SAVE THE FRAMES / KILL THE ANIMALS
If you’ve never watched a Games Done Quick (GDQ) marathon or a European Speedrunner Assembly (ESA) event, the above statement might seem both weird and harsh. Why would I want to save all the guilty frames while killing all the innocent animals? Well, that’s not exactly what the statement refers to—not even close. The statement refers to somewhat of an oft repeated catchphrase for GDQ. It’s is a speedrunning community and organization that prides themselves on the ability to beat a variety of games quickly, and I mean incredibly quickly. This is pretty awesome in its own right, but on top of that the group raises money and donates all of the proceeds towards charity. Their last event, Summer Games Done Quick, raised over $1 million dollars.
However, at the heart of the events are the runners: those individuals who are obsessed with getting ever-improving records and doing things like beating Dark Souls 3 in under an hour, or beating Castlevania: Symphony of the Night blindfolded (WTF?!). As events like Summer GDQ and ESA continue to grow in popularity and become more prominent on streaming services like Twitch, I found it important to ask what speedrunning as an activity has done to my perception of gaming communities. I also couldn’t help but feel that watching speedrunning somehow made me love games more than I already did. So, let’s dive a little deeper.
The “Casual” Way to Play
If you would have told me a few months ago that for the entirety of my life I had been playing video games incorrectly or casually, I would have said you were full of it. I’ll probably still say that about you now; I take a lot of pride in my skillzz (Zs make everything cooler). That being said, after I started watching more speedruns of various games. I came to see that for a subculture of the gaming community there was an entirely different way to play games, and this new way didn’t work in competition with the way I played, but rather in conjunction. See, speedrunning has the potential to be immediately alluring to the viewer because in a way it rewires our brains to look at playing games differently. As an example, think of something like Dark Souls, a game that encourages going slow. So, when playing through casually, killing all the enemies to collect souls and level up becomes the core gameplay loop. For the speedrunner, this gameplay loop doesn’t exist.
At the last ESA event, Streamer/YouTuber Elajjaz was able to beat all of the bosses in Dark Souls 3 in just over an hour. He did this by completely ignoring the gameplay loop mentioned above and focusing on finding quick ways to kill bosses with temporary character buffs (rings, potions, consumables, etc.). In effect, Elajjaz’s way of playing Dark Souls 3 turns the formula for the Souls games on their head and reduces them to set pieces with awkwardly large bosses. With Dark Souls 3, like so many other games, it can feel like something new with speedrunning. After the first time that I saw someone speedrun Halo CE on legendary difficulty, I felt inspired to go and play the game again after witnessing what felt like a new experience. The novelty of the experience was being reinvented and injected back into the game. This allows for the simultaneous experience of both novelty and nostalgia, a combination that’s pretty damn hard to come by.
Glitches and Game Design
Speedrunning isn’t just about running through game levels as quickly as possible. Inherently it is that by definition, but the way this is done varies from game to game. Each game displayed at ESA and GDQ is represented by multiple members of the community who all work together to find glitches, exploits and skips within the game they run. Many of these glitches are found through exploiting loading areas and triggers within games, or by employing new “movement tech” that allows their player character to move faster or differently than game designers intended. For example, in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, walking or jumping backwards is markedly faster than rolling or walking normally around Hyrule. Did the game developers intend for you to walk backwards throughout the entire game? Absolutely not. Yet since it’s faster, jumping backwards is the primary means of movement in an Ocarina of Time speedrun. Coincidentally, trying to understand why the glitches within a specific game work adds another level of complexity and depth to a game. This can at times increase the longevity or the life span of a game far beyond its consoles dominant era.
Another example that illustrates the correlation between game design and speedrunning is the advent of i-frames (invincibility frames). I-frames exist in nearly all games to some capacity. Essentially, i-frames are what allow your player character to not be displaced or damaged when they are in the middle of another action such as rolling or opening doors. This mechanic gets abused in speedruns pretty frequently seeing as these quirks allow players to avoid damage they would take otherwise. Speedrunning largely discards the suggested way to use mechanics and in-game systems; speedrunning opens up new possibilities for how we “play” with games.
I’ve largely been talking about the mechanical ways that speedrunning can facilitate novel experiences without touching on the social implications of GDQ and ESA. That’s not fair. Perhaps more important than the act of running the games themselves at these marathons is the cross pollination of charitable service work and the gaming community. By and large I would argue that the popular perception of video games and gamers has been changing. As more and more people begin to experiment with gaming on their mobile devices (look at the widespread success of Pokemon Go), they begin to entrench themselves in a community that is as large as it is diverse. It’s no longer the case that gamers are seen as socially awkward individuals only capable of sitting in their basements all day, ostracized from society at large. Instead with the advent of eSports and competitive gaming, individuals in the industry are beginning to be regarded as athletes who possess a high amount of skill. Gaming is slowly being labeled less as a waste of time and more as a worthwhile activity. Events like GDQ and ESA only bolster and support these changing opinions.
It may be that the speedrunning communities would never have been noticed had they not attached themselves to a cause that is so irrefutably noble and good. After all, who can argue that doing something for charity, even if it is playing a videogame, is a time sink? In a very brilliant way, the cooperation between the GDQ and ESA and the charity organizations they support benefit both communities; their relationship is symbiotic. Doctors Without Borders and the Prevent Cancer Foundation benefit by spreading their work and message to audiences that may not have been as exposed to it normally, while the speedrunning communities benefit from their added exposure and their association with a good cause.
If you haven’t already, take an hour and watch your favorite game of all time get destroyed by a speedrunner. The experience is well worth it.
Have you watched a GDQ or ESA event before? What one game would you speedrun if you had to? Save or kill the animals? Tweet me @Flagcap or us @YouNerded.
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