Since the dawn of time – wait, no. Since pretty much the dawn of whenever games were invented (not as catchy, but probably more accurate), people have been making competition out of playing through games as quickly as possible. It’s a phenomenon that’s been around for at least as long as there have been games with some sort of timed element, and probably even longer, and we know it today as speedrunning.
I’m not a speedrunner. I mean, even games I really love and know well take me probably longer than average to get through because I’ve never really taken them all that seriously. I know how to play the games I love on their own terms, becoming just about good enough at doing the things the game wants me to do in order to progress, but speedrunning is a totally different discipline. In fact, I’m not even sure whether a speedrunner is ‘playing’ the game in the conventional sense. It’s more like they’re playing the programming underneath the surface layer: when a speedrunner (or I suppose, actually, anyone who has a sense of what the game’s code is telling it to do) fights a particular boss, they’re not really interacting with the game’s fictional, created world and characters like I would. I’d be thinking ‘okay, this guy’s attacking so I’ll run, now he’s open so I’ll attack back – ooh, look at those abilities he has because of X plot point’ or something like that: a speedrunner’s thought process is more about hidden values, numbers ticking away in the code that allow them to predict precise timings. They’re able to know what an enemy will do before they do it, allowing them to position themselves in the optimum location to do the most damage as quickly as possible, as opposed to my usual strategy of running like hell and reacting to stuff when I get the chance.
This sort of begs the question of which, if either, style of interacting with a game is the ‘right’ one. I’ve seen it said that speedrunners aren’t really gamers; they don’t care about the game they’re playing, just that they can do it as fast as possible, or they’re willing to break the game’s rules by exploiting things like glitches in order to trick the game into thinking something is other than it ought to be. I’m just going to say right now that I think you can play a game however the hell you want. I don’t think there’s any ‘wrong’ way to play a game, but I do think it’s interesting to consider the implications of the various ways of seeing what a game is, and the differences in how people choose to interact with them.
Let’s start with games that actively want the player to go fast, where a part, if not all, of the goal and the gameplay explicitly revolve around getting from A to B before time runs out (or maybe there’s no limit, but grades are given based on speed). You can see how the idea of speedrunning would have emerged really quickly as pretty much an intrinsic part of the gameplay here; the game’s telling me that my objective is to get through this level as fast as possible, and so that’s exactly what I’m going to do. Where speedrunning probably diverges as a distinct practice from simply going fast as a non-speedrunner is in the use of tricks, glitches, things that the game sort of didn’t intend you to be able to do. This may well be the origin of running categories, with several games having many different records for 100% completion, completion as fast as possible by any means necessary, completion of every intended stage but using tricks to circumvent stretches… there are many ways of reaching the end, put it that way. Each game will have a defined endpoint, whether that be landing the final blow on the final boss or reaching the credits, and it might well be that there are ways of reaching that point without doing an awful lot of the stuff that the game really expected you to have to do first.
So that’s games that are supposed to be done quickly, but which might be able to be done even more quickly than the developers ever expected or intended. Then you’ve got games which aren’t, at least superficially, about speed. I recently stumbled on this video of Bl00dybizkitz running Kingdom Hearts 2, a game I absolutely love but never really thought about doing quickly, and it sparked a new interest in speedrunning in me. KH2 is an action RPG which takes casual players probably something like thirty to sixty hours to complete for the first time: suffice to say that it’s the sort of game that would be difficult to do speedily if you were just sort of trying to play it fast but weren’t specifically using any sort of tricks (if you were playing ‘casually’, basically). I was just astonished to see how BB manipulated the game’s systems to make unbelievably light work of what would usually be stupidly difficult bosses, but his run doesn’t really use any glitches as such. He’s just exploiting the numbers, the way that certain actions trigger little bits of code that cause other things to happen.
For a run that works exclusively on glitchiness, you absolutely have to check out Cosmo’s (now Narcissa; I’ll refer to her here as Cosmo, because that was the name she was using at the time, but I’ll be using female pronouns even though she didn’t transition until later) unbelievable Ocarina of Time run from back in 2013. It’s probably one of the best and most notable runs of all time purely for the commentary, in which Cosmo gives a fantastic account of the entire history of OoT running up to that point and explains exactly what she’s doing in minute detail, making the fact that she’s able to pull it off with such ease even more impressive. It’s only a half-hour video, so I really do suggest watching it, but just to quickly sum up, the main skip Cosmo uses to bypass almost the entirety of the game (!) involves an object with a hidden counter, which she triggers at the single frame she needs while also passing through another object which has a clipping point about an eighth of a degree wide. It’s ludicrous. Anyway, Cosmo brings up a really interesting point while she’s covering the history, which is that there came a point at which someone figured out how to get to the final credits without defeating Ganondorf, the final boss, and this led to some debate about whether it could really be counted as beating the game if you didn’t actually… play pretty much any of the game. This is another reason for categories, in that some will want to exploit every trick there is to get to the final screen as quickly as is possible – even if that means ending the game in under a minute and never actually engaging with any gameplay whatsoever – and some will want to go through the game in a very hasty manner but not use any tricks that mean they’re missing out on actually playing the game.
This leads to a wider point of discussion about what a game actually is, and whether there’s any sort of philosophical distinction to be made between different styles of playing. I’ve already mentioned that I’m not totally sure whether you can call speedrunning of the extreme glitchy type ‘playing’ at all; if you can get to the credits of Pokémon Yellow without ever catching a single ‘mon, facing all the gyms, defeating the Champion… well, that sort of seems like you haven’t really played Pokémon Yellow, doesn’t it? You’ve ‘completed’ it, in some sense, but most people would probably think just on an intuitive level that you need to have had some level of interaction with the mechanics and story, as the game presents them, to be able to say you’ve ‘played’ it. It’s an interesting question: is there a ‘right’ way to play a game? Further to that, is the ‘right’ way defined as ‘the way the developers intended for the game to be played’?
I think the answer to both of those questions is probably ‘no’. There’s no right or wrong way, and if there were a right way it would probably be just whichever way gives you, the player, the most enjoyment. That’s the point of a game, right? To entertain, to be enjoyed? I’d imagine, then, that playing a game however makes you the most happy is the only reasonable way to ensure that the game is fulfilling its raison d’etre. If you like playing Dark Souls by just dying over and over, using the equipment you most like the look of and slooooowly grinding your way to success, then brilliant. If you prefer to exploit every trick there is for all they’re worth, cheesing through the entire thing in under two hours, more power to ya.
Games make people happy. Not only that, but they’re a form of entertainment that can be enjoyed however you’d like. A film or a book isn’t going to change depending on how you watch or read it, but the experience you get each time you play a game will be different depending on how you play it, and that’s a really cool thing. However you choose to enjoy games, I just think it’s awesome that you’re having a good time.