It's one of my favorite internet weeks of the year
This week happens to be one of my favorite internet weeks of the year: Summer Games Done Quick (SGDQ for short). It’s the summer eventfrom the charity fundraiser Games Done Quick — which has spent the last decade raising millions of dollars by enlisting volunteers to play video games very, very quickly and streaming the process.
Those volunteers are known as speedrunners, and they’re part of a fascinating online subculture of people obsessed with breaking video games in just the right way to hit credits as fast as humanly possible. They have very specific terminology — “tech,” for example, refers to the particular strategies involved in blitzing your way through a game; “any%” means getting to the credits using any strategy possible, regardless of how much is completed beforehand — and share a fascination with puzzling out the internal workings of video games.
In a way, they’re like reverse game devs; communities band together around their favorite games and detail the weird bugs and glitches that no game can entirely eliminate.
That can look like abusing collisions and save states to make a physics engine fling the player character across a level, or maybe manipulating a game’s random number generator to spawn advantageous items where they’re not supposed to be.
Speedrunning has taken off in recent years — in no small part because of the popularity of GDQ, which averages tens of thousands of viewers every hour of every day it’s live for something like SGDQ, and which has a pretty big YouTube channel — and I personally can’t get enough of watching people play video games in ways the developers never intended. It’s like getting a peek behind the curtain.
And it’s weirdly familiar if you’ve ever enjoyed a video game. Most of the time if you encounter a glitch in a game you laugh, reload a save, and move on — but speedrunners use them as keyholes, to see into the inner workings of a game’s world.
The history is fascinating, too. In brief, it began with 1993’s Doom. The game allowed players to record their gameplay and play it back using “demos” — which were smaller than video files, and could therefore be shared online very easily. Naturally, this spawned global leaderboards. As consumer internet infrastructure got better, more people began uploading their gameplay and strategies; communities began to coalesce. Eventually, you get to GDQ.
The best thing about GDQ — and, really, the reason I keep coming back — is because the event pairs speedrunners and commentators, people who can actually explain what’s going on onscreen. I find it all pretty fascinating!
Anyway! Yesterday I got a drink with a friend and I mentioned that SGDQ was on; eventually we got to talking about genius. Lately I’ve realized that genius rarely looks novel. More often, I think, it feels preordained.
Watching a person who’s one of the best in the world at something do that thing is almost like getting to see the future, or something — to me, at least, it looks like every movement is predetermined. Like it’s obvious, or simple, or couldn’t have happened in any other way. The gaps between your skill at theirs only become apparent when you try to replicate what they’ve done.
For me, it’s easiest to understand this in terms of video games, because it’s trivially easy to watch the highest skill players compete in a game that you know pretty well. But I think it goes for just about everything, from art to acting to film to soccer. I find it all edifying and superhuman at the same time.
It’s streaming on Twitch through Sunday, June 4th, 24 hours a day. Check it out!!!
Or not even humanly possible — some people set up bots to do what are called “Tool Assisted Speedruns,” or runs done entirely by a computer. This one is wild.
IGN has a pretty popular video series called “Developers React,” which features developers reacting to speedrunners breaking the absolute shit out of the games they spent years developing. It’s endlessly entertaining. Here’s a fun one.