Shoot first, ask questions later
Steven Poole considers speedruns as an expression of admiration
Sixty years ago, a man first ran a mile in under four minutes: an amazing feat of skill and determination. It is surely a fitting anniversary tribute to that landmark that in 2014, someone first completed Super
Mario Bros in under five minutes. The player goes by the name Blubbler, and the video of his microathletic triumph is hypnotic in its fanatical dedication, with perfect jumps missing Piranha Plants by mere pixels, and every possible exploit used to shave frames off his run. “One tricksy moment in level 82,” explains Tom Phillips of Eurogamer, “sees Blubbler skip the post-flagpole walk to the castle by arriving at the same time as a passing Bullet Bill.”
This, then, is how Super Mario Bros would play itself, if it could. There is a certain machinic, inhuman quality to the run. Indeed, it’s hard even to be sure that it really counts as playing the game, since the requirements of accuracy and speed override any sense of style. (Similarly, a strong human chess player might choose a decisive move that has flair, even irony, in a given position, whereas a computer engine will just brutally select the move that gives the maximum possible numerical advantage.) Yet we value a kind of machinic efficiency in athletic sports (“he’s a machine,” people say admiringly), and Roger Bannister could not afford to add a few fancy steps and pirouettes when pursuing his four-minute mile either. So let us say that the SMB speedrun ‘expands’ the semantics of what it means to play a game.
Expansive of the sense of play in a different way is the kind of speedrun of epic adventure games in times that at first seem like misprints. Ocarina Of Time in 20 minutes? It can, in fact, be done, as I was happy to learn on watching a video of the live playthrough by Cosmo Wright in 2013. This is speedrun as live event, in which the runner comments on and, as it were, annotates the performance.
Here the performer, an amiable guy in a T-shirt and Nepalese hat, narrates the
Wright is always trying to break the game, but he does it as an expression of love for
the art object he is abusing
history of how what he is doing came to be possible while he is doing it. “Years ago, in 2005,” Wright explains early on, setting the scene, “it was mostly ‘natural route’: you’d just kind of go through the game in the order intended. And then people realised: ‘Oh, well we can probably skip the Lens Of Truth if we, like, memorise the Wasteland.’”
He doesn’t mean memorising the immortal modernist poem by TS Eliot, but what is fascinating about this performance is actually something analogous to a literary historical texture. Throughout, Wright is careful to give appropriate credit to the pathfinding individuals who discovered certain shortcuts. “In 2006, Kazooie, he’s from Finland, and he found a ton of stuff, including Shadow Temple Early [an exploit].” In effect, Wright is footnoting his own performance as a communal effort.
The fascinating paradox is that Wright and his comrades are always trying to break the game – to exploit glitches and bugs so as to bypass swathes of it – but they do it as a fierce expression of love and admiration for the art object they are abusing. Some of their exploits show off how the game systems still function reliably even when levels are played in the wrong order; others are more controversial, such as avoiding the fight with Ganondorf by warping straight to the end credits. But all are done in a spirit of wondering exploration (‘discoveries’ are cited and dated), and play just as any ‘normal’ encounter with the game. “It’s like such a cool game,” Wright says, “and I’m really fascinated personally… by the huge number of interesting things you can do in different games, like seeing what’s actually possible without cheating.”
Thus the game system, to such scholarly scrutineers, not only contains the ‘puzzles’ that the game designers have deliberately engineered into it, but the game itself is a giant puzzle to see how far the engine can be stretched for a speedrun without breaking. Commenting on the current state-of-the-art route through Ocarina, Wright says: “It’s almost like, once again, the game’s finally been solved – but it is Ocarina Of Time so, you know...” The audience laughs. “Who knows, really?”
And so the perfect speedrun is another kind of ‘solution’ to the game design – one that, like a scientific theory, is always open to improvement. As the hero is told, with amusingly little time for celebration, at the end of Super Mario Bros: “Your quest is over. We present you a new quest.”