See how they run: the speedrunners who became accidental video game historians
It all comes down to one moment. This has to work — or it all goes wrong. Thousands are watching, and just as many are giving green to watch you perform. You know what to do, how to do it, and exactly what to say.
Even with the best of intentions, though, it doesn’t always work out.
That it could be a play, a boxing match, a gig — or the performance of a Shakespearean classic where somebody cries about getting their heart broken just before having a knife put through it. It could also be speedrunning — the art of beating video games as fast as humanly possible.
If I said I played a single video game for a hundred hours, you might think I’m passionate. If I said I played a single video game and its individual levels for thousands of hours to find a way to beat it as fast as possible — and that said game is based on a ’90s Bond flick — you might go ‘eh’?
But this is exactly what speedrunners do, with that particular example reference to The Elite — a group dedicated to smashing through the diminishing returns found in running the 21-year-old GoldenEye 007 on Nintendo 64. It’s a game absolutely made for runners, with itemized levels and a built-in timer allowing for per-level records. It’s just a case of picking your vice, and going for it.
Running on decades-old hardware only adds to that challenge. A kind of meta difficulty, as Nintendo’s fledgling 3D hardware struggles to eek out even the most primitive polygons. Look at the sky or stare at the ground — because the less there is to see, the less there is to render. Faster frame rates, better times.
And it’s all in the name of getting a better time no matter the cost. The difference might be a second — but in a game as tried and tested as GoldenEye, a second is an earth-shattering achievement. It’s why almost anything goes. Whether it’s going out of bounds or using a device from a different region, it’s nearly all acceptable if it gets you to the end faster.
It’s these bugs, these exploits, that remind us there’s a very human element to the games we play— a reminder that, despite our best efforts, these games are as flawed as the people who make and consume them.
That human element permeates every facet of the hobby. From the drama surrounding questionable evidence of a world record to outright accusations of cheating, speedrunning has the controversy you’d expect of any competitive scene. It’s impossible not to share in that drama, either. It’s impossible not to feel the elation when they pull off a frame-perfect button press - or feel the frustration when a record-beating run is dashed by the slip of a finger or worse, a soft lock.
On the surface, the answer is obvious: watching someone at the top of their game — or a game — is always rewarding. Watching every trick and tip is fascinating, as you learn about games you’ve played for years in new and interesting ways. That same compulsion to watch someone backhop their way through Half-Life or Ocarina of Time is the same as watching sporting legends or award-winning actors strut their stuff — they’ve clearly spent time and effort perfecting their craft, and it shows.
Like a stage play — or a gig or a footy match — speedrunning is a reflection of intense dedication. The stage play analogy feels incredibly apt: speedrunning can feel like a performance art, as our arm-chair heroes navigate a polygonal (or pixelated) tightrope.
Runners effectively become guardians of the past. Not of an emulation or remaster, but of a game as it was played decades ago, warts and all. Accidental video game historians that map games of old, revealing quirks we never knew — and likely their developers never knew — existed.
You might struggle to come away from a GDQ stream without an intimate understanding of the game you just watched — one that would keep the developer’s marketing team wide awake at night. One exploit in GoldenEye lets you throw explosives through walls because the game doesn’t always render things you can’t see. Throw the bomb, turn away — and the wall vanishes. That’s a time save, and new avenues opened for runners.
It shows the ingenuity these developers employed to get things working, and where this ingenuity was hamstrung by hardware. It’s not about pixel counts or adaptive frame rates. It’s about the thought processes developers followed that make the games we play — or used to play — all the more fascinating.
This information may not be exclusive to speedrunners, but they broadcast it to an audience that wouldn’t know otherwise. They let us interface with niche communities in a way no other medium allows. It’s an act that celebrates games regardless of platform and age — something that celebrates what the inherent medium is capable of, and simultaneously shows us how much games have evolved.
The Elite is utterly dedicated to GoldenEye 64. Not emulated, not hacked — but a pure, as-it-was-then Nintendo 64 game from ‘97. Something that’s long been relegated to the shelves of your local charity shop has new value, new life and new meaning thanks to a bunch of people on the internet.
It’s a sore thumb in the world of second-sales, trade-ins and flash sales. All things that can be a lifeline of the cash-strapped gamer, but only encourage a certain disposability in our purchases. To truly justify thousands of hours dedicated to the same game — or level or mission — in the name of a world record seems like an impossible task, given that many deem video games a waste of time in the first place.
By capitalistic standards, game streaming can make speed running a financial reality for a small few. Events like GDQ can generate coins aplenty, too, raising 19 million dollars for charity since its launch in 2010. Speedrunning, then, can have a tangible impact on the world.
And speedrunning displays a number of positive traits: dedication, grit and the willingness to persevere and overcome repeated failure, meticulousness and in some cases, the ability to present and captivate an audience. There’s also the conception that speedrunning involves people sitting in a dark room, alone and isolated as they practice their perfect craft.
That might be true — but speedrunning is fundamentally a community activity, as progress is crowdsourced. Someone makes a discovery, only to be built on by another, then another. Each new technique, glitch or approach becomes an exciting prologue to a world of new possibilities.
And at the heart of this cross-continent collaboration lies a wonderful paradox — as speedrunners celebrate the medium in a way nothing else can: playing a video game for long stretches of time to find a way to beat it as quickly as possible.