On Friday night, millions of dads and moms in the United States will tune into The Late Show With Stephen Colbert on their Old Media Televisions and be confused and perhaps a little upset with the presence of one Mitch Fowler, a noted member of the video game speedrunning community.
"Speed what now?" I can hear your dad saying already, slightly aggravated.
Speedrunning is the growing hobby, craft, and—dare I say it—science of playing games to completion as quickly as possible. It's a practice that's been around for as long players were competing for Donkey Kong high scores, but it's been growing in popularity and spectacle in recent years thanks to the charitable event Awesome Games Done Quick, which Fowler will promote on Colbert's show by speedrunning Super Mario Bros 3, aka the third best Mario game (come @ me).
If you play video games, your parents are probably going to call you shortly after the show ends and demand that you explain the baffling thing they just saw on Colbert. This could be a difficult and frustrating conversation, but I've assembled this helpful script to get you through it:
Your mom: "What's Mario Speeds?"
You: It's called speedrunning, mom. It's basically the practice of people finishing games as fast as possible. The community of people who are interested in this keep track of who finished what game how quickly, and they're constantly trying to one-up each other with shorter times by finding shortcuts and more efficient ways to finish the game. They often share videos of these speedrunning attempts on YouTube, Twitch (which is like YouTube but live), and this event that the kid on Colbert was promoting: Awesome Games Done Quick.
You dad, slightly angry: "Why?"
You: Mostly because it's fun, I imagine, but there are a lot of reasons to choose from. There's bragging rights, of course. For the kind of crowd that cares about this thing, being the record holder for the fastest The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time or Super Mario Bros. speedrun in the world is a really cool thing. And then there's the charity aspect of it! Awesome Games Done Quick has raised $1.2 million for the Prevent Cancer Foundation and this year they're raising money for Doctors Without Borders as well. That's cool!
Your mom: "So these kids are just really good at video games?"
You: I mean, yes, most definitely these kids are very good at video games, but that's not the whole story. In its purest form, players use the original hardware and software of a game, playing it just as the game makers intended when it was released, but much faster. In other cases, players use a variety of tools and/or modified hardware to finish a game even faster than it would be without them. A common practice, for example, is using "emulation," generally meaning running an old Nintendo game on the computer. This way, people can play the same section over and over again until they get it perfect, save that segment, then perfect the next one, and in the end stitch the whole thing together for one perfect run.
Another important difference is how players finish the game. For example, if you watch Awesome Games Done Quick you'll notice that some speedrun attempts are labeled "Any%." This is short for "any percentage," and means that the person is just finishing the game as soon as possible without completing every task available in the game. Other players will attempt "100%" runs, where they beat the game and do everything that one could possible do in that game. Those obviously take more time.
This is all really cool not only because it's crazy to see what levels of mastery people can reach in video games, but because speedrunning pushes at all the edges of video games, which often leads to fascinating discoveries.
[Your dad, now audibly snoring.]
Just look at this Ocarina of Time speedrun. Someone finished the game in less than 20 minutes. You shouldn't even be able to reach the final battle as young Link, it's crazy! Or look at how this guy managed to glitch the game to warp him to the closing credits of Super Mario World in five minutes. Or how about this Half-Life 2 run, which an entire team of players worked on for months! whaaaa!?
That's what really makes speedrunning so interesting. Pushing these games to the limit really tells us so much more about them. How they were made, secrets the developers tucked in there, and game development in general.
It makes people look at video games, even classics they played for decades, in entirely new ways, and that's why they love to watch. It's cool how there's enough people in the world now who have this personal relationship with video games, that it would make sense for Colbert to put speedrunning on national TV. For those who don't have that relationship, well, hopefully they learned something interesting, right?!