Speedrunning games, i.e. the practice of completing them in the quickest time possible, has become a popular phenomenon in the industry over the last several years. And why wouldn't it? Much like watching an Olympic athlete attempt to not only best their peers, but set a new world record in the process, speedruns are enjoyable to witness just to marvel at the sheer skill and dedication that goes into them. They've become a new form of performance art. Like a circus, only with less animal cruelty.
But are speedruns actually enjoyable to play? Logic would suggest that they're not. It requires and insane amount of patience, practice, dedication and sacrifice to pull off these awe-inspiring acts. And yet, many speedrunners do enjoy the thrill of chasing that record, no matter how difficult it is to achieve. Some folks climb Mount Everest. Others speed run.
"I don't think there's a speedrunner on earth who would say that they don't enjoy it," says Speedrunner Andrew "Goatrope" Halabourda, who's raced through Halo on and off for the past 13 years - and briefly set a record doing it. "I know that we get that perception because a lot of people get angry on stream, but that's just passionate people... I wouldn't do it if I didn't enjoy it."
For Goatrope, it's like a new difficulty level or an alternate mode that adds a score-chasing component to a game that has none: Fast Mode. "I just love Halo so much that speedrunning gives me a new way to spend more time in that universe," he adds. "It's kind of like a DIY achievement or downloadable content pack. It's just more ways to play the game."
His fellow runners agree.
"I love speedrunning games. It's my favourite hobby," says Super Mario 64 record holder Allan "Cheese05" Alvarez. "I find it an incredible and creative way to express the love for video games."
"I wouldn't be doing it unless I was having fun," adds BubblesDelFuego, whose Fallout 3 record we once covered [though has since been bested]. "My experience isn't ruined because I go through it faster."
"With Fallout 3 you can only do the same quests over and over so many times, so you start to make a new goal for yourself. Like 'let's see how fast I can beat this game,'" he adds.
But is any of this drive fueled by a lust for money? With the advent of streaming, it's not hugely uncommon for folks to make a living broadcasting their digital exploits to a voyeuristic audience. One would think that the most skilled players would rake in the biggest bucks. And yet, that's not really how it works.
"I think you can probably count them on your hands," says Goatrope of folks who make a living as a speedrunner. "There are obviously a bunch of streamers doing it, but speedrunning itself- it's growing, but it's niche enough that you can't quite get the income level that you need to survive on it."
Speedrunner Geoff is one such person who makes a full-time living off streaming with an emphasis on speedrunning, but even he says that speedrunning itself is a small part of what draws people to his channel. "People who support my stream are supportive no matter what I'm streaming, whether it's speedruns or Mario Kart or GTA casual playthrough. I built my community around me vs what I play, I feel," he says. "I think for speedrunning, money is kind of not in the picture. I started speedrunning for three years before I even made a cent off Twitch, so it's always been kind of a personal thing about self improvement.... It's about competing with myself and recreation."
There are exceptions to this, however. Of the runners I spoke to, one said they had a friend who raked in a six figure annual income [in US dollars] through streaming and all they did was speedruns. Another said they'd heard of folks clearing a grand in a night. But these were exceptions to the rule and only occurred on that rare occasion when a new record was about to be set. "When I got the world record for 120 stars, I made the most money I've ever made in that one night," Cheese tells me.
"There's a line between people who are speedrunning to get a good time and people who are speedrunning to be entertaining on Twitch," says Bubbles. "It's all about the personality... If they make their stream more appealing to watch, that's the edge that they have." And Bubbles, by his own admission, doesn't have a showy personality. "I'll reset over and over until I have a good beginning and sometimes I'll just be really quiet until I get that time. And some people just have a very catchy personality that are really easy to keep watching."
This may seem cynical at a glance: that skill is second fiddle to charm when it comes to monetary income, but these folks don't see it that way. In fact, Goatrope, the speedrunner I spoke to who's been doing this the longest, tells me that streaming ultimately made the community a better place.
"I've been speedrunning Halo since Halo speedrunning became a thing in 2004. In 2004 things were much less collaborative, which was unfortunate," he recalls. "People were still friendly and cordial with each other on the forum, but often you would find that people would discover a shortcut or a new technique or something to make their speedrun better, and they would hide it. They would keep it to themselves and just use that trick to grind out a run until they got a really good run using that trick.
"Because back then we didn't have streams. All we had was a video host. And even then it was a struggle to get a host pre YouTube. And even post YouTube there was a 10-minute limit. It was really tough to get information out there. So people would use that to their advantage to get the record and there was very little sharing of strategies among runners.
"But with the advent of streaming, the allure of becoming a popular streamer has outweighed, for most people, the desire to hide strategies. Because if you want to effectively hide something while you're doing record attempts, you'd have to stop streaming. And people love streaming and getting those followers," he adds. "So the problem has kind of solved itself."
All of the speedrunners I spoke to note that they play other games in a casual, non-speedrunning manner too. What's interesting is that there's a big difference between what makes a good game and what makes a good speedrunning game, even within the same series. Stranger yet, in the speedrunning community, bugs are often considered features. They make games more elastic by giving players something to explore and experiment with.
"People don't really like Halo 4 as a game. It's pretty criticised among the Halo community." Goatrope says. "But as a speedrun game it's awesome! It's got tons of glitches. You can go out of bounds, you can break the game, you can get vehicles where you're not supposed to. You can just skip huge chunks. It's really a broken game, which makes it really fun and really skillful because these glitches are not simple to do. You're navigating invisible corridors and doing all sorts of bizarre things that can just insta-kill you at any time." Naturally, he hopes Halo 5 will likewise be a broken, glitchy mess of untapped speedrunning potential.
This exploratory nature of scrutinising a game for its optimal route has an almost academic feel to it as speedrunning scholars take a game apart to see what ticks. But much like the plot of an Indiana Jones film, some things are best left unknown. In Goatrope's case, it took 13 years for the speedrunning community to discover a "bad glitch" in Halo. What's makes a glitch bad, you ask? Randomness, pure and simple.
There are glitches in Halo, discovered only last spring, that can save players several seconds by hopping on a resurrecting enemy's head then bouncing through a wall to bypass a chunk of the level. Dubbed "Flood-bumping", this practice seemed cool at first except there's one problem: the enemies only resurrect 20 per cent of the time. So if you get lucky, you save dozens of seconds. If it don't, you've wasted time.
"All of a sudden you're at the mercy of this random number generator. If you kill it and it doesn't stand back up, you've just lost 90 seconds to a dice roll. When you get really lucky and get a perfect run, it's really, really fast. But the other 99 times out of 100 it's just an exercise in frustration," Goatrope explains. "If the chances were even less, like one out of 20 or one out of 50, it'd be horrible. People probably wouldn't run the game. One guy would get a phenomenal run where he got perfect luck and nobody else would even bother because it's just a waste of time."
When I ask if that's what caused him to quit speedrunning Halo, he laments, "Yeah, I won't lie. Flood-bumps' randomness definitely had an impact on me moving away from the game. I know that the people actively running it talk about how upset they are that it exists. But that's just kind of the nature of the beast, unfortunately."
At the same time, he admires that people are still making these sorts of discoveries 13 years later. A 13-year ride isn't bad! How many games do people play for that long? "There's a fascinating rhythm that you'll find in pretty much every popular speedrunning game," Goatrope says. "All of them have this pattern. People will figure out the route. People gets really good at that route. People optimise it, they get a nearly perfect run of that route, then people say 'okay, we've kind of hit the ball here. Let's do some research... Inevitably somebody finds a new shortcut, finds a new glitch. And suddenly the bar is raised and there's a new race to get the perfect run of the new route... That's what gives such longevity to these games."
While glitches like Flood-bumps can damage a game's speedrunning potential, most speedrunners only run games that they're huge fans of and are able to transition back into playing those games casually. One might think this would be too easy for players who've optimised their routes, but the great thing about speedrunning is that you still have to think on your feet.
"A lot of the levels in the game you can skip massive sections of," Goatrope says of Halo. "There's this whole chunk of levels that I haven't seen in a year or two."
Geoff echoes a similar sentiment about his go-to speedrunning game at the moment, Super Monkey Ball Deluxe. "It's actually just as fun as it was, just in a different way," he says. "Now I'm happy when I beat a level, but the way I beat it is different."
Cheese doesn't find himself able to switch back to leisurely playthroughs as easily, however. "Speedrunning games can suck the fun out of them like I said before, but it can never ruin the game, because there are always new things to learn about the games. The feeling of knowing a game inside out also gives you a great feeling inside knowing that those hours you spent on one game made it worth it in the longrun, especially when you look at previous highlights of your speedruns and see the gradual increase in skill," he says. "Unfortunately, after playing a game for months and months, it's hard to go back and play the game leisurely because you tend to have a speedrunning mindset towards the game, and you can't really focus on the game experience itself. That, I could say, is the only downside of it."
Interestingly, Geoff notes that speedrunning shorter games is actually more frustrating than longer ones. This is because with a lengthier game chances are no one's set a perfect run, so there's more room to mess up.
Geoff fell out of love with Nitronic Rush, because its speedruns are too short - at just under seven minutes - so there's little room for error. "I got tired of resetting the game more than I finished runs," he says. "You couldn't lose more than two or three seconds and make it up." Comparatively, a compiled version of his best runs through sections of Super Monkey Ball Deluxe has a four minute difference with his best single-run time, so he knows there's always places where he can make up for lost time if he biffs it.
Having spoken to several runners and watched several more, my favourite aspect of speedrunning isn't necessarily the display of skill - or even streamer personality if there's commentary - but rather the sense of creativity and flexibility it brings to games. Something like Bloodborne, for example wasn't developed with speedruns in mind. There's no completion time-based leaderboards and its emphasis is on slow, meticulous progression. But watching folks find new ways to meet arbitrary goals adds a whole new dimension to what the developer intended. With rare exceptions, speedrunning isn't about making money or even setting a world record (save for the top players), but is rather about spicing up the relationship between game and gamer by trying something new. It may require blood, sweat and tears, but to those with a mind for it, it hurts so good.