Monday, March 14, 2011

Speed runs

A speed run is pretty much what it sounds like: you beat the game as fast as you can. Sometimes you try to do everything in the game on the way, or as much as speed allows. Sometimes you try to see as little of the game as possible. Sometimes you take advantage of glitches in the game. It is generally considered a violation of the gamer's honor code to use cheats that were not included in the game -- i.e., GameShark codes -- and, oddly enough, it is often considered a violation to use cheats that were intentionally included -- i.e., the Konami code. Only glitches -- bugs in the software, quirks of the physics -- are widely employed.

This Portal speed run is in many ways an ideal example of the genre. From the beginning, it was clear that the game would be easily and often broken. Indeed, breaking the game is arguably how you solve it. The concept is basically that you have a portal gun, and later, two portal guns. You can use these to make portals between any two points you can see (always in a wall, floor, or ceiling). It doesn't take most players long to create an infinite loop (one portal in the ceiling, one portal in the floor) but there are more esoteric tricks as well. I liked putting my head through a low hole in the ceiling and watching it descend from another one somewhere else. The first time you jump through a portal, you see (as you arrive) your character's body leaping through it from outside, because you are both arriving and departing at the same time. It's wonderfully mind-bending.

It was inevitable that someone would find a way to get outside the game's levels, though the extent to which this player breaks the game is surreal, bizarre, and rather hypnotic. The amount of time it takes him to beat the game is also, as in the best of speed runs, not only unlikely but (one would think) impossible. The joy of the speed run is to see someone who has mastered something you struggled with, perhaps something that even defeated you (most gamers do not, in fact, complete most games they play). 

If you go to the Portal guy's YouTube channel he'll happily explain, in great detail, just how he broke the game. And this is where the speed run becomes contentious. The incredible speed the player achieves relies not only on exploitation of the portal guns, but exploitation of a glitch: it becomes possible, with inhuman timing, to move very quickly by leaping backwards in a certain way. As such the player has a script that allows him to simply hold down the jump button and steer. He compares it, in an attempt to justify himself, to the "turbo buttons" of old, a largely outmoded convention of specialized controllers that allowed the player to press a button as many times as the game would allow, with potentially nigh-infinite speed, simply by holding down the button. The player's exploitation doesn't bother me because the fact of his memorizing the levels such that he can literally play them backwards at such high velocity is plenty impressive enough. More troubling is the way that he apparently stitched together the video from a number of play-throughs, achieving his ideal time by combining his best results for each level. That is to say that this is a theoretically possible speed run, that the player has been scrupulous in allowing himself nothing impossible, but that he has not performed this run -- not as we perceive it. Still, the most impressive parts are purely his achievement. And many speed runs use similar methods.

He writes:
I don't believe anyone else in there right mind would try to do what I have done in this video. I completed the first segment on September 13, 2008, 06:12 AM and the last segment on July 03, 2010, 08:32 PM. Almost 2 years of working on this.

I can't decide if this Myst speed run is cathartic or merely ludicrous. Myst was, if you missed it, an extremely popular puzzle game with impressive-at-the-time 3D pre-rendered graphics, an uncommonly interesting story (I'm told), and a logic all its own. To describe it as difficult sort of misses the point. Solving Myst was like spending two years learning an instrument no one could hear you play. The concept of a Myst speed run is similarly masturbatory: ultimately it's a question of memorization and sequence-breaking (i.e., doing things in an order the designers never intended), leading to the most disappointing ending, having seen almost nothing, having spent zero time with the actual mechanics of the game. Portal is about the portal guns: Myst is a game about thinking, about wandering around, about experimentation. You can't experiment in a speed-run, and yet playing Myst without experimentation is like playing a Mario game without jumping.

This Super Mario Bros. speed run has been on the first page of YouTube search results for the phrase "speed run" for several years. If I knew a little more about speed run culture I might be able to tell you why the frame rate is so shitty -- my current guess is that this video was captured using hardware or software that wasn't quite up to the task of both emulating a game and recording it. This player uses the warp zones in worlds1 and 4, which is disappointing to me, but I love the way he reveals the possibilities of the game. That one could simply leap over every piranha plant in the game is simply not something that had ever occurred to me.

This Mario Frustration speed run is interesting for its ludicrous difficulty. This is apparently a ROM hack (i.e., a rebuilt version of a preexisting game) built on the exploitation of glitches and quirks. You can't beat these levels if you don't know Mario better than anybody should -- indeed, you can't even start the game if you don't know to hold down the jump button before it begins, so that rather than falling into empty space, you leap off of it, impossibly.

A Metal Slug speed run is probably difficult to appreciate unless you've played Metal Slug. The impression this video would give, I think, had I not been so thoroughly humbled by a previous entry in the series, is, "Wow that game looks easy." In fact one has to break Metal Slug a little even to play it, not in terms of exploits like those used in the Portal run, but in terms of fighting the game with your bare hands until you can somehow make a little room to breathe. The frantic energy necessary to complete a level even in a normal play-through is superhuman. What happens in the video above seems nearly impossible.

Of course not only gamers speed-run. In cases like the Rubik's Cube, the object itself -- the game, the cube -- is so simple, so finite, so elegantly designed that past a certain threshold of skill (the threshold that allows one to solve the puzzle at all) speed becomes the only ground on which to compete. Combine that with the global popularity of the Rubik's Cube and you get an intense competitive culture and dozens of videos of intense young men (often Japanese) doing what seems to be impossible. In the video below, Feliks Zemdegs sets the world record for cubing, solving in 6.77 seconds. In the video below that, he breaks his own record by .12 seconds: the new number to beat is 6.55. 

Unless I'm mistaken, Feliks' success owes to his rapid, skillful application of an algorithm. Cubists have found methods of solving the puzzle that rely on a combination of quick judgments and complex-but-duplicable manipulations of the cube. Mathematicians estimate that given perfect knowledge of a cube it would be possible to solve from any position or degree of scramble in a maximum of twenty moves. They call this God's number, and it's been shrinking over time -- previously God's number was believed to be 24. However, a player aiming for speed can't afford to wait for perfect knowledge of the object. Instead, they've developed strategies that generally result in solutions, given proper application. If they are fast and they are lucky, this can mean a world record. In Feliks' case, the greatest challenge seems not to be manipulating the cube successfully, but rather recognizing with sufficient speed that he has done so -- perceiving, accurately, what his own hands have made.


  1. I agree about the MYST run seeming just ... lonely and obsessive. At least with a game like Portal there's the athletic, if I can use that word, transcendant joy of perfect movement, timing, etc. I would be awful at speed runs but I remember the feeling of fluidity that accompanied a perfectly paired set of portals.

    This is a good time for me to brag about the Portal cake S made for my birthday:

  2. Oh man. You actually got the cake.