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Gotta Go Fast – A Study in Speedrunning

Posted by Stuart

If at any point this summer you happened to walk by the Hexagram Lab, you probably saw a random stranger sitting on the couch with his laptop, controller in hand, eyes glued to the screen.
If, at a later date, you so happened to have business in the lab proper, you might have noticed that he was always playing the same dated 3-D Sonic game and that about 90% of the time he was trapped on the same level and would often restart for no apparent reason.
A brief conversation with the stranger would reveal that he was me and that this seemingly obsessive hobby was somehow research-related. Here’s how.
My name is Rainforest Scully-Blaker, but I usually go by Forest to save syllables. I’m an undergraduate student going into the final year of my Honours in Liberal Arts with a Minor in Creative Writing and as part of a new initiative at Concordia, I was chosen along with 49 other students to do paid research for the summer. I had always wanted to have a good reason to do something in Game Studies and Mia Consalvo was kind enough to let me work under her supervision, so my project was a go.
The premise was simple enough – I wanted to study speedrunning, an emergent gameplay practice whereby players attempt to complete a game as quickly as possible under many different sets of constraints. This can take the form of, on one end of the spectrum, extremely skilled precision play that may take advantage of minor glitches but generally leaves the game world intact or, on the other, abusing programming oversights to skip major segments of a playthrough or even the whole game. More often than not though, speedruns tend to fall somewhere in between.
Having taken a couple of game-related classes in the English department, I had written a paper for Darren Wershler on this subject, and had been marked by the fact that the secondary sources on speedrunning had been pretty sparse. The goal of my summer research was to rectify that by reading as much material as I could and filling in the gaps, but there were more gaps than I had anticipated. It became clear that, before I would be able to formulate a new and interesting argument, it was going to be necessary for me to fill in a lot of missing context regarding speedrunning and the community that has grown around it.
I began by deciding that, to properly understand speedrunning and the speedrunning community, I would have to integrate into it by running some games myself. This would take hours of practice to get any sense of what the most active speedrunners go through on a weekly basis, but the game lab had the right set-up so all that was left before I could begin was to choose a game. When aspiring players ask the veterans how to get into speedrunning, the near-unanimous piece of advice is to start with a game you enjoy and pick the simplest category, the one that takes the least amount of time.
I had played a lot of Sonic Adventure 2 in my youth and it was one of the more popular games being run at the start of my research period, with new tricks being found and new records being set on a near-weekly basis. It was also particularly relevant to my work because I am interested in the ways that gaming communities have informed game design (the famous story of how combos in fighting games first game about from players exploiting a programming accident comes to mind). I wondered whether speedrunning had or indeed ever could bring about similar changes. Other than racing games, the Sonic series was one of the few that I could think of where an emphasis on speed was built into the gameplay.
And so I started playing through the Gamecube version of Sonic Adventure 2. I began by trying to emulate an ‘ideal’ player, navigating the game space through the power of my own dexterity alone, no major glitches. My first completed run clocked in at about 1:35:00.  In retrospect a terrible time, but it wasn’t as though I was expecting to be even near competing with the world record time of about 40:00 without the use of any glitches. In these early stages, my time improved pretty dramatically with each day of practice and each completed run. Soon enough my time was around 1:05:00 and I decided that in order to break an hour, it was time to start learning glitches.
There is a major skip in the game’s first level and so I decided to start there, but I was very reluctant because of what this would do to my practice.  First, I should probably mention a couple of things about this glitch since the video isn’t totally self-explanatory. The way it works is that by squeezing past the grey boost pads just in front of that ramp at a very high speed and jumping off the ramp with perfect positioning, you are sent careening through the level geometry and land much further along than intended.
The problem is that none of the people who run this game, myself included, have any idea how to get the glitch to work consistently. Even if you get Sonic to go off the jump at a high enough speed, sometimes the glitch just doesn’t work. In fact one of the two players who had been trading the world record back and forth this summer has said that of the 1200 hours he’s spent speedrunning Sonic Adventure 2, about 90% of his runs have failed because of that trick. If I were to adopt the same glitch in my route, I would suffer the same fate and end up restarting about 19 out of every 20 runs (until I got good at the glitch, then it was only 7 out of 8).
But I wanted to get faster. So, I bit the bullet and started resetting once every two minutes instead of once every twenty.  Over time I got better. My 1:05 went down to a 1:01 and eventually, one glorious day, I got my time below an hour. But I wasn’t done yet.
Another aspect to speedrun optimization is your console of choice. Up to this point, as I’ve said, I was using the Gamecube version of the game, but there is also a re-release on XBLA, PSN, and Steam. The time it takes to load cutscenes on these newer consoles is much shorter than on the Gamecube and there is about half as much frame lag. As it would turn out, if you were to have identical runs on these two different versions of the game, the HD version would still be two minutes faster.
And so I switched, which for a while was equivalent to learning the whole game over again since the 360’s controller is much more sensitive than a Gamecube’s. Eventually, I got a 55:27 on the Xbox 360 version.  Soon 55:27 became 53:26 and then 53:16 and finally 50:52, which is where my personal best has stayed since.
As of last week, I have had to put the gameplay aspect of my project on hold and work on the more theoretical aspects. I have read many articles about speedrunning and have had surprising success with getting other speedrunners to give interviews about their practice, the next step being to combine my insights and experiences with those of other runners from all levels of immersion in the speedrunning community and the observations of other scholars into some cohesive arguments of my own.
So that’s the story so far. In closing I’d like to first give a big thanks to Mia for agreeing to work with me and shout-outs to anyone who stopped by to watch me speedrun. You all definitely know how to make someone feel welcome. I look forward to any future involvement with Concordia and Game Studies, hopefully at the graduate level.