Why are Diddy Kong Racing and Luigi’s Mansion in Twitch’s “featured games” section right now? SGDQ is back—and it’s kind of a big deal.
This week, Games Done Quick returns to the streaming spotlight as Summer Games Done Quick (SGDQ) 2017 kicks off once again. Games Done Quick comprises two semiannual video game speedrunning marathons: Awesome Games Done Quick in the Winter and Summer Games Done Quick. For one full week from a Minneapolis, MN convention center—168 hours straight, day and night—streamers will be speedrunning their respective games in front of a live audience, in a profoundly impressive demonstration of mechanical skill and speed.
The best part: it’s for charity. Donations from viewers and sponsors alike are put towards fulfilling “incentives” throughout the event, which includes character names, bonus tasks for the runner or prize packages given out at the end of the event. You also might get your name, donation and message read aloud to a massive audience (do with that what you will). All proceeds go to Doctors Without Borders; just this past January, AGDQ 2017 raised over two million dollars for the Prevent Cancer Foundation. If that sounds awesome, that’s because it is, and the event will be streamed in its entirety on GDQ’s Twitch channel.
As awesome as it sounds, GDQ’s massive success might come as a surprise: speedrunning? What even is that? How can it sustain such a huge event? Speedrunning’s raison d’être is to finish a game as quickly as humanly possible, oftentimes utilizing glitches, sequence breaks, strategic creativity and precisely calculated movement. Imagine being Professor Oak, who sent Red on a quest to catch all 151 Pokémon, only to have him return home successful in under two hours.
Those who ask questions like “why speedrunning?” are likely the same people who ask how in the world a League of Legends tournament can fill an entire stadium; the value of gaming as a spectator event need not be explained to gamers, but nonetheless, there is something enigmatically thrilling about speedrunning: what makes it so engaging that someone like me will watch Mario reclaim all 120 stars in an hour and forty minutes with utter enchantment?
Outside of the GDQ showcase, speedrunners stream their gameplay in pursuit of records for the fastest times across certain games and categories, which are painstakingly chronicled at speedrun.com. In this regard, perhaps speedrunning can best be analogized to achievements in traditional sports (without the prefixing “e-“ gamers are used to).
In 1999, American track and field athlete Michael Johnson set the world record for the 400-meter dash with a time of 43.18 seconds. When an athlete achieves such a record, his or her performance is dubbed “superhuman,” or perhaps “transcendent,” but this celebration of human endeavor always seems underscored by an inherent fallibility to athletic achievement. Johnson’s run was regarded as untouchable, until seventeen years later (a staggering amount of time testament to Johnson’s speed) when South Africa’s Wayde van Niekerk posted a time of 43.03 seconds to win an Olympic gold medal in 2016. Given enough time, someone will one day emerge and break any given athletic record.
With speedrunning, it’s different. Speedrunners are not so much chasing gold as they are chasing absolute technical perfection. Video games have intricately coded, perceptible limits: Mario runs at the same speed no matter who is holding the controller. Thus, the beauty of speedrunning lies in the runner’s capacity to discover new and exciting methods of speeding through a game within those limits; he or she then has to execute such methods immaculately.
Speedrunning spectators often express their delight in witnessing the runner “break” one of their favorite games from their childhood. Speedrunning, with its extensive use of glitches and out-of-bounds maneuvers, works to eviscerate the game’s coding in the pursuit of speed, in a way reimagining the interface and fluidity of the game itself, until there is—unequivocally—no faster way to beat the game. There is more to speedrunning than striving to be the best, like a track and field athlete: runners are striving for total mastery over their game, and that’s pretty cool.
There is also a healthy dose of nostalgia at work. Video game classics Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time are the two most frequently speedran (grammar is also broken in speedrunning apparently) games. The quest to push the game to its absolute limit and breaking point thrusts the games that gamers, in equal measure, grew up loving and struggling with into a new, culturally relevant light. It’s nice to see that these classics are still being played, still being tinkered with, and still, have hidden secrets keeping gamers from understanding them down to the marrow of their computational bones.
The thrill and wonderment of speedrunning can all be witnessed this week at SGDQ 2017, and for a great cause. If you want to see when your favorite games are being run, check out the schedule here. Maybe you will be inspired to break a game yourself.