In Praise of Speedrunning

The best way to play video games is so fast you don’t notice the story.

GIF: Mario Mario runs past Goombas and Koopas in this animation out of Super Mario Bros. for the NES.
Super Mario Bros. Nintendo

Deep down, even the most apostolic gamers know it’s true: The stories, characters, and dialogue in video games are almost always terrible, ridiculous, or both. Try to sum up any major game’s story: A plumber repeatedly attempts to rescue a princess from a dinosaur. Time-traveling science assassins fight over alien relics. Disney characters and wide-eyed anime bois fight with keys/swords to save the world. Meanwhile, some of the most successful games—like Minecraft—have no recognizable story at all. If you think that video gaming is primarily about telling rich, interactive stories or inhabiting fully realized characters, you’ve missed the point—and speedrunning is the cure. While games can tell stories—even good ones, some tiny percent of the time!—the point of a game isn’t its narrative, but its interactive nature. And you really only need the latter for a game to be great.

Speedrunning is a type of gaming where players try to beat a game as fast as possible. In the typical speedrun you might watch on YouTube or Twitch, the player will mash buttons to get past any plot-explaining text, causing the backstory to fly by too quickly for a human to comprehend. When possible, major cutscenes get skipped completely, making not only the plot but the characters and their motivations impossible for the viewer to understand. Stripped of motivation, characters are reduced to moves and abilities. NPCs become obstacles that slow things down unless they become useful by pushing the player just the right number of pixels at exactly the right time to clip through a wall. Despite the irrelevance of story, speedrunning thrives—not just as the individual passion of runners striving to beat their favorite games as quickly as possible using whatever glitches, bugs, and exploits that speed things up, but also as spectated streaming performances that can draw hundreds of thousands of viewers. That was evident last month when a major biannual speedrunning marathon, SGDQ (or Summer Games Done Quick), showcased dozens of games and raised over $3 million for Doctors Without Borders. In each of these speedruns, spectators saw flawless gameplay, such as Distortion2’s speedrun of the notoriously difficult Dark Souls II. What’s left when you do away with the story? Just everything that makes games fun and good.

Speedrunning is fun to do and fun to watch because it treats games like the digital artifacts they are. If an in-game wall is coded in such a way that allows a player to glitch through it, why should they treat that wall like a barrier in the physical world? If the fastest way to make your character move forward is to roll, or jump, or shuffle backward, why walk? Speedrunning does away with what any given game was supposed to be in favor of discovering what it really is, and then pushes those limits further and further in the pursuit of clean lines and flawless play.

Video games are often talked about primarily as interactive storytelling, but this relies on a fundamental misconception of what makes gaming great. The old argument about whether video games can be art (in the sense of narrative) is beside the point—sure, they can tell stories, but we already have movies and TV shows and novels for that. If gaming is art, the art is in allowing a player the chance to run, jump, fly, explode, grapple, or fight in a venue where human limitations no longer exist. There’s just no need to graft a story onto something that can serve a purpose without it.

For a speedrunner, success means getting really, really good at whatever the core mechanics of a game are—players have to be near perfect to traverse rooms full of zombies without taking damage or pausing to fight, or manage their health so they die at the precise moment a death warp will save time. Most runners play for hours per day, refining and improving their movement and aim until they become capable of things a casual player could never imagine possible. This desire in the speedrunning community to continue testing and improving one’s skill is why randomizers have become so popular in the past few years. Randomizers are the ultimate triumph over story, reshuffling a game like the cards in a deck to keep it fresh. These hacks exist for an ever-increasing number of games, but the main idea is to randomize everything from where enemies are found to the locations of the different levels or the places weapons, items, and power-ups can be found.

Where many non-random speedruns rely on muscle memory, randomizer runs force players to develop flexibility and apply their skills in new and unusual ways. One advanced randomizer combining The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Super Metroid into an unholy mashup was onstage at SGDQ last Tuesday evening, with runners Andy and Ivan playing side by side, sharing info about which items were found where. A boomerang, found early in the Metroid section, could be brought over to Legend of Zelda’s Hyrule, where missiles needed for Super Metroid waited in Link’s chests. The run took just under three hours—that’s just three hours to complete two classic games, randomized into a configuration neither runner had seen before.

One of the more famous speedruns was the first time Super Mario 64 (in the 100 percent category) was completed in less than 100 minutes by a runner named Allan Alvarez, who goes by Cheese. I watched this run live back in 2017: The smoothness of Cheese’s jumps and flips and in-air grabs is particularly satisfying to watch because the controls of Mario 64 are so good, so satisfying, that moving Mario comes to feel like an extension of yourself, even for a relatively poor player like me. Watching a master like Cheese on a good run feels as if a part of your own body is taking flight, becoming light and effortless and full of joy. Every move transitions flawlessly into every other move, every platform is just where it needs to be in the nick of time, gaps that didn’t seem crossable are crossed, and then Mario pirouettes into a star, over and over again. (Cheese still plays, and although he wasn’t at SGDQ this year, he still holds the record in this category, and he’s beaten his time twice more over the past two years.)

We don’t play Mario games to rescue a princess, we play Mario games to dash and leap and surf on turtle shells and be free. All of the best games are this way. A small part of you has been transported to another place, and through it you can transcend your limitations, make wonders happen, be more than you are in the mundane world. In speedrunning, this dynamic is at its purest, where not just the limits of the players are transcended but those of the game itself. Don’t bother me with story. I just want to run and jump and play—as fast as possible.