Awesome Games Done Quick and its spin-off Summer Games Done Quick are part of a semi-annual charity drive in which members of various speedrunning communities stream themselves racing through various games. Proceeds from the event go to the Prevent Cancer Foundation. If that premise sounds as exciting to you as it does to me, you’re probably headed over to their stream right now.
Speedrunning presents a different style of play, sometimes in opposition to what developers intended. In a story-heavy game, plot is treated as an obstacle, cutscenes are desperately avoided, and dialogue is rapidly skipped through. Overly ambitious players frequently cause tensions online when they prioritize competitive goals over personal enjoyment, and what are timed runs if not a way to introduce an element of contest into something others consider simply an engrossing experience? Some of the nomenclature can also be unfortunate, and in the most recent AGDQ event, one speedrunner was banned for tasteless jokes during a Crash Bandicoot run. So it’s easy to understand why speedrunning as a community may seem offputting to some players, even as they appeal to many.
Most runners at the event are aware of how weird and callous their approach to games can look to outsiders And even with these sometimes-problematic elements taken into account, speedrunning can make for some great internet television. Here are a few reasons why.
In the best runs in these events, participants don’t just dash through the game at ridiculous speeds, but also give amazing spontaneous lectures about the history of speedrunning it. You will hear of the pioneers who first started toying with the game and advocating for it in the larger community, the researchers who discovered the necessary trick jumps and wall clips to cut down play time far enough to make uninterrupted speedruns feasible at all, and the revolutionaries who shaved minutes of previous records by introducing new techniques and strategies when most people were simply trying to execute the established route to perfection.
Which version of a game do speedrunners prefer, and why? What glitches and bugs were left in the finished game, and how can they be exploited? What happens when you go out of bounds in a particular game? What happens if you perform certain actions out of sequence? Are there any items or powerups you can get around using at all? How far can you bend the game before it snaps?
There’s an endless wealth of factoids about their preferred games floating around in the speedrunning community. Some of the more basic insights — like research into which weapon or spell is mathematically ideal for beating the game — might even be applicable in casual play. Few people will find use for the high-level stuff — like complicated jump chains that have a window of a single frame to get right and still only save a few seconds — but the theoretical foundations for why and how these tricks work are still fascinating, especially if you ever thought about making a game yourself. Awesome Games Done Quick is a pretty good demonstration of the lengths to which people will go to break a game, and what unintentional consequences certain design choices can have.
Games are a collaborative artform that can involve dozens, if not hundreds of contributors across various technical fields: designers, artists, animators, programmers, musicians, writers, and more. However, because it’s easier, and because game studios tend to be secretive about the whole process, we still tend to associate games with specific individuals. So Civilization is entirely the work of Sid Meier, Deus Ex was made solely by Warren Spector, and Bioshock was crafted single-handedly by Ken Levine.
Opposite this focus on high-profile auteurs, it’s exciting to see how openly speedrunners acknowledge the many contributions that went into the canonically ideal route they follow on stage. Participants constantly give shout outs to other runners who plotted the route for a particular section, found a neat little skip, or worked out how to consistently perform a particular trick. These sections, skips, and tricks might even be named after these people in honor of their contribution to the noble cause of playing games very fast.
It’s admirable to see runners acknowledge the unseen work that went into their own performance, in spite of being in constant competition with the other people who contributed to their success. Even though only a single person can hold the record at any one time, they seem to think of it more as being the top of a human pyramid than a triumph of individual skill, and take great care to pay homage to those who made their standout performance possible.
This may be a surprising thing to say about a subculture that’s all about going fast, but speedrunning actually fosters a culture of slow and careful consumption that you rarely see in mainstream gaming. In an age of perpetual Steam sales, games have become disposable goods to a lot of people. We pick up a game when it’s cheap, we play it once (maybe), then we move on to the next one and forget all about it. Meanwhile at AGDQ, it’s perfectly normal for a guy to talk about how he’s been playing the same Kirby game for ten years.
I don’t want to suggest that this way of consuming games is morally superior somehow, although I suspect a lot of us would be happier overall if we didn’t feel pressured to “keep up” with games like speedrunners clearly don’t. Mainly, it serves as an interesting counterpoint to how most of us tend to think about games, for instance in the concept of ‘replay value.’ Speedruns show that that value isn’t always dependent on randomly generated content or some form of branching narrative.
Okay, this one’s a bit obvious, but it’s still true. It’s interesting to see how different the challenges posed by different games are, and in what way they end up being transformed by the runner. 2D sidescrolling games effectively turn into hour-long Guitar Hero tracks where the runner never stops moving and has to perfectly time every other action. 3D games are much more about the acrobatic and navigational challenges of moving a character, sometimes literally, around levels in the ideal way.
Shorter games tend to feature more high-risk tricks since their low overall length makes it easier to chase a completely flawless run, while runs of several hours are much more about playing consistently and recovering from mistakes. Some runs are more about memorization, others more about responding on the fly to randomized elements. Some games are played the way they’re meant to be played, if much more effectively than any regular person would, while some games have their seams cracked open until they look like a psychedelic net.art installation.
A Good Cause
Cancer is a really shitty disease, clearly, and last year’s Awesome Games Done Quick raised over $1.5 million to fight it. The event would still be worthwhile as mere entertainment effort, but its charitable work elevates it beyond that to an all-around great thing that anyone can endorse wholeheartedly.
It does become a little frustrating occasionally to see how many of the comments left by donors feel the need to remind everyone that this event is yet more evidence of games doing good things and, by implication, deserve to be taken seriously. Of course games deserve that, and have for a while now. About the only thing left to do to is for all of us to stop worrying about their perception.
Videogames are a broad enough space now that a good thing happening in games can simply be a good thing happening in games, and doesn’t have to be an argument for their worth. Awesome Games Done Quick is a sterling example of one of those good things, so if the spectacle of speedrunning is interesting to you, why not check it out?
Joe Köller’s only experience speedrunning games is an achievement for beating Spelunky in under eight minutes. You can find him on Twitter @JoeKllr.