Trig­ger Happy

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EDGE - - SECTIONS - STEVEN POOLE Steven Poole’s Trig­ger Happy 2.o is now avail­able from Ama­zon. Visit him on­line at www.steven­

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.”

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