In January for The Arena I challenged myself to play Celeste (2018) as fast as I could. I had just finished the game for the first time at the end of December and was looking for a game to speedrun, fortunately I had stumbled onto one of the most popular speedrunning titles. Celeste has over a thousand verified runs on speedrun.com and is a game tailor made for speedrunning. There is an in game timer that one can use to track how fast they are going and the game’s final screen shows the time it took to complete. The creators of the game have said that they in part made the game to be speedrun, and many updates to the game have made it even more friendly to the speedrunning community. Thus, outside of actually owning the game, there were few barriers between me and speedrunning the game.
Celeste is a platforming game with seven sequential stages of varying lengths. Failure is often not too dramatic of a set back, because any given “screen” in the game only takes a few seconds to complete once the player has knowledge. And knowledge was the first thing I needed to start playing the game. Any unfamiliar room can be quite hazardous for a runner, since they want to have a strategy for each challenge presented to them so that they don’t waste too much time on a particular one. There is a high amount of technical skill in speedrunning the game, since one has to little margin for error in jumping between spikes, cliffs, and similar hazards. Often times, once one does learn their strategy for each screen, the matter of actually executing that strategy proves to the bottleneck toward speed.
At the start I just continually played the game start to finish. My first time was over five hours, and my second time still over four. My third time was two and a half hours. These huge time gains were the result of better knowledge and I was feeling good my improvements. My first goal was to beat the game in under one hour. Setting goals is incredibly important to getting better as it gave me motivation, but it can also increase the intensity of each run. When I knew I was on pace for a new personal record I could feel my hands sweat and my heart racing faster. These adrenaline kicks were not helpful in actually performing what I needed to perform, but because the in game timer (which records are based on) only ticks up when you are actually playing (unlike other speedrunning titles) it was not unusual for me to take a minute between stages to compose myself and mentally reset.
I honestly found speedrunning to be quite addictive in my month. I initially ran the game two times a day (typically back to back before bed) and I managed to break my one hour goal very quickly. From there my times slowed down significantly. I managed to get my first sub 55:00 on stream, but it was around this point that my times started deviating from the linear line of improvement. I got the sub-55 and then it was almost a week of runs until I managed to break it. Interestingly I would often break my own records by large margins, like I went from 54:XX to around 51:XX after a week of trying. Then again I went from 50:XX to 47:XX, and finally to my current personal best of 45:19. This constant lowering was by far the most gratifying part of running. Seeing that number go down felt like it made all my time and effort worth it.
The biggest thing that helped me break through my first plateau (which was around the 55-59 minute area) was practicing specific stages over and over again. The tricky thing about speedruns is that at first you are reducing your times because you are slowly limited your mistakes more and more. The problem is there are only a finite amount of mistakes you can fix: eventually you have to start working on optimizing your play. This is where I initially struggled, but once I started replaying smaller segments of the game, watching world record runs and tutorials to aid me, I started “relearning” the game, not doing each room the way I first solved it. These new strategies were sometimes easier than those I had been doing, but often they were more difficult, thus I started developing “safe” and “risky” strategies, the more comfortable I got with risky ones the faster I got.
I found speedrunning to be quite meditative and relaxing most of the time. Doing the same parts of the same game every night before bed, even though I was doing them at a rapid pace, brought me to a point of zen and focus that I enjoyed. There is a rhythm that one gets into that helps induce the “flow” state (an idea that I’m not in love with, but helps describe the act). This was actually a lot different than I thought it would be, I sped through these games for The Arena after all, a show about competitive gaming, but ultimately I was only competing against myself, a sometimes kinder (and sometimes much more cruel!) adversary than playing someone else in Street Fighter, who is constantly adapting to your movement. The game stays the same, it is only one’s relationship to the game that changes and that can be liberating for the speedrunner.
It ironically takes a lot of time to play through a game quickly. My platform says I’ve played for 5 days (or over 100 hours). While some of that was certainly idle time where the game was on in the background while I was working, I spent a lot of time to achieve my 45:19. As an academic, I have a few specific takeaways from the month:
It is important to engage the best we can with our topic. Speedrunning the game gave me a much of a better understanding than simply watching it.
Playing games in these ways takes a lot of time. We must always remember that mastery is more a process of time than it is of some kind of inherent skill. When we discuss speedrunning and competitive games time (see Janelle’s blog post!) is an important topic to keep in mind.
We shouldn’t ignore the embodied experience of players, as we can we with my hand shaking and taking breathers while playing an game that isn’t that physically challenging, games evoke physical responses from us, even on the 50th playthrough.
Players are always competing against themselves first and foremost in games. This needs further elaboration and exploration, but is worth contemplating.
This is a great post, Erik! I really appreciated all your thoughtful reflections on speedrunning–after watching you play a bunch, talking about the game, and then completing it myself (but not speedrunning it yet), I feel like I have a specific understanding of the game that’s still different from yours, from other players, etc. I think that’s what makes talking about speedrunning (and other non-traditional forms of engaging with games) so rich.
I’m especially interested in the way you described your process of learning and re-learning the game. As I played through Celeste, I challenged myself to play through one new chapter every time I sat down, and actually, nearly managed to do that. But as I did that, I had to re-learn certain moves and processes I normally employ when playing a platformer. There are some core mechanical elements to the game that you don’t/can’t notice until you “run” it and then notice the differences in your embodied experience of playing the game (re: what you mentioned about “developing ‘safe’ and ‘risky’ strategies”).