One night not too long ago, I found myself sitting in a darkened room, huddled over my computer screen with a friend, watching one of the most incredible displays of talent I’d ever seen in my life. It wasn’t an incredible parkour athlete, stunt expert or dancer like you normally find on YouTube. No, it was a video of someone playing Battletoads – a game that almost killed us with frustration as kids – damn near perfectly, beating every single soul-crushingly difficult level of the NES brawler in a cool 34:17. Hooked on my first experience, I hungrily searched for more games – especially old NES favorites that I thought I was pretty good at – and watched with rapt attention well into the wee hours of the night.
That was my first baby step into the dazzling world of speedrunning, the practice of beating videogames at breakneck speeds. There’s an entire subculture of gamers who live to break existing records and improve their runs to the absolute limit of possibility. They use technical-sounding tricks like “sequence breaks” and bizarre, hard-to-find glitches, and they train with their prescribed games for weeks, months, even years on end. They’re a bit like elite marathoners, but instead of giant thighs and muddy shoes, they train with joypads and video cameras.
Among my gaming brethren, I’m not exactly what anyone could call “stalwart.” When I become frustrated by a game, I generally either hurl my controller at the floor or turn off the game immediately, never to return. Occasionally, I do both. That’s partly why I was so attracted to the idea of speaking with a few of these guys, cherry-picked through my own unscientific method of watching runs googly-eyed and writing the player with an interview request.
Speedrunning is not exactly a happy-go-lucky vocation – it takes ridiculous amounts of time, patience and experimentation to find optimal routes through each game. That means thousands of deaths, hundreds of foiled trial runs and reams of paper on which to plot routes and jot down notes. It takes serious determination and guts – and sometimes, a few extra controllers.
Across the board, every runner I spoke with for this article would fit the psychological profile of the ideal Cold War-era spy: strategic, cunning, smart and extremely patient. Above all else, they’re perfectionists. “I love problem solving and challenging myself intellectually, and I’ve always found that discovering the nuances and intricacies in any particular videogame engine to be a fantastic way to do this,” says Cody Miller, a runner known for his impressive Halo 2 record. “I’ve always strived to not just finish,” he says, “but to discover and master every aspect of the games I play.”
Similarly, Freddy Andersson (an old-school runner with the reigning Contra record) is strategizing before he even reaches the end of his first play-through of a game: “I cannot deny that I am mostly thinking about how to ‘run’ a videogame already before I complete the game and sometimes already before I buy the game,” Andersson says. “I am very goal oriented.”
They pick games that they love – or games that they feel will challenge them – and then hit the books, plotting routes, researching the tricks of past records and playing through trial runs until their strategies begin to take shape. But while there’s a studious quality to their training, they’re certainly not alone in their endeavors.
There’s a healthy amount of team spirit in the larger speedrunning communities, like Speed Demos Archive, Mario Kart 64 Player’s Page and High Speed Halo. “I’d say there’s a lot more collaboration than competition. We’re just too nice!” says Mike Uyama, a site administrator at SDA and avid runner himself. “Having said that, runs are improved on a regular basis, but it’s usually months or years until a run is improved. Competition exists, but it’s not direct head-to-head competition, so you don’t feel it as much as with a fighting game or a first-person shooter.”
New records are a cause for celebration – and often come with sincere acknowledgments to the previous champion. Perhaps it’s why most runners don’t actually turn pro, despite their obvious skill. “I know a couple of runners also play fighting games or first person shooters on a competitive level, but I don’t know anyone who has gone pro,” says Uyama.
“One of the big differences between speedrunning and other forms of competitive gaming is that speedrunning is mostly memorization, patience and execution, whereas competitive gaming also requires you to read your opponent,” Uyama continues. In other words, the only real enemy in this world is time.
Each game requires a different approach, and it’s certainly true that titles from different generations have very distinct design philosophies that require wildly different tactics to master. Most runners have their own unique methodologies, but from what I gathered, there’s really only one secret ingredient to speedrunning success: superhuman levels of patience.
“Often you have to memorize everything if you want the speedrun to be very good. And then you have to calculate which risks you should take and which you should not,” says Andersson. “I would like to say that I am not a superhuman, but I do have a lot of patience. Sometimes it is tiresome to [keep] playing a game over and over again. But overall I love what I am doing … I love finding a new strategy and breaking barriers. I love seeing myself getting better and better.”
Pablo Bert is the man behind that incredible Battletoads run that led me down this particular rabbit hole in the first place. “Battletoads is a very difficult game, I won’t lie,” he says. “It drove me nuts as a child, just like everybody else. However, it isn’t as hard as people think. All one needs to master it is a world of patience. Once you learn all of the patterns and traps, it’s just a matter of putting it all together.”
Unlike my tendency towards controller-throwing tantrums, each of the guys I spoke with had a Zen-like approach to dealing with frustration. “I can handle stress very well. It’s rare that I get frustrated,” Andersson says. “I never throw my controllers on the floor or scream out loud. For some records, I have to accept 2000 deaths, and I know that already when I am starting. It is important to never give up if you want to do something more than ordinary. You have to fight for it.”
Bert was able to conquer Rare’s amphibian torture device without driving himself crazy by exercising some restraint. “The way that I deal with the stress is simply to not overdo it. Yes, you must practice a lot to be able to master anything in life, but just pace yourself so you don’t burn yourself out,” he says. “These are games, so try to have as much fun with them as possible, even for the 10,000th run through. For me, I was able to achieve this by limiting myself to one try per day.”
Cody Miller set the Zen bar even higher when he spoke of his failures during training: “It’s not frustrating, because the process is fascinating to me. It’s a learning opportunity, and you’re still learning right up until you nail the run. If you fail, there’s a reason you failed. It could be because you didn’t understand the game as well as you thought. It could be because you weren’t psychologically prepared. Either way, failing gives you an opportunity for further exploration. Just playing at that level is enjoyable, so even if you fail, it’s not like your time was wasted.”
Perhaps the most important question of all never even needed to be asked. Why? I wondered at the beginning, as the initial shock of seeing my old favorites spanked so thoroughly had worn off. Why would you put yourself through that? I thought, as I marched through that first night, equally enthralled and confused by the talent on display.
It’s obvious to me now why speedrunners practice their craft. They’re the videogame equivalent of obsessive mountaineers – the folks who need to conquer K2 and Everest and all of the peaks that scrape the stratosphere. Some do it for love, others for the competition and still others for the glory of knowing that they’ve achieved a kind of sublime mastery over their chosen world. It doesn’t even matter that Battletoads leaves the player with “the crappiest ending ever” according to Bert – because his was the sweetest victory of all.
Danielle Riendeau is a freelance writer, college professor and avid runner (of the physical sort) who hails from New England. You can find her musings on games, life and geek culture at GameShark.com, Gamertell.com and Logo Online.