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Sunday, 5 February 2017

What's the Point of Speedrunning? A Majora's Mask Story

Brace yourselves, I’m going to talk about video game speedrunning. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Now, the concept of ‘speedrunning,’ that is, the practice of attempting to beat a game in the fastest possible time, has been around for decades. Think back to the early id Software shooters and the quaint old days of ‘rocket jumping.’ In recent times, it has grown into a much broader phenomenon, from the charitable cesspool of awkwardness that is AGDQ to an almost endless of surplus of Twitch streamers, let’s players, ridiculously complex TAS explanations and countless bizarre communities. And yeah, it can get pretty ugly.

It’s fair to say in many cases, speedrunners will obsess over a game to the point where it has become a detriment to their health and social lives. One has to wonder, why bother? What exactly is the point? What is the compulsion to play games beyond the way they were intended - taking a perfectionist attitude to uncovering shortcuts, frame-perfect maneuvers and programming quirks? There’s an element of competition, sure, but there has to be more to it than that. Is it just challenge for the sake of challenge?

Well, plenty of speedrunners no doubt have made up their own minds on the matter and I doubt I’m really qualified to answer that question. I don’t speedrun games, nor do I want to, but the other day I did try something along these lines: The Majora’s Mask 3-day challenge.

Let’s back up a bit. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask: the best game in the series, obviously. (If you disagree then you are wrong and I hate you, though it remains to be seen if the soon-to-be-released Breath of the Wild has a shot.) It’s one of my favourite games, and I could easily fill a whole blog talking about why - hell, one day I probably will, but for now I just want to focus on its potential for impromptu challenge. As you may know, the entire game is built on a timer system. After three in-game days, you are forced to reset the clock, the idea being to plan ahead which tasks to accomplish and gradually make progress through repeated three day loops. As a kid, I always used to speculate on whether it was possible to complete the game in a single loop - that is, after the first reset, when Link is restored to human form - is it possible to clear all four dungeons for the first time and beat the game without having to reset once?

I never attempted this on the N64, but with the added convenience of the portable 3DS version, I thought it could be fun to try. One catch - the total gameplay time (after slowing the clock) of the 3-day loop on 3DS is 1 hour and 48 minutes, substantially less than the original version. That’s less than 2 hours to beat something that, according to howlongtobeat.com, takes most players 24 hours. So I planned ahead; rather than following any one established guide on how to accomplish this, I used my own knowledge of the game’s systems, what items I’d need and what to skip. I still needed to do some research when I realised there would be impossible barriers to overcome. Case in point: Reaching two of the game’s areas requires Epona, your horse, which must be recovered on day one before sundown. To achieve this is… borderline impossible. The workaround I found is sort of amazing - a 3DS-only trick revolving around the sheer luck of additional geometry and a conveniently placed save point, almost as if the designers put it there on purpose:

People dedicate their free time to figuring out tricks like these...

So, I gave it a shot, rehearsing each segment that I’d need to do and then attempting it with as few mistakes as possible. This was about 2 years ago - I failed spectacularly by running out of time in the final dungeon, but having gotten so close I knew it was still possible. So, just the other day I attempted the whole thing again. I ironed out a few specific instances where I could have saved more time and went for it, this time successfully. What made it especially satisfying is just how close-cut my second run actually was. I beat the game’s last dungeon and made it to the ending with literally about 1 minute to spare. The act of clearing Stone Tower Temple and fighting Twinmold on such a stringent limit was especially nerve wracking (Link’s low health and underpowered items from skipping so much doesn't exactly help, neither does the fact that the remade Twinmold fight is incredibly long.) Still, I made it, and the end result was undoubtedly satisfying.

But to come back to that first question: Why bother? Why did I feel the need to achieve this? You could make the case that my self-imposed challenge was even more pointless than those of the folk who spend all day streaming speedruns online. At least those people are competing with each other for world records, or entertaining audiences of basement-dwellers. Was this not all a waste of time? Well, let me backpedal to the thoughts that were going through my head when I was planning my route through the game. When I think about it now, it’s all about the appeal of discovery, of utilising your understanding of a game’s subsystems and mastering something. When you’ve sunk enough hours into a hobby you enjoy, you can’t help but imprint your own self-imposed challenge onto it. Where it goes too far, I believe, is when it completely sabotages any previous enjoyment you got from the activity. And from what I’ve seen of the speedrunning community, a healthy balance of this is not something that is always in abundance.

Anyway, those are my ramblings for now. I’m thinking about making a disillusioned speedrunner the protagonist for a future book one day. I find the psychology behind them interesting even as I cringe at their methods. Living a life consumed by the inanity of self-perpetuating video game challenge.

In the end of the day, video games are supposed to be fun, right?

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