“Routing for a runner is a practice in optimisation theory.”
July 30, 2017 5:47 PM   Subscribe

A Brief History of Speedrunning: How Doom and Zelda Became Stages for an Exhilarating Internet Subculture by Kat Brewster [Read Only Memory] “This is a theme which comes up again and again from speedrunners. ‘It’s a challenge,’ they say. ‘How fast can I get it?’ It’s a natural question to ask. When it comes to speedrunning games, there is no rulebook, no guide. There’s simply one possible way to do it, or one route which might be better than another. The game ceases to be the game it was authored to be, and becomes the landscape and language for an entirely separate practice. Players take what is given, and build something else out of it. It’s a kind of subversion, a subtle power play of guerrilla game design.”
posted by Fizz (27 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
This is a fun read, thank you. It's interesting to see 'why these games in particular?'

I also loved John Romero's line here:
When I asked Romero if he knew what was happening on the internet with Doom, he stressed that it was seeing the fan-built levels in Wolfenstein 3D which really blew him away. ‘It was very, very difficult to make a level for Wolfenstein,’ he said. ‘It wasn’t made for anyone to make levels for it. But people figured out how to crack the coding so they could make their own levels … So when we saw people doing that – because we knew how hard it was for them to even get to that point – we obviously said, ‘Our next game has to be open.’ So, Wolfenstein really started it, but it exploded with Doom because we opened it.’
That's a viewpoint I can really respect. :)
posted by mordax at 7:04 PM on July 30, 2017 [9 favorites]

I've never tried to speedrun a game. I'm just not that kind of gamer, but I do find the concept and the people who are able to engage in speedruns to be impressive.

If I were to ever try a speedrun, I might try Mega Man 2 as it is one game I enjoyed and beat multiple times during my childhood and it could be fun. Sadly, I do not have the time or energy it would require to master such a feat.
posted by Fizz at 8:00 PM on July 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

Like a great many kids of the 80s, I received a NES as a gift from a very generous relative who had no idea that it would result in me and my sister clamoring for an endless variety of additional gifts at ~$60 bucks a pop. We were lucky if we got one new game per year, which resulted in us sapping every ounce of play possible out of the few games that we did have. Of course, the game we had the longest was Super Mario Bros and my sistr and I ended up creating a leaderboard on a sketchpad where we used a stopwatch to time each other and compete for who could beat the game the quickest.

I don't remember what our final times were exactly, but they were definitely in the 5 minutes and XX seconds range (because we would brag that we could beat the game "in five minutes" while silently adding (and a few seconds), which makes me feel pretty good about seeing that the current world record is 4:56.

Similarly, when the NES came out, my sister and I were in junior high and saved up our babysitting and lawncutting money to by one on release day (knowing that if we asked for it for a present, the answer would be "maybe next year when the price drops." Pretty much every game we had for that system we bought ourselves from a very limited budget, and my favorite by far was X-Men: Mutant Apocalypse. Hearkening back to our childhood days, I kept my own private speedrun leaderboard (my sister wasn't cultured enough to appreciate the game). My fastest time was just under forty minutes and, when the SNES eventually accompanied me to college, speedrunning the game (occasionally with an audience) became a regular, roughly weekly, decompression routine for me. It's very humbling to see that people are now beating that game in under 18 minutes.

What's interesting about both of these game though is that they seem to be relatively glitch free (as with DOOM in the article), so that when I watch someone speedrun it, I can recognize what they're doing as just a more efficient version of what I used to do. I understand why, for many people, that would mean that these games would be the more interesting speedrun competitions to follow, but not for me! It's the games like Ocarina of Time, where there are glitches that essentially lay the code of the game bare, creating an entirely new landscape and therefore an entirely new game to be run with entirely new rules. Those are the speedruns that intrigue me.

One that I was following for a while (and can't find now) was one that was attempting to beat NetHack (a famously difficult game) in something like 2010 moves. This is particularly remarkable because the game prevents you from accessing "The Quest" (generally considered roughly the halfway point of the game) until turn 2000. So this team was trying to beat the second half of the game in ten moves, whereas the average person to beat Nethack takes about 20,000 moves to go from the quest to ascension. It reached the point where they were doing things like choosing which millisecond they input their move at (in a turn-based game!) in order to get favourable RNG results.

I just can't get enough of that shit.
posted by 256 at 8:12 PM on July 30, 2017 [13 favorites]

>Twelve minute edit window: "Similarly, when the SNES came out..."
posted by 256 at 8:24 PM on July 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

I like some speedrunning, but I prefer it when being good at speedrunning requires you to be good at the actual game in question. If the game happens to (i.e. it wasn't intended by the developers) include a random button combination that instantly warps you to the last level, that's nothing interesting about that.

I'm involved in patching out bugs in a particular game and it's always uniquely frustrating when people complain about losing a bug that was obviously bad for gameplay but was useful for that 0.5% or whatever of players.
posted by one for the books at 9:12 PM on July 30, 2017 [4 favorites]

nothing interesting about that.

I agree it seems kind of like mere cheating. But what weird glitches in Zelda!
posted by Segundus at 9:17 PM on July 30, 2017

The great thing about Zelda is that the game seems almost built for speedrunning. We still don't know what the absolute best route through the game is, for instance. You can take many dungeons out of order, but still have to do them all to win. The item generation is just exploitable enough that you can guarantee an initial bomb drop if you do it just right. There are enough rupees in the game in secret rooms that you never have to grind for money if you play it right. Some of the enemies are twitch-hard, very difficult to avoid taking at least one hit against, and taking just one hit deprives you of shooting your sword.

And, of course, every enemy in the game has a way to beat it without using a sword except for Ganon at the end.
posted by JHarris at 9:42 PM on July 30, 2017 [6 favorites]

One that I was following for a while (and can't find now) was one that was attempting to beat NetHack (a famously difficult game) in something like 2010 moves.

This is because your maximum "alignment record" (sometimes called just "alignment," creating confusion with the Law/Chaos alignment system) is 10 plus 1 for every 200 turns you've played, and you can't do the quest (and get the Bell of Opening) until your alignment record is 20.

The only limiting factor of doing the quest is getting the Bell of Opening, which is needed to open Moloch's Sanctum. You can do everything else up until then, and Nethack offers many many ways to get around the game quickly if you have the right items and abilities. The primary example of this is controlled level teleport, with which you can flip from level 1 to the Valley of the Dead in one turn, and then from the Valley to the bottom of the dungeon in a second. You do everything else you need to do during those 2,000 turns.

Even so, while 2,000 turns may seem like a lot, it's not much time to give the game opportunities to generate items. So, how do you get them? Do you luck manipulate those too? You don't have to, not entirely, because Nethack contains bones levels, remnants of past games where a player's entire inventory is, on a random chance, left for you to possibly find on a later play. Those are huge timesavers, effectively off-loading the necessary time to build nearly all of your ascension kit onto a prior game, which doesn't factor into the turn limit of the game that actually matters. You cannot find the three necessary items (the Bell of Opening, the Book of the Dead of the Candelabrum of Invocation) in a bones, nor the Amulet of Yendor itself, but you can find any number of artifacts, including typically-overpowered quest artifacts excepting the one for your current character's race.

Probably the biggest time waste in the game is after you get the Amulet, because you cannot level teleport once you've got it, but there is one exception: cursed potions of gain level, which cause your character to "rise up, through the ceiling!" It might seem like a waste to use a potion of gain level like this, but you could have any number of those from a bones level.

nethackwiki.com lists a 2,130 turn ascension, and links to this Reddit post describing it. Here is the wiki's page on speed ascensions.
posted by JHarris at 11:40 PM on July 30, 2017 [7 favorites]

Nethack contains bones levels, remnants of past games where a player's entire inventory is, on a random chance, left for you to possibly find on a later play. Those are huge timesavers, effectively off-loading the necessary time to build nearly all of your ascension kit onto a prior game, which doesn't factor into the turn limit of the game that actually matters.

This feels like cheating. Clean slate run, or if you want to do the whole corpse-leaving thing, the run that generates the corpse is part of the speedrun. You can't just do dozens or hundreds of hours of prep work, log on and start a timer, then go pick up the rewards of all the prep work on your way to victory and pretend like the whole thing started with the timer.
posted by Dysk at 1:38 AM on July 31, 2017 [5 favorites]

Like, that'd be like doing a Minecraft speedrun that starts with another player handing you a full set of tools and leading you to the tunnel they've pre-dug to the End. Like yes, you just logged on, but this is not the start.
posted by Dysk at 1:40 AM on July 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

MetaFilter: You just logged on, but this is not the start.
posted by quinndexter at 3:26 AM on July 31, 2017 [8 favorites]

JHarris: I'm aware of those very fast ascensions and agree with Dysk that bones-stuffing really takes most of the shine off. The run I'm thinking of though (and I'm probably misremembering crucial aspects of it) didn't use bones-stuffing because they were manipulating the RNG so thoroughly (from within the vanilla game, not external code hacking) that they could essentially guarantee whatever items they wanted to spawn where they wanted them.

In fact, though they could easily have spawned multiple wands of wishing on each level, that's not the route they were taking simply because, when you have that sort of matrix bending ability, you don't actually need weapons or armor or pretty much anything else.

IIRC, the run was being discussed and theorized on RGRN about five years ago, and I don't think it ever quite got completed because they got so bogged down in the question of just how many post-2000 turns they could theoretically shave off.
posted by 256 at 7:55 AM on July 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

All of these sorts of things are why speedrunning has so many subcategories. Glitch-free, 100%, any%, tool-assisted vs unassisted, etc.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:31 AM on July 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you haven't seen this video of the credits warp Super Mario World record speed run, I highly recommend it. Placing individual items in the game sets up a bug that jumps straight to running the credits. People had to spend a lot of time and energy to understand the game's machine code, discover edge cases and bugs, and constructing a way that would allow this to happen. Definitely very different from just playing the game quickly, but also impressive in its own way.
posted by Phredward at 8:33 AM on July 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

From the linked article: "‘PLEASE don’t even think about challenging me if you can’t finish all 3 levels of doom with all secret rooms found and all monsters killed, on ultraviolence without dying once OR saving the game. Don’t even read this message if you use the cheat modes.’"

Can't remember if it was Doom or Doom II - but there is a level where you absolutely cannot get 100% kills without using the no clipping code, because one of the floating skulls is erroneously placed inside a wall. I feel like it was Doom, because "IDSPISPOPD" is automatically popping up in my head when I think about it.
posted by caution live frogs at 9:19 AM on July 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also: "According to a self-report Doom Usenet survey from 1994, 4% of the early online contributing users were women [...] Women who [...] were playing the game, however, were often met with hostility or further analysis from their male counterparts..."

WHELP glad to see attitudes have changed in the gamer community since 1994 /s
posted by caution live frogs at 9:27 AM on July 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

The biggest issue I see, 256, is the ascension run. There is no way in Nethack to levelport with the Amulet of Yendor without cursed potions of gain level. You can sometimes teleport on a specific level, but you'd have to luck-manipulate each teleport (since the Amulet has a chance to block them), or luck manipulate level generation to get stairs to generate near each other, or maybe both (since some special levels will never put stairs close to each other, and in the main dungeon you can't get both up and downstairs in the same room in a normal dungeon level).

There was a known exploit in NAO's RNG some time back that let players nearly decide the contents of the first dungeon level. It was memorably demonstrated by the account WowDeath, which generated consecutive games with a wand of wishing on the first level. (The player who pulled it off describes what was done here.) It has been fixed since then, thankfully.
posted by JHarris at 9:28 AM on July 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yeah. I've been thinking about that. I wish I could find the post and see exactly how closely it matches my memory. Is there a trick where you could maybe get a demon to steal the amulet, tame it, and then levelport with it next to you?

Also, not everything that happens increments the turn counter. I do remember that part of their strategy involved getting Quantum Mechanics to teleport them where they wanted to go without using a turn.

It's possible though that their goal turncount was higher than I remember. Possibly somewhere around 2070, which seems theoretically possible even if you have to use the c!ogl method.
posted by 256 at 11:06 AM on July 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

Found It!

It's very dense, but the fundamental trick to skip the ascension run involves having the amulet sitting on the ground on the vibrating square level, teleporting onto a level teleport trap (which has a quantum mechanic standing next to it), having the timing line up so that the quantum mechanic teleports you with an attack before the level teleport actually kicks in. You then arrange for the quantum mechanic attack to teleport you directly onto the amulet which you autopickup just as the levelport kicks in (and the levelport still works because at the time that it was triggered, you weren't holding the amulet).

Theoretically, they believed they could ascend on turn 2003.
posted by 256 at 11:22 AM on July 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

Two further observations:

1. A great many of the things that would make this possible were patched in 3.6.0, so we're talking about a theoretical 3.4.3 speedrun.

2. Probably my favourite part of the whole plan is the bit where it requires them to have 1560 eggs in their inventory, all timed to hatch on turn 2002 so that, the instant they enter the Plane of Water, every single square is immediately filled by a creature.
posted by 256 at 11:40 AM on July 31, 2017 [4 favorites]

This discussion is making me want to give NetHack a chance. I've always avoided it because it feels so very overwhelming and daunting.
posted by Fizz at 12:34 PM on July 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

If you really want MetaFilter to talk you into giving NetHack a chance, check out the 3.6.0 release thread.
posted by 256 at 12:44 PM on July 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

My one claim to internet fame is writing the original FAQ for the rec.games.roguelike.nethack usegroup.....
posted by Paladin1138 at 6:23 PM on July 31, 2017 [4 favorites]

Summoning Salt on YouTube has a good breakdown of some speedrunning records.
posted by now i'm piste at 10:21 PM on July 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

When they finally add video games to Fanfare, 256, Paladin1138 and some of the rest of us should start a Nethack club.
posted by JHarris at 10:28 PM on July 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

This thread prompted me to finally go ascend the NetHack game that I've had sitting on the plane of fire for months now. I've started a new game and am going to try for my first wishless ascension (also planning on polyless and genoless, but we'll see how hairy it gets).

EDIT: Sorry for turning this into a NetHack thread!
posted by 256 at 9:34 AM on August 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

I love this definition of speedrunning that includes both number-of-seconds and number-of-turns records. Bringing NetHack in makes speedruns much more interesting!
posted by asperity at 10:54 AM on August 1, 2017

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