Speedrunners play games fast. They beat 70-hour games in three or four minutes, exploit glitches to create shortcuts, and skip content that you or I might call "critical" in the name of efficiency. It takes a lot of work to play games this quickly. Despite how easy they make it look at events like Summer Games Done Quick, the art of optimizing play demands countless hours of study, and only the most dedicated students rise to the elite class.
Among these select few, though, there exists a small cadre of experts whose vital role is all too often overlooked: the routers. The routers are the people behind the curtain, uncovering the tricks that turn 70-hour RPGs into 30-minute glitch-fests. The routers are the ones doing the math to determine the fastest route through the Water Temple. The routers are the ones who realize that a trap meant to kill the player holds the hidden key to beating the game in just minutes.
Routing is basically the puzzle game of speedrunning. - Chunkatuff
It takes a keen eye to be a good router. You have to spot the tiniest quirks in a game's design and consider how they might be turned against it, breaking it in ways the designers never thought of. "It's very important to be observant," as 'chunkatuff,' the router responsible for finding many exploits in Escape Goat 2 and Ori and the Blind Forest, told VICE. "Never overlook anything that's pertinent to the situation."
This attitude served Chunk particularly well in Escape Goat 2. In the puzzle-platforming game, falling blocks are supposed to squish enemies, but Chunk noticed that they would "bump" enemies sideways if dropped at the right angle. Using this insight, he was able to push enemies to specific parts of a level instead of waiting for them to walk there on their own, cutting crucial seconds off the previous world-record time.
Chunk added that there was nothing particularly spectacular to this trick. "I just took into account all of the possibilities and added them together like a puzzle," he said. "Routing is basically the puzzle game of speedrunning, and you don't always know what all of the pieces are when you start."
Perseverance was a common thread among the routers I spoke with. Indeed, finding the shortest path through a game requires spending longer with it than even the most die-hard fan. "It is a lot of science and experimentation and almost drudgery to test ideas and try to find big exploits," explained Nick 'maglevtrain,' a router with experience crafting Tool-Assisted Speedruns, or those played by a computer instead of a human.
This sentiment was echoed by Lucas 'PerilousPeanut,' router of Ed, Edd, and Eddy: The Mis-Edventures and Reimagine: The Game, among others. "For Reimagine, a lot of the skips and optimizations were very gradual," he told me. "It definitely took a long while for it to get to the level of optimization it is at now."
Most routes of the game don't make it off the drawing board. - Adam "VB"
Sometimes, of course, all that effort is for naught. Dead ends are an occupational hazard, and it's just as easy for a new trick to end up hurting a run as helping it. PerilousPeanut recalled one such failed strategy in Ed, Edd, and Eddy. He discovered a way to glitch into a later part of a level and collect a crucial item earlier than intended, but the trick was incredibly tough to pull off, and failing it meant death for both the runner and the run. In his words, "It would theoretically maybe be faster with perfect execution, but it's such a massive detour that is so incredibly risky it's not even worth it."
Even when a trick looks good on paper, it doesn't always pan out in practice. "Sometimes the best route won't be faster most of the time," explained Jeffrey (a.k.a. "I have no name"), the router responsible for much of the original routing work on Ape Escape. Adam "VB," a Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow runner who also routed Mega Man V, agreed. "Most routes of the game don't make it off the drawing board," he said. "Some I've routed aren't even realistic for a real-time speedrun because of their difficulty."
A lot of the routing process comes down to trial and error, but in some cases, the game itself can provide guidance on how best to break it. Buried within data files and hidden behind secret commands, the building blocks of a game can expose cracks in its façade. Fittingly enough, the cyber-styled Tron: Evolution conceals just such clues in its code, as router Eric "Jamacanbacn" discovered. By digging around in the game's configuration files, he discovered that it was built on the Unreal engine, which meant it supported special developer commands that expose a game's guts from within the game itself.
Using these commands, Jamacanbaco located invisible walls and platforms that allowed him to skip entire fight scenes.
Speedrunner Jamacanbacn shows off a speedrunning trick he found in 'Tron Evolution'
The routers I spoke with often emphasized the importance of collaboration within the speedrunning community. When people discover a new trick, they share it with their fellow runners and routers, growing the pool of collective knowledge and spurring one another on to ever-faster times. For a community founded on competition, the sense of camaraderie is almost heart-warming.
"I obviously wouldn't be able to do these without the accumulated knowledge the community has gotten throughout the years," VB said. "One of my favorite Aria of Sorrow memories was working on a very difficult All Bosses route with Hetfield90. We stayed up until late at night working on the nuances of this route. It gave me a real feeling of community."
At the same time, the act of routing itself is a predominantly solo affair. When you're in the thick of it, hunting down exploits and calculating the cost of changing an existing route, communicating to a partner all the relevant information swirling around inside your head can be more trouble than it's worth.
"Collaborative routing is hard," Jeffery explained. "The main obstacle is making sure everyone involved has the same ideas and current route, and that can add a lot of time to the routing process. Because of this, I tend to route alone."
Chunk elaborated on some of the trade-offs involved in synchronous routing. "Collaborating with others is often only useful to the point that you're all on the same page," he said. "You'll be working on a puzzle, and you have all of the pieces known right now, but then someone will try to work on it with you, and you'll have to show them all of the tricks and glitches and such, and even just what order things load into the map sometimes."
Pouring hours on hours into dissecting and optimizing a game changes a router's perspective irrevocably. Going back and playing the way most of us do is no longer possible. "If you're trying to go through casually, you just can't ignore that you know what to do at any given moment," Chunk said. "You either intentionally make a mistake, or you make a mistake that you would have made during a speedrun too."
This mindset isn't isolated to the games they've routed, either. The drive to constantly be seeking out shortcuts and exploits bleeds over into recreational gaming, making it hard to stick to the path the developers intended.
"The mindset is always there," Jeffery admitted. "Even when first playing a game, I'm always looking for ways to cut corners and save a couple seconds here or there. Sometimes it works, and I spend less time backtracking; other times I die horribly and have to do the section again. Either way, it's a permanent part of my playstyle now."
The router life isn't the most glorious one, though. The endless trial and error, the hours wasted on dead-end tricks, the same pixels and polygons burned into your retinas like a plasma TV afterimage—and at the end of it all, someone else's name is sitting next to the world record. But like the supports in a class-based shooter, routers are vital to a team's success. They might not top the leaderboard at the end of a match, but without them, there might be no race at all.
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