On speedruns, golf, and interestingness

I find myself fascinated by video game speedruns lately. They’re not quite like anything else I’ve ever seen.

I mean, first of all they showcase a particular kind of technical skill that I find both enormously impressive and aesthetically pleasing. Watching a speedrun I often find myself struck by two simultaneous thoughts:

1. How the heck did they do that?

and

2. That was beautiful

It’s the combination of technicality and visual appeal that gets to the heart of it, I think. Speedruns probably have much the same appeal as, say, juggling, or other feats of dexterity. It’s about pushing the limits of what the human body can do, but in a unique way that emphasizes complexity and intricacy rather than maximization of a single trait, like speed or strength. And there’s beauty to it – not in the sense that speedrunners are optimizing for beauty, really, but in the sense that I don’t think people would watch speedruns if they were about players using the same button combinations to manipulate spreadsheets or something.

But there’s more to it than that. It strikes me that most kinds of races that people compete in are kind of…well, boring, for lack of a better term. There’s just not much to them. For example, I think marathon runners are extremely impressive athletes, and if I heard that someone had broken the marathon world record I would find that really cool and interesting. But would I have any desire to actually watch the race? No, of course not. Why on earth would I? For the most part I can just simulate it in my head: first they ran really fast…then they continued running really fast. I mean, yes, there might be some details you would want to know – the splits could be interesting, for example. Maybe the runner had a very weak start and then a strong finish. Or if it was an actual race and not a time trial, it could be interesting if two runners fed off of one another. But I see those as relatively minor things – they wouldn’t be enough to make me actually want to watch the race. At least for me, 99% of the information I care about when it comes to a race like that is captured by the actual finishing times. Beyond that, the act of running itself simply doesn’t have enough going on to really interest me.

Speedruns aren’t really like that, though. They have structure. The different sections of a speedrun can be wildly different from one another – not just in terms of difficulty, but in terms of the actual skills required to do them well. Maybe one section requires extreme skill with the game’s jumping mechanics. Maybe for another you need to be master the combat system. Some parts might demand extreme precision, while others might require fast reflexes.

But even that doesn’t really capture it. After all, if all you want is for different parts of your race to involve different skills, you can trivially achieve that by slapping together different skills into a frankensport – this is essentially what triathlons do. And indeed, I would probably be more inclined to watch a triathlon than I would any of the individual sports that make it up – but I still wouldn’t be that inclined. So it’s not just that multiple skills are involved – it’s that each of the skills on their own are interesting, multi-dimensional skills. Running at a world class level, as impressive as it is, does not involve that many dimensions of skill – you have to be fast, and you have to have endurance, and I guess you have to be good at managing the race and, like, being aware of your opponent’s psychology and knowing when to attack and things like that. But that’s still not that much going on – in terms of the interestingness of the skill, I would say it pales in comparison to something like the ability to dribble and maneuver a soccer ball. There’s just a lot more nuance, a lot more ways to be good or bad in the latter case. And I would say that most video game skills are much more like dribbling a soccer ball than they are like running.

Honestly, the closest comparison I can think of to make – and I know this will sound silly, but hear me out – is to golf. Golf is sort of like a race in that it’s a one-player game – no teammates, and you compete with opponents only indirectly – and you’re trying to minimize a particular quantity. In a race it’s time, and in golf it’s number of shots. Just like speedruns, though, golf has structure to it. In a running race, what differentiates one part of the race from another? Well, hills I guess, but in general not a whole lot – any one kilometer is pretty much the same as any other. Golf isn’t like that – as you go through a round you play different holes that each have their own unique challenges and opportunities (analogous to the different levels or sections of a video game). Moreover, just like a speedrun golf involves many different skills – driving is very different from iron play is very different from chipping is very different from putting. And I would say that certain of those skills are fairly multi-dimensional – chipping in particular involves a lot of nuance. So ignoring the fact that you might personally find golf to be very boring, if you can see what I mean by saying that golf has structure, you can maybe see what I’m getting at when it comes to speedruns.

Of course, golf isn’t unique in that regard – there are plenty of other sports that have this same kind of structure/intricate nature. Hockey, soccer, basketball – these are sports you might still want to watch, even after being told what the score of a game was. Maybe someone made an amazing play. Maybe something really cool or unlikely happened. Maybe one team had a last-minute comeback or collapse. Whatever. The point is, it’s not just a one-dimensional “they ran fast/they didn’t run fast” dynamic. You care about the process, how the game happened, rather than just the result.

Okay, so if these sports exist, why go on and on about speedruns being so unique? Well, basically – because those sports aren’t races. They’re team games, and more importantly they involve players competing directly against one another. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course – not everything has to be a race, and I enjoy watching those sports. But I do like races. They’re a really cool class of competition – and given their wide appeal, I think it’s safe to say that they tickle some part of human psychology. But most races that exist right now just don’t have the same complexity that other sports have – they’re one-dimensional. So it’s neat to see an activity like speedrunning come along that takes the intricate, nuanced aspects that typify team sports and fuses them with the general awesomeness that is a race. It fills a niche that I think was missing from the world of competition and play.

Like, I can see why the traditional races came about in the first place, of course. Swimming, running, biking – these sports are about pushing the human body as far as it can go in certain specific directions. I can see the appeal in that, and I’m glad those races exist. God knows they’re impressive as all hell.

I just can’t really find them interesting.

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3 thoughts on “On speedruns, golf, and interestingness

    • Yeah, I don’t really disagree. I think I was sort of conflating two things in this post. Like, the comparison originally came to mind when I was watching golf and thought “Ah, the final pairing is coming up on [interesting hole], cool” and it reminded me of the feeling watching a speedrun and having the player approach some interesting part of the run. I think it’s that both golf and speedruns have (or *are*, maybe) these fixed set of tasks that you have to complete in order. And just knowing that gives an inbuilt kind of drama – in golf for example, you *know*, at the start of a round, that you will have to play through the hardest holes, and so they sort of loom over you throughout the day. Similar with speedruns and the hard parts of the run. There’s a sense of – “well, they’ve done well so far, but will this [hole/level] be the one to trip them up?” That’s what I meant by them having structure.

      And in fact, now that I think about it, that’s probably a much better way of phrasing it than I did in the original post. The important/interesting thing about golf and speedruns is that they consist of a series of unique obstacles that a player must overcome one by one, and failing at any one obstacle could be enough to ruin the entire attempt. This “series of obstacles” format is very unlike most traditional races (unless you want to go the trivial route and say “run kilometer one, run kilometer two, etc” counts as a series of obstacles), which is what makes them so much more interesting to watch.

      The multidimensionality stuff is kind of a separate thing, which I probably should have dropped or at least more clearly delineated. But anyway, I do agree with you – golf is probably less multidimensional in that sense.

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