Summer Games Done Quick started on Sunday last weekend and runs all week. Just thought I’d start out with that because whatever you think about speed running, it deserves to be mentioned. Go check it out here.
A few years ago, I stumbled across this magnificent little event and I’ve been hooked ever since. Summer Games Done Quick (also known as Awesome Games Done Quick, AGDQ, or just Games Done Quick) happens over the entire week and features a series of ridiculous speed runs, mano e mano races, and other exceptional displays of video game prowess (the blindfolded run of the first portion of Ocarina of Time last year was pretty darned impressive).
Better yet, AGDQ supports various charities (it’s Doctors Without Borders this summer). Last winter (yes, there’s one in the winter too), proceeds from the event went to the Prevent Cancer Foundation (about $920,000 was raised in all) and I’m not ashamed to admit that it took a bunch of accomplished video game players beating games in frankly-ridiculous amounts of time for me to actually start donating to charity.
Don’t judge me, I’m poor.
Whenever AGDQ coverage starts cropping up, however, one topic seems to be on everyone’s lips: are speed runs missing the point of video games?
Now, you can’t argue that they are or are not entertaining. I personally love to see someone tear through Mario 64 in 15 minutes or less while someone else might find it exceedingly boring. That’s a taste thing and there’s simply no discussing it here.
However, some people lambaste speed runners, saying that not only are they boring to watch (again, can’t really argue taste) but they are completely missing the point of video games. The difference between sitting down and enjoying Super Metroid over numerous play sessions as you painstakingly make your way through haunting corridors, exploring every nook and cranny, and tearing through it in 30 minutes with no regard for atmosphere or story is like the difference between languidly enjoying a gourmet meal at an expensive restaurant and participating in a hotdog eating contest. In one you are absorbing all the fine points of a well-crafted piece of art and in the other you’re blowing through it with no regard for that art.
Now, as hard as I worked to craft that irritatingly-long and complicated simile, I take umbrage with the comparison for one good reason: video games aren’t just about expression, they’re also about finesse and mechanical skill.
I’m as much of a games-are-art snob as anyone [except me. Ed.]. I absolutely adore the emotional highs and lows of the Walking Dead, the minimalist beauty of Limbo, and the oft groan-worthy humor of the Sam and Max series or the LEGO games. I make up silly stories and assign motivations and ambitions and dreams to my characters in the Sims. My Skyrim characters have detailed backstory explaining how they were incarcerated and why they carry on in a world that seems dead set against them succeeding. I get absorbed in games just as much as anyone (and more than some).
I love art. And I love beauty. If I wasn’t such a lazy wastrel, I would enjoy walking down the country roads near my house, absorbing the majesty of nature and the gorgeous pastels of a beautiful sunset. I wouldn’t enjoy sprinting. Not only would I not like the strain it puts on my body, I would feel like I was missing too much scenery, too much of what beauty nature has to offer. But that wouldn’t make sprinting as a means of transportation or even a competitive sport any less legitimate.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
For me personally, playing video games is like that leisurely stroll in the woods, enjoying what fulfillment (be it aesthetic, intellectual, philosophical, whatever) each game has to offer, taking in the atmosphere and enjoying the simple act of participating in pastime.
But that does not negate the mechanical and technical expertise necessary in a well-executed sprint… or performing a perfect speed run of a video game and shaving seconds off your personal best.
Since the act of speed running often requires the manipulation of glitches or imperfect programming, people often assume that there is less skill involved in beating a game quickly than beating a game the “right way.” But what people often overlook is the precision it takes to execute some of these glitches properly. These glitches often take frame-perfect movements and precision that can easily be overlooked when watching recorded speed runs in much the same way that the skill involved in seemingly-simple plays in professional sports can be easily overlooked. But despite how it appears, a picture perfect double play in baseball isn’t easy. It takes hours upon hours upon hours of tedious practice and hard work.
It’s the exact same for speed runners. Being able to access a glitch on command isn’t something you do flawlessly after a couple tries. And being able to work that one glitch seamlessly into a run to achieve a world record time is about as far from easy is at gets.
Another argument I’ve heard about speed runs is that glitched runs (particularly those that allow the player to skip large portions of the game) aren’t “legitimate” speed runs and only complete games should count – that exploiting those glitches to beat the game makes it unfair for people who want to speed run the game all the way through.
This argument is easily countered, of course, by pointing out that games have different categories of speed runs. Most games have a 100% completion run that requires the player to go from start to finish, acquiring every single item and seeing everything there is to see (I will plead innocence here as to whether these runs allow for glitch exploitation or if there are “glitch-free” runs) while other categories allow the player to skip large portions of the game for the legitimately fastest time possible.
But someone who beats a game in a minute by cheesing a glitch that sends them straight to the last boss is not considered “faster” than someone who speed runs the whole game in an hour in the same way that someone who runs the 3,200-meter run in 8:30 isn’t considered faster than someone who runs the 100-meter dash in 10 seconds. They’re two different events.
And either way, it still doesn’t negate the skill needed to exploit some of these glitches. If they didn’t require any skill, anyone could do it, and I would challenge you to break some of these records.
All in all, I will freely admit that I would rather watch someone play a story-centric game from start to finish, relishing the moments of story as they were “intended” to be experienced. But once a year I do enjoy watching AGDQ live, seeing the best the speed running community has to offer, being amazed by the technical expertise (the techspertise, one might say) on display, much the same way that I may not be a fighting game fan but I enjoy watching the best of the best in the fighting game community compete at EVO.
It also doesn’t hurt that the AGDQ folks find fun ways to engage the audience, calling for donations for the right to name characters in a Final Fantasy VII run or, famously, whether to save the animals at the end of Super Metroid or not (often referred to as the “save the frames or save the animals” debate). They even explain the subtle nuances of the speed runs themselves, which can go a long way to helping you appreciate this part of our pastime or even help point you in the right direction if you’re interested in giving it a try.
So allow me to formally recommend you head on over to this year’s Awesome Games Done Quick event. Even if you find that you don’t enjoy speed runs, you may learn a thing or two about the subtleties of a part of gaming you didn’t know existed, and you don’t have to enjoy speed runs to appreciate the level of skill on display. If nothing else, you can donate to a worthy cause and to prove that gamers can make a difference, something I personally feel very strongly about.
And at the same time, I love celebrating speed running for the simple fact that it shows that there is no one “right” way to enjoy this pastime that we all love.
This year’s AGDQ began on Sunday and runs through August 1st. All proceeds from this year’s summer event will go to Doctors Without Borders. More information and a schedule of events is available at their website.
If you miss their summer event, fret not. There is also an AGDQ event in the winter, held the first week of January.