Bethesda Softworks' Morrowind roleplaying game has a main quest storyline intended to last 60 to 80 leisurely hours. But if you play Morrowind as fast as you can, how long does the main quest actually take, start to finish? Go on, guess. Guess low.

Seven minutes, 30 seconds.

How? Using the 35-step method detailed in July 2005 by Vladimir "Knu" Semenov on the Speed Demos Archive, create an orc Barbarian with the Steed birth sign. At the game's start, steal a limeware platter, complete the Sellius Gravus ring quest, buy an ax and two Scrolls of Almsivi Intervention, get three Scrolls Of Icarian Flight - actually, you need 25 scrolls and a bunch of other junk, so let's skip a bit - head to the Red Mountain and the citadel of Dagoth Ur, sleep for 24 hours, go berserk, kill the god using seven Scrolls of Elemental Burst, and hit the Heart of Lorkhan five times with Keening.

Really, it seems so obvious once you hear it.

This is a speedrun, a full-on dash through all or part of an electronic game as fast as possible. The Speed Demos Archive documents jaw-dropping speedruns for hundreds of games, including Half-Life 2 (1 hour, 36 minutes, 57 seconds), Deus Ex (1:29:02), Baldur's Gate 2 (1:11:37), Diablo (0:53:13), Jedi Knight: Dark Forces 2 (0:34:03), Quake II (0:20:33), Super Mario 64 (0:19:47), Metroid (0:18:35) and Fallout (0:09:19).

Read these times aloud to someone who knows the games, and get ready for a loud "Nuh-uh!" But there's proof for all of them: saved games and AVI movies presented by proud runners at the top of their game.

The comprehensive Wikipedia speedrunning entry describes the formidable techniques runners use to push these games to their limits: sequence breaking (finding necessary items earlier than the designers intended), glitches (exploiting errors in a game's physics or level design), emulators (programs used for controversial "tool-assisted" runs), staggering skill and tremendous ingenuity and persistence.

Using this toolbox, these game mechanics tear apart published games to uncover secrets not even the designers knew were there. Their efforts have propelled the field in new and unexpected directions at (it need hardly be said) top speed.

The Starting Gun
The precursors of speedrunning include blitz chess and speed checkers. Competitive videogame play dates back to the first computer game, Spacewar; Stanford University held "Spacewar Olympics" in the 1970s. But the first recognized speedrunners were commercial game publishers' own Quality Assurance testers, employees who played the games from their earliest stages of development. By the time the games became final release candidates, testers could race through the games practically on automatic.

The 1992 Origin RPG Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss was designed to take at least 60 hours to complete. The lead tester could finish the entire game in 47 minutes. He found shortcuts the designers had never imagined. For instance, at one point the player must climb a tall mountain, and then return to the bottom; the Origin tester saved time by committing suicide at the summit, knowing he'd be reincarnated at the mountain's base. He never paused to upgrade his weapons or armor, because he could dispatch all foes with his humble standard sword. One Underworld designer said of him, "It was like watching a samurai."

In 1993, DOOM brought speedrunning to the net. DOOM players could record their runs as small LMP files ("demos") for others to replay. In 1994, Christina "Strunoph" Norman, a math student at the University of Waterloo, enshrined the best demos on her LMP Hall of Fame website (now defunct). Frank Stajano established DOOM Honorific Titles to recognize different achievements, such as Tyson (completing any level at UltraViolence difficulty with 100% kills using only fists, chainsaw and pistol) and Pacifist (completing a level without harming any monsters). A community of DHT competitors arose on English player Simon Widlake's site COMPET-N. The site tracked demo records for the DOOM and Quake series for over a decade, and it remains up (if neglected) today.

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