The combined human effort of speedrunning is a wonderful, terrifying thing to behold.
Image courtesy Games Done Quick
It’s a new year, and that means a new Awesome Games Done Quick. The 2018 version, much like all of the others and their equivalent events in the summer, is about speedrunners getting together in one hotel and, well, speedrunning games.
They come from all over the world to show off their prowess at games from every genre and time period. Some they play to 100% completion, and others they use as platforms for racing, each speedrunner putting their all into a live performance of their mastery of gameplay systems I couldn’t execute even if I somehow knew about them. They speedrun games that many people have a hard time completing if they’ve had years. Watching a good speedrun is something sublime.
The sublime, if we take a little trip with Immanuel Kant, is the word we give to the recognition of our own smallness in the universe. When you stand in front of the ocean and it takes up your vision, horizon point to horizon point, and you realize that you cannot fathom the size and shape of its expanse; that’s the sublime. It’s not only the recognition that there is something so beyond your size and scale, but the fact that you can know that information. It’s horrible, like contemplating the size of the sun or the distance between our planet and the next closest habitable solar system. Pure, grim being.
Above: Claris speedrunning Sonic Mania at GDQ this week.
When I watch a speedrun, I come into contact with something beyond me. I don’t just mean the individual runner. While Games Done Quick has had some people in the past who were perhaps a little too enthused to perform their own particular brand of wacky online behavior in front of a camera, at this point you can either expect an affable, competent person to speedrun and talk at the same time or a quiet, methodical runner with a great commentator behind them on the couch.
All of this, the mumbled speeches and the “here you can see”s and even the damnable memes (thankfully they stopped yelling HYPE all the time), feels like comfort. It’s not the sublime, it’s not a horror. It’s safety, even if I’ve never seen the game being run before, because the beats are the same.
But just like the ocean, the problem comes when you begin to contemplate what’s before you. When you’re watching a speedrun, it has nothing to do with the person in front of you. They’re just a kind of octopus limb that’s stretched out from a Reddit subforum, a website, or a Discord channel. They are the sum product of dozens or hundreds of people hammering themselves up against a game that was, like all games are, put together with duct tape and glue. These people have taken crowbars to the doors, flames to the floorboards, and created the most perfect knowledge that they can about this game object that is being ripped through in front of your eyes.
Speedrunning is puppetry in real-time, and the puppet master is a squidly, bonded entity of minds and maneuvers that have connected over the internet and managed to transport everything they learned into a capable human who can execute it all in sequence while monologuing.
When you contemplate that, you’re on the edge of the sublime. The fact that we can communicate and generate this immense amount of intellectual labor that is then communicated and compiled by an individual so that it can be performed, as perfectly as possible, for 100,000 people. This ability should not be discounted. A runner knows they can mess up. If you’ve been watching GDQ for a while, you’ve seen runners choke. You’ve seen the critical mistake. You’ve seen them load the backup save that they made so that this run could be made marathon-safe.
While we’re watching the runner do their magic, that many-tentacled thing that lives on the internet is still churning away in the background. The people that make it up are all still discovering, analyzing, and thinking about the game at hand. This creature wants to make new gains before this game appears on a marathon again. More shortcuts need to be discovered. Minutes, not seconds, need to come off the world record time. This game must be compressed even further into an efficient machine.
And that is the real terrifying part of it for me. It isn’t just that there is an inhuman creature of immense connective capacity that has self-organized to play a video game. No, the real terror is that it lives in an abyss, a metaphorical Mariana Trench, which is composed of a video game.
You or I might play a game for a few hours and stop. We might complete it, even, by sinking 40 hours into it. In a fit of winter depression, we might even 100% a game after putting 200 hours of grinding magic into it. Our effort is miniscule compared to the combined amount of human hours that have been put into Mega Man X to figure out the best routes. A new game, like Resident Evil VII, is the kind of game where runners are looking to cut off hours. For a classic Mega Man game, they’re looking for frames, fractions of a second that can be cut from a run in order for a person to get ahead of the pack of runners around them.
It’s an asymptotic relationship, the Zeno’s Paradox of gameplay, a kind of mathematical anomaly where this monstrous organ of organized knowledge instantiates itself in the hands of runners and chases the most efficient confluence of time and space to render a complex game into a finite state machine. The time available to marshal the elements of hands, frames, eyes, ears, vibrations, and software objects into one neat shape is beyond human comprehension. Humans killed more than 10 billion Covenant. There’s nothing we can’t do, fused together, combined, networked.