Speed Thrills

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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It takes little reading on these sites to realize the runners’ seriousness. “A Brief DOOM Demo History,” an article by “Opulent” published in December 2003 on the venerable Doomworld, reverently commemorates an epochal DHT event: “In 1997, Thomas ‘Panter’ Pilger spread throughout the COMPET-N tables like a plague. By August, he was the first to do the third DOOM 2 episode (Map 21-30) on Nightmare skill and was primed for the ultimate DOOM 2 honor, DOOM 2 Schwarzenegger. Almost a year in the making, Thomas ‘Panter’ Pilger finally achieved the impossible by recording all 32 maps of DOOM 2 on Nightmare skill in one demo in 49:49.”

Speed Effects
Is there some deep psychological reason players speedrun? To the speedrunners themselves, their motives are obvious beyond discussion; they’re as transparent, as universal as any desire to excel.

Mike “TSA” Damiani, on his site The Hylia, writes, “The most common question or remark I personally see or am told about speedrunning is, ‘That’s great, but I don’t care because this game should be played slowly and thoroughly to be enjoyed!’ Well, I’ve always sort of laughed at this … Most speedrunners chose a game they know extremely well and enjoy. That means they played the game through normally, explored it and enjoyed it thoroughly. … This is usually how most competitive gaming in single-player games is born – the ambition to do challenges in order to add replay value to a title.”

The joy of speedrunning is interesting, especially in light of designer Raph Koster‘s 2005 book A Theory of Fun for Game Design. Koster conceptualizes fun as the act of learning, of ever-growing mastery over a game’s environment. We conventionally think of this mastery as an encounter with the obstacles devised and set by the game’s designer(s), a tour as structured as a theme park ride. But speedrunners push beyond the designers’ own intentions and understanding. They elevate mastery to a new level. And, many times, they pull the field along in their wake.

In exploiting the holes in game physics engines, speedrunners function as extremely sophisticated bug testers. DOOM was built on a polar coordinate system that let the player move faster along coordinate axes and pass through diagonal openings that would ordinarily be too narrow. Running diagonally (“strafe-running”) was 1.4 times faster than running straight, and firing a rocket at a nearby object would cause you to zoom in the opposite direction. Later shooter games corrected the coordinate and strafe-running errors, but rocket jumping (though originally a bug) proved so fun and popular it remains in many shooters even today.

Over the long term, perhaps the speedrunners’ most valuable contribution will turn out to be their pivotal early role in the development of machinima. Machinima (“machine cinema”) is the art of creating movies in the virtual reality of game engines. The best-known example today is Rooster Teeth Productions’ Red vs. Blue, a comedy series created using the Halo engine.

Some of the earliest machinima consisted of Quake speedruns. Stanford curator and lecturer Dr. Henry Lowood, a historian of machinima and computer game design, writes in “High Performance Play: The Making of Machinima,” “When it was released in June 1997, ‘Quake done Quick‘ demonstrated more than impressive playing skills or the technical wizardry of its makers. It signaled a shift from cyberathleticism to making movies and the emergence of a new form of play.”

“As if to underscore the transition, the Team released two versions of the complete set of speedruns, which lasted nearly 20 minutes after stitching together the individual runs for each level of the game. The first was visually a conventional demo movie viewed from the first-person perspective of the player; the second was the re-cammed movie. The technical performance involved in recording separate demos and patching them together to make either version, all while preserving a smoothly integrated whole, was of course non-trivial. So was the performance itself. As (QDQ team member Anthony) Bailey put it when describing his work on the project, preparation for a perfect speedrun meant ‘trying to understand more about how the engine underlying the game works so that we can turn its little nooks and crannies to our advantage.'”

Racing Ahead
Today, runners in some games have grown so proficient it is hard to appreciate their skills. Watching Quake Done Quick With a Vengeance (the entirety of Quake at Nightmare difficulty in 12 minutes, 23 seconds), you find it difficult just to process what’s happening on screen, let alone understand the cleverness and fabulous precision involved.

But speedrunners still race ahead. There are 9,000 Quake demos on Speed Demos Archive; it would take six weeks to watch them. The pinball and videogame record-keeping site Twin Galaxies tracks championship events nationwide. Runners are exploring new games such as Bungie’s Halo; check out High Speed Halo for a chronicle of obsession. (“Tartarus Battle 2:23: Cody Miller’s Tartarus Battle is taken from his Full Game Legendary No Death run. This is the last few minutes of three and a quarter hours of non-stop Legendary play.”) One running team, DivZero, is even writing a new 3-D game engine specifically intended for speedruns; it’s called HASTE.

Players argue over the merits of emulators and programming tools in speedrunning. Some impressive runs have been revealed as tool-assisted frauds. Finnish runner Joel “Bisqwit” Yliluoma has partly defused the issue with his site TASvideos. (TAS: “tool-assisted speedruns.”) The site, which enshrines tool assists, establishes an unexpectedly arty aesthetic: “Although most of our movies intend to play games as fast as possible (tool assisted speedruns, if you will), with respect to art, our main goal is to create movies that are beautiful to watch.”

The stern and cranky TAS guidelines emphasize entertainment value and self-awareness: “If you have to wait for something to happen (like a boss waking up), you do not need to just stand still. Jump around, do special moves, dance to the music, anything to make the delay less boring. … Do not sleep. You are supposed to be the master of the game, not the slave of the game. Aim for the impossible.”

Meanwhile, some zealots are exploring the newest speedrunning frontier: MMOGs. In late January 2006, after four attempts, a 25-year-old American runner named Bob “Mancow” Norris achieved his goal of advancing a World of Warcraft character from level 1 to level 60 in under five days of online play. He recorded the entire 115-hour marathon; the 65-gigabyte movie fills nine DVDs. On eBay, Norris sells an edited version of the movie, along with an eight-page strategy guide.

In a February 18 Kotaku post, commenters expressed distinctly mixed views of Norris’s achievement.

But speedrunners laugh. The run is the thing. And they keep going, ever faster.

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay, and Looking Glass.

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