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Gamers thrive on the need for speed in ‘Half-Life’

Istock; globe staff digital illustration

The words ooze pride and accomplishment: “After almost four years of painstaking planning, theory crafting, and execution, we have arrived at our final time, smashing all of our wildest expectations.”

But this wasn’t a statement issued at a press conference. It was the language attached to a YouTube video posted on April 12 in which “quadrazid” — a team of four people — announced it had beaten “Half-Life,” the classic 1998 first-person shooter, in 20:41, an astounding improvement over the old record of 29:41. So while the statement made the team sound more like the architects of a successful moon landing than a speedy video game run-through, this was considered a pretty big deal in the gaming world, one mentioned online in outlets like PC Gamer, Kotaku, Escapist, and on down.

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These “speedruns,” as they’re called, have a big online following, both among the people who generate them and post them to sites like YouTube, and those who watch and comment on them. In the flashiest instances, well-known speedrunners will take on classic games and stream their efforts live, sometimes for charity.

You might be surprised to learn how many hundreds of hours speedrunners dump into a game to hone their craft. The reason there’s such a diehard community of speedrunners is that the practice sits at the intersection of two things that many gamers find irresistible: public competition and obsessive analysis. On the former, speedrunning is simply a very straightforward way to compete with someone without actually playing the game at the same time. A number is a number — either you beat a record or you don’t, and if you do you have video proof. (There are, of course, frequent allegations about cheating, as well as ongoing debates about so-called “tool-assisted” speedruns in which a computer program helps in some manner.)

And to actually become good at speedrunning requires endless exploration and analysis of a game’s every nook and cranny. Gamers — at the risk of overgeneralizing — love this. There’s a reason many games are released with dozens or hundreds of “achievements” — little quests to accomplish alongside a game’s main story thrust. Gamers will track these down and spend hours doing so. So speedruns offer a unique motivation to dig deep into a game.

As for the viewers of these efforts, the finished product is enjoyable to watch for a couple reasons. One is that it’s simply fun to see someone do something very well. The careful jumping and effortless timing and constant shortcuts required to shave a second here, a second there, make for some weirdly compelling YouTube videos — weird because I find myself watching them (or parts of them, at least) even when I’ve never played the game. (This is less true for more strategic, less visual/visceral games, of course. Unless you really know a World War II strategy game well, it’s not particularly fun watching someone figure out where to put their troops.)

When you have played the game yourself, and when you’re very familiar with it, that’s when these videos are the most enjoyable. Back in the day I devoted serious hours to “Half-Life” — one of the best PC games ever; as I watched quadrazid race through the game, it brought back a steady stream of memories. But they’re moments viewed through a high-speed funhouse mirror, of sorts. Boss fights that took me endless repetitions to get through, jumping puzzles that led to death after death — quadrazid whips through them like they’re nothing, all while exploiting shortcuts I had no idea existed.

These ‘speedruns’ have a big online following, both among the people who generate them and those who watch and comment on them.

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So maybe part of the reason these videos do well online is the vicarious satisfaction they provide. I could never do what quadrazid did to “Half-Life,” could never so thoroughly and efficiently slice and dice it. But watching someone else do it, realizing that the game cannot only be beaten but dominated, is a fun experience — and more so when the game in question is utterly beloved.

Jesse Singal can be reached at jesse.r.singal@gmail.com.
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