skip some items but not others? Understanding why the routes are the way they are is just as important as the memorization itself.

The knowledge that you need to accumulate about a game in order to know how it works and how you can get to the end as quickly as possible is itself impressive. The tricks now involve more than just copying – you have to have some sense of what you’re doing so that you can pull off those tricks consistently. And that knowledge, of course, is something that can be shared with others. Which not only makes the tricks impressive, but allows viewers to feel like they’re learning something.

Speedrunning is not merely a matter of skill, but a potentially educational experience.

Speedrunning and Community

Speaking of education, it’s worthwhile to talk about the role of community in speedrunning.

Theoretically, you could start up a game, plan out a route, and then work from there to optimize your runs until you achieve the best possible time you can. You can do speedrunning entirely on your own.

But you probably shouldn’t. At the very least, your best personal efforts are likely to yield a pretty slow time, no matter how much work you put in.

Instead, the way most people learn to speedrun – or optimize their runs – is through working together with others. Every game involves a whole host of bugs and skips and different paths that need to be discovered and tested and theorized and tested again. It’s through this continually updating process that skill and knowledge is collected together into this giant pool. Ideas are shared, people discover tricks, people discover better or more consistent ways to pull off those tricks, better routes are found, and all of this knowledge is spread throughout the internet to be picked up by others.

Speedrunning would be possible without all of this community organization, but it would not be nearly as successful – and runs would not be nearly as fast. It is the collective puzzle solving that goes on that drives down the time and allows people to know what a really good run looks like…and thus how we can optimize our own runs.

There is admittedly a focus on individuals when it comes to speedrunning. After all, when you watch a run, you’re watching one person’s run. And of course, we’re usually not focused on just any person, but the top runners – especially the person who holds the world record in a category. In some sense, that focus leaves out all of the communal effort that goes into making that run possible. All of the information and routing and tutorials that are made by others. All of the attempts that were tried and then re-tried and then abandoned to discover how to get to the end as quickly as possible.

It feels like a real appreciation of speedrunning should begin not with the individuals, but with that community. Specific people are often noted for their contributions – those who first discovered certain tricks, for example. But if we are only fascinated by individuals without seeing the influence of that community, then we are missing not simply a piece of the picture, but perhaps the greatest part of that picture.

Concluding Remarks

In the next couple weeks I’ll share some stories from my own attempts at learning to speedrun. And since this is an ongoing effort, I’ll share more stories at future points. Even if you personally don’t plan to try speedrunning a game, perhaps those stories will help you feel some sense of vicarious joy and sorrow. An opportunity to share in the triumphs and sorrows.

That said, I will say I’ve been enjoying the process. I would suggest for anyone who has ever been curious to give it a shot. To pick a game that you enjoy, that you think you’d want to learn to speedrun, to watch some videos and look up some tutorials, and then give it a shot. Pick a time that you’d like to aim for, and then work on getting under that time. Work bit by bit to skim a few more minutes or seconds off, practice tricks, and figure out how to optimize so you can reach that goal.

And once you go through that process, you will likely have a newfound appreciation for that game. You will certainly have learned a lot about it that you likely never knew before.

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