Speedrunning is Pure Art
A beautiful spectacle that captures the imagination
On the second weekend of January, millions of football fans were plopped on the couch, glued to their televisions, cheering for their favorite team as they witnessed professional football players duke it out in the NFL Wild Card Weekend.
What was I doing?
I too was plopped on the couch and glued to my television. But instead of cheering for Tom Brady, I was cheering for Bubzia, a speedrunner who live-streamed himself playing Super Mario 64 as part of Awesome Games Done Quick. On average, the game takes 12 hours to beat. He beat it in 39 minutes. Blindfolded.
Modern speedrunning originated with 1993’s Doom, which was one of the first games to offer a “demo record” option. This capability kept track of the player’s input control states during each frame, which was the basis of proof when players challenged each other to complete Doom as fast as possible. Thus, the first speed-running community was born and the rest is history.
For the uninitiated, speed-running is when a player tries to beat a video game as fast as possible. Realistically, it’s a beautiful art form where speedrunners use creativity (and glitches) to shave off milliseconds from their time in order to achieve a record, to entertain, or simply have fun. When you add additional challenges to the mix such as not getting hit once, collecting all key items, or playing blindfolded, the viewing experience becomes that much better. At the end of the run, when the gamer slouches back in his/her gaming chair with relief and a smile that exudes pure accomplishment, it’s enough to make the sternest person smile back.
To be frank, I, of course, am not qualified to compare speedrunning to art. I’m not sure anyone is. Nonetheless, I hope you’ll still hear me out.
The million-dollar question
What is art? The Oxford English Dictionary defines art as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power”. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines art as “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects”. The Cambridge Dictionary defines art as “the making of objects, images, music, etc. that are beautiful or that express feelings”.
Of course, art is subjective. Despite how reputable these globally recognized academic institutions are, the definition of art is steeped in controversy. From the 1950s to this day, philosophers and Twitter users alike have debated over the proper definition.
The common argument, inspired by 20th-century philosopher Ludwig Wittenstein, is that the phenomena of art are simply too diverse to establish a satisfactory definition that can unify all of its boundless themes without stifling influence on artistic creativity, a point on which I concur.
Making my case
Without an official definition for art, the best I can do is give you mine: a form of expression, borne of agency, that aesthetically conveys will.
Speedrunning is the player exuding their agency and exerting their will in the game world. It’s in this agency where the expression lies — the catalyst of the artistry. By pushing the boundaries of the game, the player can express any number of ideals such as mastery, ingenuity, cleverness, capability, stress, and perhaps joy. The speedrunner can play it safe, can make a risky play (“swag strat”) to shave off time, or utilize a combination of the two. In addition, the speedrunner can choose their medium such as Any% (beating the game as fast as possible) or 100% (completing the game as fast as possible), among others.
Take Bubzia’s blindfolded speedrun for example, specifically on the water level “Dire, Dire Docks”. As soon as Mario takes a high dive into the water, Bubzia effortlessly enters a submerged cavern below. Bubzia’s head bobs in time with Mario’s glugs as he tries to properly situate himself. Soon after, Bubzia shakes his head in disappointment — he’s lost. So he drowns Mario: the will to start anew. With a life lost, Bubzia takes Mario down the cavern again and ends up making it through, out of pure muscle memory, again taking advantage of rhythmic audio cues. He jumps out of the water onto a platform.
Hugging the wall and finding his way to a button with a series of measured jumps, Bubzia is methodical to ensure he does not err here, since missing the star would be costly time-wise. Pressing the button successfully, indicated by an auditory timer, Bubzia easily navigates the rest of the way to the star through precise aerobatic jumps up a flight of blocks. As Mario celebrates, the blind Bubzia sighs in relief and I’m on the edge of my seat. I can feel his adrenaline, his expression of solace in tune with my own. His will to persevere keeps me hooked and I am truly moved by his unique play.
The game, the canvas. The controller, the brush. The speedrunner, the artist. The speedrun, the art itself.
A large counter-argument is that speedrunning is not an art, but a science. After all, with a linear game such as the original Super Mario Bros. where there is only one route you can take, how much room is there truly to express yourself? Can speedrunning be artistic where there is only one specific sequence of events you must undertake to be competitive? I still believe so, because the speedrunner is still conveying expression even if his/her run is similar to someone else’s run. A painting that is strikingly similar to another work can still be art, to me at least.
Furthermore, by my definition, couldn’t the argument be made that any regular gameplay is art? Certainly. However, I personally believe speedrunning is more of an aesthetic medium. In addition, the player’s conveyance of expression during a speedrun is more apparent to me than someone casually playing Warzone. But I digress.
I didn’t watch just Bubzia’s run. I watched another. Then another. By the time the weekend was over, I couldn’t converse with my friends over the best plays or the biggest upsets. All I wanted to talk about with them was the majestic artistry I witnessed and how it made me feel. So I did.
But they didn’t care. Art is subjective, after all.
Nonetheless, I’m happy to keep the feelings I have to myself and share with the few people who will listen. Despite the plausibility of my arguments, one thing’s for certain — I cannot wait for Summer Games Done Quick.
Thank you very much for reading! I would love to hear your thoughts and perspectives. If you enjoyed what you saw, check me out here for more of my work. Any and all feedback is valid and welcome.