In recent years, video games have proven to be a more flexible medium than anyone could have originally imagined. When Galaxy Game, one of the first coin-operated video games, released in 1971, not many would have predicted the booming and malleable industry that it would eventually spawn. Put simply, gaming has evolved beyond the act of merely playing the game. Streaming and esports are both huge entities, proving that there are countless ways to express oneself through gaming. A lesser-known form of gaming expression is the act of speedrunning.
Speedrunning is simple in theory, one must finish a game in as fast a manner as possible. However, in practice, there is so much more involved. The ultimate goal of cutting the amount of time it takes to finish the game is efficiently and relentlessly pursued by the game’s “runners”. To hold a world record, one must become a master of their game’s quirks like efficient movement, dialogue skipping, and game-breaking glitches. That last one tends to be what draws people to speedrunning as a spectator sport, watching your favourite games get broken apart in the interest of saving time is a fascinating spectacle. To put into perspective how important glitching can be, we can compare the staggering difference between how long a casual playthrough takes against how long a speedrun takes in a game like Oblivion.
Oblivion is a role-playing game (RPG) so there is an implication that you’ll be able to squeeze a lot of hours out of a single playthrough. Completing just the main quest will likely take a casual player about 10-15 hours. In comparison, the speedrunning world record is a mere 3 minutes & 20 seconds. This incredible time reduction is a result of a well-known “out of bounds” glitch that is present in each of Bethesda’s games created on the now-defunct Gamebryo engine. If a player rapidly quicksaves and quickloads near a wall, eventually they will be able to force themselves through that wall and out of bounds, allowing them to traverse the map without being bound by the game’s geography. Once this exploit was discovered, the game’s runners began to formulate a route that could make the best use of it.
It’s amazing what you can discover when you access areas the developers never intended you to reach. The end game of Oblivion takes place in the Imperial City’s Temple District, a location within the game. This area is accessible throughout the entirety of the game but it goes through dramatic changes during the climax of the main questline. Using the out of bounds exploit, players discovered that the loading zone that triggers this change is actually a special door which lies underneath a regular door. When a player advances far enough into the plot, the regular door is replaced by the door underneath. However, using the out of bounds glitch, the player can enter the special door immediately. This triggers the final quest to begin, skipping almost the entirety of the game. 15 hours reduced to 3 minutes in an instant. This is the essence of speedrunning.
Of course, while breaking a game so thoroughly is interesting, sometimes it isn’t very exciting. This is why run categories exist. The no-holds-barred approach talked about above is known as “Any%”, which means reaching the end of the game through any means available to the player within the confines of the game. For some games, this actually isn’t the most competitive category. Oblivion is one of these games. The most exciting and popular category of Oblivion is “No Out of Bounds” which forbids the usage of the aforementioned glitch. This run is approximately 25 minutes long and makes use of the game’s other more interesting glitches, making for better and more exciting viewing. Communities create different categories at their own discretion, there may be different leaderboards for completing specific sections of the game, for example.
The pinnacle of speedrunning is undoubtedly the bi-annual Games Done Quick (GDQ) speedrunning marathon which takes place in January (Awesome Games Done Quick) and June (Summer Games Done Quick). The event aims to bring together the speedrunning community while raising money for worthy causes. AGDQ is held in aid of the Prevent Cancer Foundation and SGDQ is held in aid of the Doctors Without Borders. Both events span an entire week and the attention to production is incredible, with dedicated teams for reading out donations, keeping the live stream running, approving the runs being showcased, etc. An incredible amount of work is put into Games Done Quick, much of it on a voluntary basis.
Viewers are encouraged to donate through various means. If a viewer donates over a certain threshold, they are entered into raffles to win various prizes, usually for gaming paraphernalia. There are also “bidding wars” where donators can vote for in-game choices, like making a certain decision during the speedrun or naming the main character. The option with the most amount of money donated towards it is chosen by the runner. A famous example of this is the “Save the Animals” or “Kill the Animals” decision which exists in a Super Metroid run. At the climax of Super Metroid, when the base is exploding, the player can free caged animals which saves them from certain death. This is slower than simply leaving the base (“killing” the animals) so it would never normally be done during a competitive speedrun, but it has been a regular fixture of Games Done Quick for years. This choice has spawned a bitter rivalry and raised over $1 million for charity over the years.
Games Done Quick has existed since 2010 and has grown gradually over the years. The contrast between the first event which was held in someone’s house in Virginia and AGDQ 2020 which took place at the decadent DoubleTree Hilton hotel in Orlando is stark. That first AGDQ raised $10,532 which is in no way a small sum of money and is made more impressive by the ad-hoc nature of the event. AGDQ 2020 which ended on January 12th raised a massive $3,155,189, a new record, demonstrating how much the event has grown since it’s inception.
It’s the ultimate goal of most runners to get on the GDQ stage. It’s almost assuredly a thrilling feeling to show the large live crowd and the even larger online viewership the game you’ve put so much work into perfecting. The community’s most dedicated runners have been known to put over 4,000 hours into their main game, that’s almost 6 months of playing time. Speedrunning is commonly compared to esports and this comparison is apt. Speedrunners are competing against one another and need to work very hard to be the best at their game. In many ways, Games Done Quick is like the speedrunning World Championship. Although it’s not directly competitive, one must have a respectable position on the leaderboard to be considered for the marathon and then, during the event, they must perform in front of more people than they ever have previously. It’s not unheard of for a runner to burst into tears after the conclusion of their run, all their hard work spilling forward in an explosion of emotion.
Speedrunning is a very pure medium. Each game spawns a small community of people dedicated to perfecting a game, there is certainly an element of competition but the process is primarily cooperative. By all accounts, the vast majority of communities are very accepting of new runners and are willing to offer any help required, making speedrunning surprisingly accessible despite it appearing complicated and insurmountable. They say there’s a run out there for everyone, all you have to do is reach out.