Over the summer I got really interested in video game speed runs. Specifically speed runs of Legend of Zelda games. I had known that this was a thing, but it had never caught my fascination before. Speed running, for those of you not familiar, is when you try to play a game as fast as possible. In many ways this is analogous to high score records in other video games (this is especially true with older arcade games – think of the documentary King of Kong about Donkey Kong players), but since Zelda games don’t have a score, players instead compete to see who can complete the game the fastest. Before I started watching speed runs, I had an impression that the players might be similar to those depicted in the King of Kong movie: obsessed, secretive, and ultra-competitive. But I found something very different.
I have watched a LOT of hours of speed runs since the summer. Most of them are for Zelda games, usually Ocarina of Time (OoT), Wind Waker, and A Link Between Worlds. Most of the videos were recorded and originally broadcast live on twitch, a website that is set up specifically for this kind of live streaming. What I found was a community of players that, yes, were a bit obsessed, but also very collaborative and social. They are, by their chosen activity’s nature, competitive (trying to beat other people’s records) but at the same time very cooperative (working together to find new glitches and master found glitches).
The glitches and strategies used require a lot of practice, hard work (some of it very tedious and boring), and many times also a good amount of math, logic, and basic knowledge of computer programming. Most of the speed runs are based on finding “glitches” in the game code. Taking advantage of the glitches is not cheating, per se. The glitches are something that is messed up in the game’s code that you can take advantage of to advance in the game. They are not an easy way out, and it is clear that taking advantage of most glitches requires a very high level of skill (gained by hours of practice) and knowledge of the game.
The speed runs also have to also contend with some aspects of the game that are randomly generated (RNG = random number generators) throughout the game and which they can’t necessarily plan for. This leaves a certain amount of gameplay up to chance and keeps it interesting for both the runners and those that watch them. The players might know what the odds of getting one thing instead of another and can use that information to help inform a run, but bad RNG might screw up an otherwise good run.
Sometimes speed runners will use special tools to let them view the values of variables in the game’s code while they play. This will help optimize the routes (and see what is possible) and help them practice (called a “tool assisted” run).
But then something new can come up, like a new glitch, and everyone will have to adapt and learn a new route. The community seems really good about broadcasting these new glitches, routes, and strategies and helping each other learn them. In some ways, they are not competing against each so much as against the game itself.
I have embedded one of the first Zelda speed runs that I watched (this might be the video that actually started my little obsession). It is of a run (from Jan 2013) of OoT that was from a fundraising event where different speed runners come and they try to raise money for certain causes. The runner in this video (NarcissaWright) explains a lot of the technical details of this run and the history (up to this point in early 2013 which is now completely outdated) of how the community of OoT runners found these particular glitches.
The runner finished the game in 22:38 which is pretty amazing1, but a year later there was a new route found and the record dropped to 18:10 (July 2014). (Yes, that is 18 MINUTES.) (This same runner has the current Any% record for OoT which is documented in this video). The new run is actually quite different because the new glitch didn’t just save some time, but actually made an entirely new route and set of strategies possible that wasn’t before.
This game is really “broken”, but it also regarded as one of the best video games ever.
Also, since the 18:10 world record was set this past summer, a new glitch was found that might possibly lower this record further.
- For comparison, the speed run record for the 100% run (i.e., getting every single item) is about four and a half hours and the glitchless record is three hours and forty-five minutes. Current records are maintained at Zelda Speed Runs website. A normal person playing the game will take much longer (it took me 34 hours when I played it earlier this summer). ↩