I want to talk to you about video game speed running. But first, a little context:
Throughout my stint on #7daysofcoping, I continue to be skeptical about the inherent value of “coping.” While the definition is positive enough (“dealing effectively with a difficult situation”), common usage is a bit more concerning; we don’t usually apply the term to problems that can be handled or solved, but more often to situations that are seemingly beyond our control, to things that appear intractable or unchangeable in the face of our best efforts. Coping with losing a basketball game is not travelling back in time and winning; it is more often processing the fact that the outcome can’t be changed.
In other words: coping is typically not the act of changing a difficult situation, but rather the act of processing our own inability to do so. This conception becomes dangerous precisely when we “cope” with our inability to impact situations that we actually can. An unhealthy relationship. The political process. Complex social issues. From this angle, coping can start to resemble something like a kind of apathy in disguise (an active, engaging, and potentially rewarding form of apathy, yes, but apathy nonetheless).
And that’s why I want to talk about video game speedrunning.
We all must answer to life’s most immovable concerns: the passage of time, the fact of our own existence (and eventual non-existence), the presence of our minds within a fragile body, and the grand fallibility of human understanding (of ourselves, the world, and one another). And always we have before us: What will I do with my day? Where will I expend my energy? How will I occupy my thoughts? By default, whole lifetimes are dedicated to and defined by our responses to these questions. What I want to reflect on is the fact that some people answer these questions primarily by finding loopholes in the construction of video game mechanics in order to win at speeds that would otherwise seem impossible. Those people are video game speedrunners.
Video game speedrunning is the act of trying to complete a video game as fast as possible. Players compete to achieve the shortest time. If you remember spending hours playing Super Mario Bros on the NES, then you may be impressed to know that a player named “darbian” recently completed the Italian plumber’s quest in about 4 minutes and 57 seconds. And if, like me, you spent the standard 15 to 20 hours beating N64’s Zelda: Ocarina of Time, then you may be shocked to hear that someone named “Torje” was able to reach the end in 17 minutes and 42 seconds.
In its purest form, a speedrun consists of just playing the game really well. This involves memorizing routes, knowing the location of important items, and deftly defeating adversaries. It takes considerable time and practice, with many hours of intense work leading up to any single, successful speedrun.
The “pure” form, however, is not what interests me.
Rather, there is another branch of speedrunning that involves knowing and exploiting the inner-workings of how a particular game is constructed. The act of utilizing these methods exists somewhere in the blurry area between breaking and following the rules. That is, the player does not literally manipulate or alter the code of the game. The game remains itself, entirely intact. It is the very same one that any random user might play. The speedrunners are simply aware of the underlying structures, and they use that knowledge to do things which would otherwise be impossible. These speedrunners do what anyone could do but would never think to do on their own: travel to a seemingly mundane spot, engage in an absurd combination of footsteps and jumps, and finally make the rules of the universe fall away like meat from a bone. The result of these exploitations looks in practice like a kind of magic or wizardry. For example, a player might discern that, within the underlying code of the game, the “levels” are numbered in a particular way, such that areas which normally would be very far apart in the “natural” progression of game may in fact be very close “physically”; by utilizing a few exact and complex maneuvers at the start of the game, a player just might slip through a wall and arrive at a secretly adjacent space hours ahead in the timeline. It’s teleportation, it’s time travel, it’s impossible. And it’s happening.
One of my favorite examples involves the initial positing, subsequent discovery, and ultimate exploitation of parallel universes in Super Mario 64. Really. The presence of these parallel universes within the game were first theorized, and have now been tested and utilized in unbelievable in-game moves. Players can rely on an elaborate map of where the parallel Mario universes “should” be (in combination with a special kind of jump that takes literally hours to “charge”), in order to propel Mario through numerous alternate planes of game-existence — only to reappear in initially unreachable areas within the central game. Players themselves don’t actually get to witness Mario travelling to these theoretical realms, nor do they get to see what the parallel universes might look like (to any observer, it appears merely as if Mario is here one moment, and then on top of some mountain the next), but their existence is all but confirmed by dint of the fact that players can faithfully and predictably rely on the theory to achieve observable and repeatable actions in the game.
What is amazing to me here is that a large amount of people have considered the questions of what to do with their time, how to occupy their thoughts, and what to dedicate their energies to, and have proudly answered by spending hours and hours on an entirely niche endeavor with almost no impact on anything at all. It seems pointless, foolish, absurd, and almost offensively inane. It’s tempting to dismiss these people and their work. I might counter, though, that most things that people do and commit their energies to are pointless, foolish, absurd, and inane. From a broad enough spectrum, everything is (your good works will crumble at the foot of time, like every other mundane distraction). And, of course, as a writer, I can easily see myself mirrored among video game speedrunners. That is, I too spend hours and hours nitpicking the details of imaginary worlds, hoping to manipulate the underlying rules in pursuit of a kind of magic, all within a niche market that will have little to no impact on anything. I mean, here I am writing an essay on video game speedrunning. I might as well be charging my super jump for parallel worlds in Mario 64. And, in some respects, I am.
That is, I believe in the inherent magic of useless things. Given that I think pretty much everything is, in some sense, useless, I find it an important exercise to empathize with and find meaning in what might otherwise easily be dismissed as trivial or insignificant. If we can find meaning in even the smallest and most foolish of endeavors, then it should hopefully be easier (or perhaps less important) to recognize it in broader pursuits. And, of course, video game speedrunning is a great starting point. It’s as pointless as pointless can be. But when looked at closely, anything that people truly give a lot of time to — anything that people put their whole heart into — will ultimately be suffused with the beauty of their innate human frailty and somber dedication. Yes, video game speedrunning is inherently meaningless (as is anything), but here’s what isn’t and can’t be: a person crumbles under the weight of the world, gets up in the morning, returns to the thing that brings them joy, gives care and scrutiny to its inner workings, and through sheer insanity creates something new and previously impossible. I challenge anyone to not see the art and fear and joy in Narcissa Wright’s now famous speedrun of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The hours of her life spent working and reworking can be felt burning through into that moment of culmination. The absurdity underlying this act does not diminish its meaning but instead amplifies the sense of wonder, awe, and relief. We all should be so blessed as to have any of our efforts come together in such seamless unity.
Of course, it is apparent that many speedrunners themselves have questioned the inner value of what they do (who hasn’t!). I know this because they have banded together to create at least two yearly charity events, Awesome Games Done Quick and Summer Games Done Quick, wherein speedrunners perform live in an effort to raise funds for organizations like Doctors Without Borders and The Prevent Cancer Foundation. Together, they have contributed millions of dollars toward efforts to improving the world. Certainly, their speedrunning has contributed more to charity than the work of 99% of the writers and artists I know combined.
And, of course, this information makes it hard to dismiss speedrunning as pointless or useless, but I maintain that philanthropy is more like the icing on the cake. People doing what they love, amid the horror of the world (and despite the futility of their lives), is meaningful and important even before charity. I’ll maintain, in fact, that when we dedicate ourselves to useless things, what happens is not unlike Mario jumping into a parallel universe. It’s only theoretical, yes, but what we return with from the breach has a value that can only have been achieved in that unreal, pointless place. We travel to a seemingly mundane spot, engage in an absurd combination of footsteps and jumps, and finally make the rules of the universe fall away like meat from a bone. There is a mountaintop that lives deep within the foolishness of our choices, and it is worth climbing. So yes: at the altar of what life hands us, what else can we offer up but our own exuberant uselessness?