Ever since the earliest days of gaming there have been people vying to finish games in the fastest times possible. With a mix of precision, ingenuity and occasionally by breaking the rules of the game altogether, they are speedrunners.
Meet Josh Peaker. He’s a 19 year old student from Castleford, Yorkshire: on paper, a typical teen. But he’s also a world record holder. He’s the fastest Portal player in history. Valve’s hit physic bending puzzle game typically takes a player four hours to complete. But Josh? He can do it in eight minutes.
Josh is a just one of a growing number of speedrunners, replaying your favourite games over and over again to smash virtual records, pulling off feats of dexterity as impressive as any athlete.
Josh’s record, an eight minute and 31 second relay set in July with three other gamers, will give you a new perspective on high scores. Levels flash by in an instant, and the game’s protagonist, Chell, happily wanders through walls and even entire levels, disobeying everything you thought you knew about games.
Of course, it took a lot of effort to make it look so easy. Peaker puts his Portal playtime at over 340 hours. He’ll happily spend ten hours trying to shave a second off a stage time - and then do it all over again.
“I had a segment which I first ran in 13 seconds. I put about 10 or 11 more hours time. I ended up getting 12 seconds,” he says. “Then I knew it was possible in 11 and I put in another 10 or 11 hours just to get one sixtieth of a second under 11 seconds.”
His muscle memory is now so trained that he can play the game while surfing the web and reading in a separate window on the same screen. “I’ve played it so much I don’t actually need to think,” he says.
Josh isn’t alone in his dedication. A growing community at sites such as Speed Demos Archive and Twin Galaxies logs on every day to compete, share their fastest times at their favourite games, and help each other shave seconds off their personal bests.
There are are records for almost every game you can imagine, from Quake to Heavy Rain. Some speedrunners choose to specialise in one game, and the most popular records have been broken and broken again up to the very barriers of the game’s design and quirks.
Andrew Gardikis’ dash through the original Super Mario Bros on the Nintendo Entertainment System is quite possibly the perfect game. Observe the video above: he never once stops moving, never makes a mistake. In fact, he’s pretty confident his record can never be beaten. “I still think it will never be brought down to 4:57. I think this is as fast as it's gonna get,” he says.
Others speedrun as many as possible: PJ DiCesare, a graduate from New York, holds the record for 14 different titles. Although he picks, “to put it kindly, lesser known titles” (Remember The Lawnmower Man? Yeah, there’s a game of that), he plays for the same reason as every speedrunner: pushing games to the limit, over and over, is fun.
“The only way to produce quality speedruns is through self-motivation. If you don't enjoy what you're playing, you simply will not get a good run,” he says. “The actual process of doing attempts and recording a good speedrun can be pretty painful sometimes, but I love the planning and preparation.”
And there’s lots of that. If Portal is the prestigious 100 metres sprint of speedrunning, Super Mario 64 is its marathon. The Herculean task of collecting all 120 stars in the 1996 3D platform game is an art form in itself, with its own rules, fans and celebrities.
There are established strategies, mind boggling tricks and glitches, even software to show split times for each completed world for the eager fans who tune into live streams of battles between elite players such as Mike “Siglemic” Sigler, Nero and Honey.
What once took you months, Siglemic now can do in under one hour and forty five minutes. Sigler estimates that he’s played more than 4,000 hours of Super Mario 64 - five and a half months of solid play.
Patience is a virtue, in other words. But it’s not just fast reflexes and stoicism you need to be a speedrunner: you’ve got to think outside the box too. Literally: almost every record involves breaking a game somehow, finding a way to move outside the boundaries of a digital world to take shortcuts.
“Turns out glitches are really fun,” explains Richard Gibson, a PhD student from Alberta, Canada, and a former Mega Man 2 speedrunning champion. “Being able to break the game like that, it’s something that I never even knew existed as a kid and now to come back to it and see how broken games actually are.”
As lonely as it sounds, the sport of speedrunning is now anything but. It’s never been easier to get set up yourself. All it takes is a cable splitter from Amazon and a laptop or cheap DVD recorder to film your own attempts.
And although speedrunning traces its roots back to the early 90s and the community around whizzing through the first Doom, it’s now been popularised through the likes of Twitch.TV (a sort of YouTube for gamers), and the site SpeedRunsLive, which hosts live battles between gamers that viewers can chat about, and even pay to see.
And people do. Speed Demos Archive’s regular “Marathons” have raised $305,000 £192,000) for charities so far - and seen some records broken along the way,.
“Being able to stream your speedruns for me made it at least ten times more enjoyable,” says Gibson. “It’s a lot more fun to play video games with people watching.”