Thursday, January 18, 2018

Inventory Management, Vol VI: Gotta Go Fast!

Awesome Games Done Quick took places in the Washington, D.C. area, January 7 through 14.

It’s late January, which means another Games Done Quick event has come and gone. This year, the speedrunning community beat 2017’s total by raising almost $2.3 million for the Prevent Cancer Foundation over the course of the week-long event. As a colleague of mine so aptly put it, this is one of the few times of the year that we can collectively be proud to be part of gaming society, canceling out the toxicity and pettiness of normal gaming culture with an event fueled by togetherness, commiseration, and hope. I want to celebrate that spirit with this look at some of my favourite moments from this year’s Awesome Games Done Quick.

Resident Evil 7 – Madhouse (Carcinogen, 1:49:27)
Resident Evil 7 is a difficult game that’s even more punishing on harder difficulty settings. The toughest of these is called “Madhouse” difficulty, and even a skilled runner like Carcinogen wasn’t able to make it look easy. His extremely well-rehearsed run was beset by unpredictable elements that – especially in the context of the high-tension atmosphere of the game – quickly turned from mere annoyances to moments of genuine terror. The game’s scares probably hold little sway over him after hours and hours of practicing it, but the pressure of a live marathon setting, and the game’s tendency to lash out unexpectedly in grotesque, fatal ways, had Carcinogen screaming along with everyone in attendance whenever things went south. This was a very entertaining run to watch, but also a very interesting one, where the line between the horror the developers intended and the horror of a live, high-stakes speedrun began to blur.

Battletoads – Blindfolded Turbo Tunnel (TheMexicanRunner, 29:04)
Already infamous for its challenging action gameplay, the 1991 NES classic Battletoads takes on an even more intimidating spectre in a speedrun setting. TheMexicanRunner’s run through the game was impressive and informative, but a special segment at the end – performed as part of a donation incentive which was very quickly reached – stood out. Stories of childhoods stuck on the “Turbo Tunnel” level are common among my peers, but TMR has practiced it so many times that its precise, blinding-fast rhythms are instinctive to him. Operating solely on audio cues and muscle memory, TMR blasts through the notoriously punishing Tunnel with his head wrapped twice over in bandanas and hats. He completes it to thunderous applause, and dedicates his run to one of his favourite runners, who inspired him to attempt such crazy feats by beating Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! using the Power Glove. TMR’s achievement wasn’t just amazing to watch – it was an unexpectedly sweet celebration of the passion and inspiration that grows within the speedrunning community, even across oceans and borders.

Superman 64 - World Record (headstrong1290, 36:48)
Speedrunners aren’t always attracted to games that are tough by design – sometimes the obtuse and awkward challenges of a poorly-made game can be even more rewarding to circumvent. Widely considered one of the worst video games ever made, 1999’s Superman 64 headlined the event’s “Awful Block” and was given the star treatment by runner headstrong1290, who not only showcased a remarkable ability to wrangle the game’s uncooperative control scheme and barely-finished level design, but invited a couch of supporting commentators (including fan favourite, Spikevegeta) that had everyone howling about the game’s ridiculously poor quality. To top off what was already a great run, headstrong achieved a world record time, live on air.

Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! & Super Punch-Out!! – 2 Games 1 Controller (zallard1, 23:56)
Perhaps it’s no surprise that speedrunners are gluttons for punishment, but sometimes utter mastery of a game isn’t enough. Runners like zallard1 have so completely bested the intended challenge of their chosen game that they invent new ways to make it even more difficult to complete (nevermind to speedrun). Enter the ridiculous category of “2 Games, 1 Controller” runs, where zallard1 has mastered the precise inputs that allow him to control two games at the same time. Going the distance with the opponents in the Rocky-inspired NES boxing classic and its SNES sequel is tough enough under normal circumstances, but doing both simultaneously – and knowing precisely how and when to navigate not only the fights, but the menus of both games – is a feat I’d never imagined.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past – Randomizer Race (Andy & ChristosOwen, 1:42:40)
Another example of fan engineering that takes a game way beyond its intended experience is the phenomenon of randomizers – custom versions of a game that maintain the core experience, but randomize certain key elements. For a game like 1992’s Link to the Past, that means all the key items you find in the chests scattered across Hyrule are placed randomly. You can’t venture through the Swamp Palace assuming you’ll find the Hookshot at the end – because it might be in the chest that normally contains the Ice Rod. Runners Andy and ChristosOwen (supported by hilarious commentary from another fan favourite, Patty) had to manage not just the on-the-fly planning and routing that a randomizer demands, but also the stress of a head-to-head race to see whose experience, whose skill, and whose luck would allow them to finish their run first. The moment when they silently realize and acknowledge how neck-and-neck this race actually was – captured here – is a little bit of speedrun magic.

Bloodborne – All Bosses Bloodbath (heyZeusHeresToast, 1:37:49)
In terms of sheer awe-inspiring skill, none of 2018’s AGDQ runs were a match for heyZeus’s unrelentingly savage run through FROM Software’s Bloodborne. I’ve spoken at length about this game’s deadly tension and unforgiving difficulty, but heyZeus blasts through it like it’s no big deal, tossing out jokes and interesting bits of insightful trivia as he swiftly demolishes giant, intimidating boss enemies that took the rest of us whole days to defeat. In a game as highly-polished as Bloodborne, there aren’t many glitches to exploit that would make the run any quicker or easier – so runners must instead rely on pure discipline and tightly-refined skill. It’s jaw-dropping stuff.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – A Work In Progress (atz, 3:57:00)
New games are always exciting to see at a Games Done Quick event, since the strategies and techniques that allow runners to optimize their time for those games are still being developed. No game better showcases this than Breath of the Wild, whose open-ended nature ensures that fresh ideas are constantly being brought to the table. In his four-hour “All Main Quests” run, runner atz was employing techniques that had been attempted only weeks before the live event, and the couch commentary was often peppered with brainy banter as the commentators, themselves BotW runners, thought out loud about strats that could maybe shave some seconds off the run. At an event typically dominated by games that have been speedrun for years, where a single specific approach is universally acknowledged as the ideal, it’s very cool to watch runners figure it all out before your very eyes.


As the speedrunning community grows, so too does its audience. Its occasionally regressive points (like its male-dominated culture, or the runners who use the hobby as a vehicle for self-promotion and cultivate an air of superiority over the games they play) are being gradually sanded down to reveal a more supportive, inclusive attitude. Female runners are becoming more and more common, and GDQ events have made strides towards inclusivity for LGBTQ runners and attendees (including fantastic trans runners like Orcastraw and the aforementioned headstrong1290). The spirit of Games Done Quick, after all, is one that encourages an attitude of thoughtfulness, patience, and respect towards games. It’s only natural that this should extend to the people involved, too.

It’s widely understood that you can’t really speedrun a game without deeply enjoying the thing in the first place, but a love of the game is only the seed of what makes Awesome Games Done Quick grow into something special.  Love of one another, and of the hobby we all share, is what these events really celebrate, and the donation total is only a number value that doesn’t begin to express the truth of it.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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