The Speedrunning Grind

Words: 2132 Approximate Reading Time: 15-20 minutes

So as a follow-up to last week’s essay, I figured I would talk briefly about my experience and successes with speedrunning Hollow Knight. This will mostly just be a brief story about the slow progress as I learned the route, figured out the tricks, practiced, messed up, and started whittling down my time.

Part of why I wanted to write this was just to share the accomplishment. Having spent maybe close to a hundred hours by this point on learning the run and practicing the tricks, it feels nice to be able to say “this is what I have to show for that time.” The other part is a sort of history. It is a way of showing – at least from my own perspective – the journey that is learning to speedrun.

My own process took about six months. This is probably a long time: I am confident that a person who dedicated more time than I did per week could achieve similar results much more quickly. But like many of us, I had other things to do. Reading, exercising, sleeping, eating, playing other games, streaming, and so on. The amount of time anyone is willing to spend on practice is going to determine how quickly they progress.

And of course, this is an ongoing process. Although I’ve certainly reached a milestone in my journey, I haven’t reached what I consider the “major” milestone – the goal I had set out to complete. So this post is also a chapter within the journey, and not a completed story.

Getting Started

So this isn’t actually my first foray into speedrunning.

Since I’d been watching the Games Done Quick marathons for several years, I’d become interested in a few different possible games to speedrun. In particular, I spent time learning to run Mega Man X. It was a favorite of mine since I was a kid, the tricks seemed feasible for me, and the run wouldn’t take too long. I never really wanted to spend time learning a game that would take multiple hours for each attempt. I think a 7 or 8 hour run is impressive to watch…but it feels just like too much. Even a couple hours seems like a slog.

For a couple months I practiced the various levels and particular tricks. I think I managed to get down to roughly an hour – about double the length of the top times. And then…I just stopped.

So in making another attempt to get into speedrunning, I wanted to make a similar selection. A game I really enjoyed, where the tricks looked tough but still doable with training, and the runs would ultimately take something like an hour apiece – eventually grinding down to 30-45 minutes.

Thus, Hollow Knight. The specific category I had chosen fit the bill pretty nicely – it required a few tough tricks, but I felt confident I could learn them, and the top runs were a little over 30 minutes.

I feel like the choice of game is important, because as much as it might be fascinating to watch speedruns, actually getting into it can feel daunting. Indeed, the amount of time that you’d need to dedicate to learning a run means that it’s very easy to bounce off. After all, I did once already. More than once if you also count the games that I merely thought about learning but never started.

So picking the right game and category – especially something that can keep you invested through the long haul – is an important element. I could potentially understand that the more experience someone has with speedrunning, the easier it is to learn a new game. As such, the easier it is to pick a game that you might not have any connection to. But for starting out, I think stepping back and asking what game you could play over and over and over again without getting sick of it is the question to pose.

The First Few Runs

So now that I’d chosen my game, I needed to learn the route.

Thankfully, there were plenty of resources. Numerous runners had put together slides, videos, and all other forms of tutorials on where to go, what to do, and how to perform certain tricks. Of course, watching all of those things is very different from doing them.

Now there’s a lot of possible ways that we could approach the process of learning. We could, for example, start by breaking the run into pieces and practicing each piece a few times. We could focus on the hardest tricks and get those down fairly reliably.

I did none of that. I watched a run, wrote down two pages of notes on the route, and then just went for it.

The first attempt took about two and half hours.

That was completely unsurprising, of course. Some of the tricks I hadn’t even attempted to learn skipped pretty large portions of the game. And if you aren’t perfectly following the route, then you have to rely on your memory of the game’s layout to guide you back to the proper track. And then, of course, I was playing at the weakest possible state I could be – no damage upgrades, minimum health, etc. I was as fragile as I could be, and so I died a lot.

So the name of the game was learning the major tricks. Navigating around the map was losing me a lot of time, so I’d need to practice.

I decided to set my practice goals as follows: each week I would spend 30 minutes per day practicing a particular trick. Just over and over and over again. To begin I had identified three particular tricks that would demand practice. So a three week rotation of practice. And then each Monday I would be streaming full runs of the game.

The practice paid off. By the next week, I was able to get down to about 2 hours flat. And then more practice, and that dropped down to about an hour and a half.

It was at week three that I hit my first wall.

One facet of practicing is the use of modding tools. Being able to save the game at a particular spot, make yourself invincible, warp yourself around the world, and all sorts of other things like that help cut down on the amount of preparation for practice. It’s a lot easier to practice the same segment over and over again if it only takes a few seconds to get back to the setup, rather than five or ten minutes.

The problem I ran into is that some of the tools I was using also interfered with one of the tricks I was attempting. Specifically, it made performing the trick easier. To the point that I started succeeding pretty quickly, and feeling confident that I could perform it during my next run.

But during the run, things weren’t working properly. After a few attempts I gave up and resumed as normal, but I would only learn afterwards that my mods had given me a false impression of how the trick worked. Basically all that practice had gone down the drain, because I still didn’t know what I was doing.

Nevertheless, I was still able to get down to a little over an hour as my best time.

Setting Goals and Making New Plans

At the end of those first few weeks, it also became clear that I was running into an additional problem. There were a few bosses I had to defeat throughout the run, and those bosses weren’t particularly easy – especially at such a weak state.

So now on top of my rotation of practicing those three tricks, I had to do a rotation of practicing those bosses. It started with just two bosses, and then turned into three. My goal would be similar to practicing the tricks – on a given practice week I’d fight the boss ten times per day, working on learning their movesets and how to react (and eventually learning how to be more aggressive so I could finish the fights more quickly).

That all went fairly well, except with the third boss. Again, the various mods got in the way of practice, though at least this time around it wasn’t a complete waste.

Regardless, the effort was bearing fruit. Soon I was able to get under an hour. The next big hurdle was 50 minutes.

Unfortunately, at that point I went on vacation and couldn’t play Hollow Knight on my laptop…so my skills started to rust. It took a couple weeks after my return to get back to that spot again. But eventually I did, and for a little while I managed to get under 50 minutes. I was now aiming at the first big goal I had set: 45 minutes.

To step back for a moment, when I had first started out on this journey, I had to make a goal for myself. What was I going to be “satisfied” with? When would I say that this whole journey was a “success”? That’s obviously a false framing – learning to do the route and the tricks at all would be a success. But where was I going to put the finish line?

I knew that aiming for the world record was out of the question. Hell, even getting among the very top times was not feasible. If I am physically capable of it, I lack the patience and willpower for the task. Otherwise, it’s just going to be too hard for my poor hands.

So that was out of the question. What next? While a bit arbitrary, I had originally decided that 45 minutes would be my goal. If I could get a time under 45 minutes, that would be “success.” I figured that process would take numerous months, maybe even a year.

However, after my first few runs the times started dipping down pretty quickly, as you can see from my story. Enough so that 45 minutes felt like “calling it” too early. I would still be proud of that accomplishment, but I could do better.

The new goal became 40 minutes. Still a good deal slower than a really good time, but amazingly close all things considered.

So as I crept closer and closer to 45 minutes, putting in more and more practice, I was getting anxious. With a personal best of over 46 minutes, it was looking like it would take just a few more weeks and I would clear that hurdle.

And then I had a run where everything seemed to be going perfectly. I was executing tricks without struggle. Fights were going quickly.

That led to a new personal best of 42 minutes and 46 seconds. A massive accomplishment, and my first run under 45 minutes. That became my internal marker for “I’m a speedrunner, now.” I clipped the run, and submitted it. In an incredibly competitive category like that, it’s not an amazing time. But it still feels amazing because it is the product of so many months of practice.

And the chapter mostly ends there. I have achieved a new personal best of 42:21, but getting under 40 minutes is still going to take time. The big leaps are no longer possible. Now it’s just sitting down and practicing movement. It’s time to optimize. Shaving off a second here, a couple seconds there. Changing the language settings. All those tiny things that make watching a top runner almost artful.

Concluding Remarks

So this story marks the positive part of my journey. Obviously there were some hiccups here and there, but I was able to keep persevering. Doing slightly better week after week.

But reaching that stage also comes with drawbacks. The highs of success get fewer and farther between. Not necessarily because the amount of time you’re saving is so small – though that certainly factors in. Rather, because you have so little room for error, you become less likely to beat your previous time each run. So many things can go wrong that prevent you from succeeding, and the better you get, the more painful those barriers become. It also doesn’t help that sometimes you need to rely on the inherent randomness of the game to get you past some of those hurdles.

So there’s also a bit of a dark side to the journey. I am – at time of writing – on a brief hiatus from practice. Getting burned out on the process is easy, and it has happened to me. While I still have those goals, I wanted to at least share how that burnout can play out. So in the next essay I’ll be going over the story of how I got so tilted that I realized I just needed to stop for a while.

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