The Unexpected Virtues of Speedrunning

Towards the end of 2013, I was going through a bit of a rough patch. I'd just moved to Seattle in order to focus full-time on making games, and it had recently dawned on me just how much of an uphill battle I was facing to build my portfolio and, hopefully, get noticed by a local studio.

The new year came and went, and I felt lost as ever. I was even questioning whether this passion I'd been chasing was genuine. Do I really care that much about making games?

And then, just a few days later, the universe dropped a healthy dose of reassurance directly into my life. I stumbled upon Games Done Quick, the semiannual charity speedrunning marathon, while browsing Twitch, and within minutes I was hooked.

Ever since then, each GDQ feels like a week-long holiday: a celebration of the virtues of games and the people who explore every nook and cranny in order to perform them at the highest level possible.

If you're new to the speedrunning scene, I've got some advice on what to expect and how to get the most out of the experience.

Start with games you already love

The Games Done Quick lineup is always composed of a wide array of games, from the classic to the obscure, and from the ancient to the "hey, this just came out a couple weeks ago, how are you already speedrunning this?" One benefit of this broad and diverse lineup is that you're likely to spot at least a couple games on the schedule that you've spent some time with yourself. That familiarity is a great entry-point into speedrunning, because you're already intimately familiar with the game's systems, the general arc of progress, and so on. 

Another benefit to seeking out those old favorites: you get to relive the joy of the classics without having to devote nearly as much time to seeing them through. I yearn for the days where I could sit down and replay a 20-80 hour game start to finish, but that era is long gone; I’m not a teenager anymore. But when I watch a speedrun of something like Final Fantasy VI, I get to relive all my favorite moments. More than that, I also get to feel like I’m part of a moment of mutual appreciation on a grand scale: Games Done Quick does a great job of stuffing its commentary couch with a wide variety of expert commentators who can almost always explain the nuance of every little trick, exploit, and glitch without missing a beat.

Invite your friends

GDQ is also an opportunity to reminisce with friends and explain the merits of those games to people who may not have played them. For a person who loves games, and especially someone who loves making them, it’s a real treat and nearly limitless fodder for conversation.

I'd especially recommend watching a speedrun race or two with some friends. Games like Super Metroid have been refined to a near-science for this purpose, and the appeal of watching multiple top runners compete for a win is pretty easy to grasp onto. Some other fun examples: user-generated content races, like with Super Mario Maker levels that are custom-built for the events, and tool-assisted speedrun (or TAS) demonstrations, which can quickly go off the rails in some unexpected directions.

Recognize that you, too, can do this thing

Image from the official  Celeste  tumblr account

Image from the official Celeste tumblr account

One unexpected benefit of becoming a speedrunning fan: it often inspires me to develop expertise in games myself.

The best example of this happening in my life recently is Celeste, a wonderful game I could go on forever about. The game itself is about overcoming challenges both internal and external, and thematically, that's extremely my jam. I have a love for difficult platformers — I played a lot of Super Meat Boy back in the day — but I’ve never been driven to 100% a game that hard until Celeste. I beat all the C-sides, got every strawberry, and began collecting the fabled golden strawberries (beat a level without a single death). At that point, I found I was dumping hours into a single level, just trying to find new shortcuts and surpass my old times. It was a blast.

During SGDQ, the Celeste dev team was on the couch while TGH and YoshiPro raced the game, and they mentioned that, by the end of the game, the goal is to have the player set up to feel like they can speedrun it themselves. And you know what, that’s exactly how I felt.

Speedrunning is also a teaching tool

It might not immediately be obvious, but over time I've come to see speedrunning as a phenomenal teaching tool for any game developer. It'll give you a crash course in:

  • Bug-fixing and integrity: What do runners do to break games?
  • Tone: What stands out to me from this game at a distance and high speed? What’s conveyed? What’s lost? Teaches me how to adapt my own designs to better ensure consistent tone and theme throughout, especially from a distance
  • Design: Which mechanics fit well together? Which ones don’t? What gets exploited the most? Is it fun to exploit? Is it legitimate-feeling, as in Celeste?

As long as I keep making games, I’ll continue watching GDQ as a hybrid source of inspiration and a reminder of why I fell in love with this medium in the first place.

I'll probably be doing some speedrunning of my own again on Celeste pretty soon. (If you're interested, feel free to follow along on my Twitch channel!) I'm a far cry away from the top times in the game, but the journey to a better and better personal record is immensely gratifying.