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How watching speedruns reminded me why I love games

I spent hours watching AGDQ's speed runs of games like Pokémon Gold, Mario 64 and Wind Waker this weekend, and the experience was utterly refreshing and engrossing, and in this blog post I explain how and why.

This past Saturday I spent most of my day watching speedruns by Awesome Games Done Quick -- aka AGDQ -- which were part of a marathon the group undertook for a cancer charity. I actually had very little interest in watching them at first, but once I settled in, I didn't look up from the PC more than a handful of times in almost eight hours.
Each of the runs taught me something about the games involved, and also about different kinds of players. The experience was refreshing, really. In this age of pompous games and poseur journalists, seeing people play some good old fashioned video games incredibly well was really something.

What was incredibly striking about these runs was the human factor. Unlike the tool assisted speedruns (TAS) I've watched in the past, the players were all using original hardware, playing with only their accumulated skills and knowledge, and forced to execute difficult maneuvers of many different types perfectly to proceed.

Werster's Pokémon Gold Run

The first run I watched was Werster's attempt to break the hell out of Pokémon Gold (for the Game Boy Color) and beat it in two hours. He almost did, too, though he got caught up in the final battle. This is a feat that would have taken much, much longer if he didn't exploit several profoundly game-breaking save game glitches in the title.

I got hooked from the off. Pokémon glitching is already an interesting topic (you can read a ton more about it here.) But watching Werster break a real Pokémon Gold cartridge playthrough in real-time -- at one point having to reset the console again and again to hit the 1/60th of a second window he needed to make the glitch work, all with the clock ticking -- was fascinating.

The most interesting moment in the whole run might be when Werster judged the stats of his Pokémon during its first battle. Pokémon, like most RPG characters, have stats that govern their battle performance -- but instead of checking them, Werster accurately inferred them from the Pokémon's actions in its debut battle, crucial to his play through since he couldn't re-roll the stats. Talk about knowing a game system intimately.  

Hearing Werster talk about how he'd come up with more efficient ways to jumble the game's code and produce desired results -- "I don't know how to program, so this is just trial and error" -- was also interesting, for what it says about human nature, curiosity, and tinkering.

The run didn't go that well. Between the stats of his Pokémon being mediocre, bad luck in the random rolls that govern a turn-based RPG, and a number of problems executing the glitches, Werster -- on camera -- was often wonderfully expressive about his displeasure with the run. That's when I began to realize the point of having half the screen dedicated to a view of the room and the player, not just leaving the whole thing to a stream of the game. I don't really watch sports, but anybody who has even briefly done so knows the effect an athlete's emotion can have on the audience.

Greenalink's Super Mario 3D Land Run

This run, of Nintendo's 2011 3DS game, was interesting -- but partially only in view of what came after it, which I'll get to in a minute.  

One other reason it was fascinating to me was that it reminded me what a simply fantastic, elegant game Super Mario 3D Land is -- one of the best of the last several years, and arguably the best (and certainly the purest) Mario game Nintendo has published in the modern Mario era (which I'd say begins in 2006, with the release of New Super Mario Bros. for the DS.)

What makes that clear is the simple joy it brought the player, Greenalink, and the people in the room around him. Greenalink was an understated kind of guy, and his gentle rolling play narration was subtle but still interesting. He obviously took pleasure in performing, but also, importantly, still enjoyed playing the game itself. It was clear to me that he, like Werster, got into running the game because he loved it, and that was just simply nice to see.

In an era when developers are constantly discussing "engagement" when they really mean "how to get players hooked," it was pleasurable to see players on the extreme far end of "engagement" simply because they had grown to love these games so much that they wanted to find new ways to keep enjoying them indefinitely.

The Mario series, somehow, lends itself to that sort of play. In fact, 2012 marked the first time Nintendo fronted speedrunning as a mainline Mario feature -- with New Super Mario Bros. 2's Coin Rush mode.

Super Mario World is the only game I have ever tried to speedrun; at a sleepover party in 1991, with two SNESes and two TVs, a friend and I competed to beat it as quickly as possible (which, for me, was around 14 minutes; the world record is under 11 right now.) Over the past 22 years, I've played through the entirety (96 exits) of Super Mario World dozens of times, a pattern that started soon after its release, for me, and which has somehow never entirely stopped being interesting, to the point that I anticipate the eventual Virtual Console release of the Game Boy Advance port of Super Mario World on the 3DS.

Siglemic's Super Mario 64 Runs

What followed Greenalink's run was Siglemic's virtuoso performance with Mario 64. This is when the Americans started waking up (I'm in Europe right now, which is why I was already watching) and the audience numbers for the stream really got huge.

Siglemic, the world record holder for the game, has literally poured thousands of hours (he estimates "almost 4000") into practicing Super Mario 64, and he has completed a 120-star run of the game in 1:44:01. He didn't beat his world record time this time around -- 1:47:48 was his final time -- but he did well.

Siglemic was the opposite of Werster -- you could even call him "stoic." In fact, he was entirely unresponsive at times, either to commentary or even ribbing from people in the room, of which there was a lot. He barely spoke about his technique, only doing so a few times, and never really discussed the game itself or what made it interesting to him, despite the degree to which his life centers around playing it. (He's terse on his personal profile, too: Q: Why don't you speedrun Super Mario Galaxy? A: I don't like it.)

Siglemic's Mario 64 runs (he undertook both a glitch-enabled 16-star warm-up run and the full 120-star run) were examples of the virtuosity of an incredibly practiced and dedicated player, and his ability to navigate through the world of Super Mario 64 almost more quickly than the game could track, at times, was fascinating to watch. Again, an analogy to sports: for the vast majority of the audience, it's watching someone do something you can do with a degree of skill and practiced assurance that you could never achieve.

It was also a reminder of how games have evolved. While Nintendo's always careful, even in its most recent Mario games, to provide paths and challenges for play for both novice and skilled players using a single game design -- something discussed in this Gamasutra feature by Josh Bycer -- the floaty, imprecise, buggy and experimental controls of Mario 64, released in 1996 at the dawn of the 3D console era, give players unique opportunities to subvert the game and get ahead quickly.

To get back to why Greenalink's run in Super Mario 3D Land was interesting is that, despite it being a 3D Mario game, his movements were so straightforward, so much like the way someone would normally play the game, just much more precise and practiced. There was only one very minor movement glitch he could capitalize on -- and in only two levels. It's a contrast that says a lot about the state of both game design and testing these many years later.  

Even Super Mario Galaxy, which is more like Mario 64, doesn't allow for the same sort of hyperkinetic, broken play. While I wrote this blog post I let the run of the current champion, Konkuu, play in the background and checked on it time to time (you'll need a Nico Nico Douga account to view the videos.) It's in some ways similar, but it's just not the same.

Cosmo's The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker Run

The last run I watched -- and not all of it, as it took almost five hours to finish -- was Cosmo's Wind Waker run. This one was in some way the most interesting, because Cosmo broke the game so thoroughly that playing it no longer remotely resembled what a normal player might attempt.

While even Siglemic's Super Mario 64 run is in some sense imaginable in the context of "normal" play -- if on the absolute extreme end of skill and technique -- Cosmo's Wind Waker run relies on fully exploiting the most extreme bugs in the game to skip large chunks of the game's content, break its sequence, and generally get to places he shouldn't be in ways that are completely outside the bounds of how the game's creators intended it to be played.

In a completely different way from Siglemic's Mario 64 run, it was another virtuoso performance. And unlike Siglemic, Cosmo and another Wind Waker runner, Mirrored, gave a running commentary on how things were going, what Cosmo was doing, why, and how, and the history of how different tactics and exploits had been discovered for Wind Waker and what they let players do.

The breakdown of why the runners play the Japanese version of the game rather than the U.S. version (text speed and length differences shave off almost 20 minutes, ten of which are then lost due to the Japanese version having more fetch quests) is just one example of the sort of commentary that made this run so compelling.

It was also compelling because it was a near-flawless run for its first couple of hours, which, of course, made things tense. In the end, Cosmo ended up overrunning his best-ever time by less than 10 minutes (for a total of 4:44:40.)


In the end, it's not any one thing that got me hooked in the AGDQ runs that I watched, which is probably why they were so utterly engrossing. The skill of the players, their enthusiasm, their personalities and reactions, the depth of their ability to subvert the games, and the underlying qualities (and quality) of the games themselves all played a role in making this compelling watching.

And speaking purely personally, seeing people revel in these games was an incredible tonic to the way in which I see people talk about games anymore. This sort of play cuts through to the core of the games; rather than ruining them, it shows you a side of them that you'd never see otherwise, one that celebrates what they are and can be.

There's one thing I can tell you. AGDQ posts the recorded videos of its runs after the marathons are over, and I will be checking out some of the runs I missed over the week-long marathon once they're online. Ironically, since I'm constantly reading and writing about games, it can be hard to stay interested in them -- hard to remember why they matter to me personally. Like no other experience I've had recently, watching AGDQ reminded me just what I love about them.

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