Play it faster, play it weirder: how speedrunning pushes video games beyond their limits

·5 min read

In the summer of 2017, the gamer Beck Abney sat in his room playing Mario Kart 64. What happened next has been described as one of the greatest achievements in gaming history. Many doubted it could even be done at all.

He was trying to perform one of gaming’s hardest glitches: the Weathertenko, a trick that if done correctly can finish a full lap of the stage Choco Mountain in just a handful of seconds. To do it once requires immense skill, but Abney wanted to do three in a row, a feat never before achieved in recorded history. And he wanted to do it incredibly quickly.

He had been trying since August without luck, streaming on Twitch for hours almost every day, to his 27,000 followers. It was now October. His attempts had climbed into the thousands. It wasn’t until his 26,461st attempt that he made history.

His achievement rocked the speedrunning world. Songs were written about what happened; songs with lyrics like, “You can’t tell me what I can and can’t do, I don’t have to listen to you no more, I just wanna play on my Nintendo, I just wanna hit the Weathertenko.”

Speedrunning is the art of playing video games as fast as possible. You can speedrun any game – the entire thing, or just sections of it. Some world records are incredibly short, like Abney’s, taking only a handful of seconds. Others can be hours long. On the internet, they are pored over, analysed and discussed by a thriving community of people who, like me, delight in seeing games pushed and warped beyond their limits.

I was drawn to speedrunning via YouTube. In the physical world, history has been recorded by greats such as Herodotus, or Yuval Noah Hirari. In speedrunning, there is Summoning Salt. Named after a mispronunciation of the ingredients of a 30-year-old can of Heinz Spaghetti Hoops, he is a YouTuber whose meticulously researched video-essays chronicle the histories of speedrunning across different games.

Watching his account of the events at Choco Mountain for the first time felt like stepping into a new world. Though I knew of its existence, I had never even shown a scrap of interest in speedrunning before. Now I was being introduced to an entirely different way of gaming, where video games ceased being things to play, and instead became structures that could be torn down and rebuilt on a whim, all in the name of speed.

One day, game designer Bennett Foddy was streaming himself on Twitch as he watched a speedrun of his game, Getting Over It With Bennet Foddy. In it, you play as a nude greek man sitting in a metal cauldron, who moves about by swinging a large hammer. As he watched, he began to reflect on the relationship between speedrunner and game designer, noting that in many ways, they existed as polar opposites.

“A game designer painstakingly carves a beautiful sculpture out of wood,” he said. “First, chiselling it out of a raw block. Then gradually rounding off any rough edges. Making sure it works when its viewed from any angle.

“The speedrunner takes that sculpture and they look it over, carefully, from top to bottom, from every angle, and deeply understand it. They appreciate all the work that went into the design. All of the strengths or weak points. And then, having understood it perfectly, they break it over their knee.”

The most popular place to upload speedruns is the online leaderboard speedrun.com, a mammoth library that at the time of writing is contributed to by 891,452 people. On it, speedruns are grouped into categories. Some of these are straightforward. The two most popular are the “100%” category, where you must finish the game completely, and “Any%”, where you may finish by completing as much or as little as you want.

But beyond those, categories quickly become absurd, and speedrunning begins to unfurl like a pixelated flower. In the game “Mike Tysons Punch-Out!!”, for instance, there is a run where you play blindfolded, relying on muscle memory and a rote understanding of the games mechanics.

For those who enjoy displays of the flesh, a run exists in Super Mario Odyssey where you must expose the Italian plumber’s nipples as fast as possible by earning enough in-game currency to buy a pair of swimming trunks.

Yes that’s right: it’s “Nipple%”.

You aren’t limited to existing categories: each speedrunner may conjure their own mountain to climb. Recently, Australian comedian and speedrun-innovator Tom Walker invented a run in Grand Theft Auto IV called “Gervais%”, where the end goal is to get to a TV in the game that is showing Ricky Gervais’ motion-captured stand up set.

For me, speedrunning is a display of the best side of the internet, a welcome relief from a place that is often horrible. The best world-records are achieved by individuals, but are held together by the glue of community.

As the YouTuber Lowest Percent puts it, “For every trick you see in a speedrun, there is a person behind the discovery. An entire route is often dependent on years of discoveries”. Optimisation is achieved over the course of years, and passes through many hands. Taken as a whole, they have constructed a vehicle that frequently achieves the impossible, on its quest for perfection.

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