FEATURE: Speed Freaks
Speedrunning – completing a game as quickly and skilfully as possible, within a competitive context – may be all about getting faster, but it’s based on community spirit, not individual glory.
Speedrunning is an odd pastime. If there were a gaming Olympics, it would be all of the individual track and field events combined with an extra-long marathon, and make mere decathletes look like wimps. The concept is relatively simple but the variations and possibilities within it have created one of gaming’s most diverse subcultures.
That diversity spreads out from one fundamental schism. There are two distinct camps in speedrunning. The first, ‘regular’ speedrunning, is dedicated to running a game as quickly as possible using whatever tricks and glitches can be exploited within its engine. There are a multitude of variations on this theme, from completing a game with all items and secrets found to completing it with as few items as possible.
The second, and the most recent, is tool-assisted speedrunning, or TAS. Typically dedicated to older games that can be emulated, TAS runners aim to complete a game as quickly as possible using frame-stop techniques and often otherwise inaccessible bugs. On one team, runners dedicated to cracking a game from the inside using whatever tools it gives them; on the other, runners dedicated to breaking it from above by whatever means necessary.
moscallout Remember Alien Vs Predator on the Jaguar? It can be completed in six minutes and 34 seconds./moscalloutThe games used for speedrunning range from Doom and Quake to Mighty Bomb Jack, Kid Icarus, Micro Machines and The Addams Family: the most obscure as well as the most populist are catered for. Remember Alien Vs Predator on the Jaguar? It can be completed in six minutes and 34 seconds. It’s a habit that speedrunners share with the writers of FAQs: the desire to work out games that aren’t Quake, Tomb Raider or Final Fantasy VII. And though there are central titles that have retrospectively proved to be ideal candidates, which demand a groundhog day perseverance from their players, you can guarantee that someone somewhere will share your love of that obscure classic.
Thanks to this broad church approach it’s difficult to trace the origins of speedrunning to a single game, but Doom was a major forerunner thanks to one particular feature: the ability to record a demo file of your playthrough. An online community quickly gathered around running Doom in various guises that is still going strong. But speedrunning really came to prominence with Doom’s successor, Quake, after Anthony Bailey, a graduate student in computer science, saw a speedrun by one Yonatan Donner, and contacted him to suggest some improvements. Teaming up with Matthias Belz and Nolan Pflug, the quartet behind the legendary Quake Done Quick (QDQ) was formed.
QDQ is a first in many ways, but primarily it was the first speedrun to include ‘re-camming’, whereby the action is watched from somewhere other than the player’s viewpoint, and also the first example of segmented speedrunning, whereby different players contribute different levels of the overall walkthrough. Thanks to the former, as well as some arch one-liners delivered during the dashing, QDQ can also justly claim to be a pioneer of machinima.
Upon its release in June 1997, it became an internet sensation and was carried by several PC magazines on cover CDs. For the first time, speedrunning hit a wider audience. The runthrough of Quake on Nightmare difficulty in 19m 49s was unheard of, yet by September 1997 Quake Done Quicker had improved this run to 16m 35s, and as of this writing the record stands at 12m 23s. Several segments have already been improved upon, and if any game can exemplify the fundamental rule of speedrunning then Quake is that game: you can always, always be faster.
It’s appropriate that one of the fundamentals of QDQ was that it was a community project, as speedrunning in its current form is a community sport. Needless to say, both regular runners and TAS authors have their online presence and there are several speedrunning ‘hubs’: the major ones being the Speed Demos Archive (SDA), TASvideos, Metroid 2002 and Twin Galaxies.