Welcome back to AVQ&A (Gameological edition), where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at email@example.com.
This week’s question comes from Gameological’s own assistant editor, Matt Gerardi: Speedrunners dedicate themselves to not just playing but decimating games, working with and competing against other similarly minded speed demons to find the fastest route through their chosen specialties. The runs they produce are often riveting displays of skill and the exploitation of a game’s deepest, darkest, buggiest secrets. Let’s pretend you have the time and wherewithal to dedicate toward thoroughly mastering a game’s idiosyncrasies to the point where you can finish it in a fraction of the intended time. If you had to pick one game to speedrun, which would it be?
Anthony John Agnello
I’ve always admired speedrunners’ willful denial of the way things are supposed to be. I’ll never forget the first time I saw someone “sequence break” (doing something well before you’re supposed to in the game’s intended progression) Metroid Prime, goosing Samus’ dodge maneuver to hurl themselves upward to the double-jump upgrade hours before they normally would. That game is symbolic of the inherent malleability of Nintendo’s best games when it comes to speedrunning—Metroid Prime is as bendable and fun to defy as The Legend Of Zelda and Super Mario 64. If I were to train up to conquer the world record of a game, it would be a Nintendo classic that can’t be tricked in quite the same ways: Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! There’s no skipping ahead, but you can take advantage of specific frames of animation to put chumps down. Perfectly running Punch-Out!! in less than 20 minutes, though, requires not just a bit of luck but also perfect precision when it matters most. Play it just right all the way until the end, and then you have to finish Tyson himself off in just one round. It can be done. It’s been done. But some weird part of me thinks it would be romantic to do it better.
I would speedrun Super Meat Boy, because the game is practically designed for speedrunners. In my experience, every level of this reflex-driven platformer is tuned so that if you go as fast as you possibly can, the rhythms of the spinning sawblades and searing lasers will line up just right so that you can zoom on through. It’s like the hallway of dripping acid at the end of Mega Man 2, in which you can emerge unscathed simply by running full speed ahead. The difference is that once you know that trick in Mega Man 2, it’s easy to execute. Super Meat Boy never becomes easy. But with snappy controls and buttery, fluid motion physics, Meat Boy feels fantastic to play once you master even a small portion. To master the whole thing would be a true kinetic pleasure—a handsome reward for the effort of etching the whole quest into my muscle memory.
Part of the reason I’ve yet to try to speedrun a game is that it seems kind of disrespectful, at least for why I play games. You’re not in it to experience a story or get lost in a world; your entire purpose is to break a game and bend it to your will, to declare your dominance over it like the biggest punk in the school yard. If I were to speedrun a game, it would be one that had earned such disrespect—one that was truly worthy of my scorn. I would speedrun Battletoads. Like a lot of kids who had an NES in the ’90s, Battletoads confounded me. The game wanted me to think it was so cool, only to have me pound my face into stone slabs on a high-speed hover bike, fall off of a giant metal snake into a bottomless pit, and be repeatedly stabbed by genetically engineered razor-ravens with impossibly small hit-detection boxes. That game broke so many of my friends, and I would return the favor. If you make Battletoads crumble before your feet, ain’t no game gonna mess with you ever again.
The idea of playing a game as fast as I can has never really interested me. (I like Derrick’s use of “disrespectful.”) I think I’d have to ignore too much of what I like about video games to play like that. However, the one aspect of speedrunning that does impress me is the way you have to execute every little thing perfectly. To that end, if I were to speedrun something, I’d want it to be a game where pulling everything off according to plan would make me feel like the most awesome guy in town. Something like Metal Gear Solid 3, where I could sneak in, destroy the nuclear missile-equipped tank thing, kill my old mentor, and then get out without ever being seen. I’d map guard movements, I’d catalog all of the important resources I need to scavenge for, and I’d consider every step I need to take before even hitting the start button. In a nod to sequence breaking, Metal Gear Solid 3 even lets you kill one of the bosses early with a well-timed sniper rifle shot, so I could be in and out of Russia in only a couple hours if everything went right. Even fewer if I skipped the cutscenes.
Speedrunning isn’t an act of “disrespect.” It’s the highest act of adoration you can bestow on a game. It means immersing yourself as deeply as possible, learning how to exploit a game’s every trait and intimate secret—both the ones intended by its creators and the mistakes that slip through the cracks. To so thoroughly master a game with the complexity of something like Dark Souls takes incredible devotion. Its world is sprawling and interconnected with discrete areas winding back around on one another. That design is practically an open invitation to experiment and to approach its challenges out of order in a way that would crush someone who’s taking a leisurely stroll through Lordran (as leisurely as you can get in Dark Souls, anyway). But a “runner” knows how to bend the rules far enough in their favor to negate that extreme difficulty, and the best part is, all of the necessary little tricks are built right into the game. They’re out there in the open, and with enough knowledge, it’s a reasonable challenge to learn a route that’s fast, efficient, and nets you all the items and weapons you need to become a lean, mean demon-slaying machine. Actually pulling it off is another story.