The Intrinsic Relationship Between Indie Games And Speed-Running

Popular games like Dead Cells and Celeste are helping to bring the scene to a new audience.Celeste

Speedrunning has seen a meteoric rise in recent years. Progressing from a niche subgenre of gaming to one that catapults personalities into stardom, funds charities, and changes the way we interact with single-player games, the practice is nearing household-name status. The scene adds a splash of competitiveness to solitary play, and with that splash certain games take on a new sense of meaning and a different barometer of success.

Previously, single-player games, and by extension most indie efforts, have had their longevity curtailed by a lack of tangible player progress. Multiplayer games appear to have a bigger presence in the industry for that reason, but speedrunning has imbued indie gaming with an essential component: competition. Two recent games that exemplify the positive consequences of speedrunning on the health of single-player games are Celeste and Dead Cells, titles which demand precision, lightning reactions and back-of-the-hand knowledge.

Celeste has enamoured the speedrunning scene in particular, being beaten in unfathomable times by both human and robot. While Celeste rightly received plaudits for its tightly-wound gameplay and superb aesthetics, examining the game further reveals a design whose foundations were created with speedrunning in mind. In fact, sound designer for the game, Kevin Regamey, along with Matt Makes Games, “broke the game in half over and over leading up to the release”. Regamey describes how speedrunning was always a core design pillar for their game, reflecting that “I like to think that’s why we’re so highly rated with, like up with Mario 64 and the greats” with USG.

When playing Celeste, you can see this process unfold in front of you. At first, most players will constantly fail to beat certain stages, but upon repetition the speedrunning building blocks make themselves evident. Celeste’s precise dash mechanic, the minute detail given to its obstacles, even its breezy aesthetics and music all make players naturally want to go fast. The game’s flow is built entirely with a sense of pace in mind. So, not only has speedrunning changed the way that we interact with indie single-player games and what they mean to us, but the hobby-turned-profession is now impacting the way games are designed.

Developers love to see their precious pieces of work torn apart, too. Indie developers themselves are often an important part of the speedrunning scene as they are interwoven into its success – without their support or interest, the community would perhaps not be as vibrant, welcoming and unflinching as it is. Speaking to Polygon in 2016, developer Kyle Pulver describes witnessing his game, Snapshot, speedrun on Games Done Quick as “both terrifying and exciting at the same time.” He goes on to explain how “one of the things I joke about with other game developers is whenever I see our games on Twitch, it’s really cool, but at the same time we’re all thinking, ‘Oh god. Please, don’t crash. Please, don’t have any crazy things happen. Make sure the game goes well.’ […] I wanted to see everything happen for the first time for the GDQ run.”

With level design so meticulous, speedrunning a game like Celeste can bring a heady release of emotions when done right. However, current record holder TGH reacted in a way that was unexpected when he broke the record this August, simply stating “that should have been a 27:20. Totally, totally should have”. Being the best in the world at something is usually accompanied by an appreciation of hard work and achievement, but for speedrunners, their interaction with the game isn’t necessarily defined by what others are doing, but simply to master every facet of it for themselves. TGH’s self-analysis is indicative of how speedrunners view these games as something to be solved which, in Celeste’s case, leads to design that feels distinctly puzzle-like.

Celeste is not original in this sense, and even when games appear to have mechanics or genres that scupper the potential of speedrunning, people always find a way to rush through it at a pace. Dead Cells, for example, with its rogue-lite design and brutal difficulty appeared to be impossible to speedrun on the surface, yet the current world record sits at 6 minutes and 58 seconds. Speaking after breaking a record in 2018, previous Dead Cells record holder Henpaku explains how consistent practice allowed him to break down the game’s rogue-lite design, cutting through one of Dead Cells’ unique selling points:

“For reasons I am not sure how best to explain really, I can predict the location of castle exit with alarming accuracy now. It’s not always accurate, and sometimes it doesn’t work. But I’ve noticed that I can probably tell where exit is about 60% of the time and home in on it very quickly. Best explanation perhaps is that I just played the hell out of this game and now my mind is one with the map generation logic.”

Surely, though, speedrunning is more than simply “[playing] the hell out of [a game]”? It’s not mindless repetition, but a conscious effort to reduce a game to its base elements, break it apart and reform it in the speedrunner’s mould. It’s where skill meets a deeply logical mind, changing the terms in which people negotiate a game and redefining the boundaries of success, skill and completion.

From the outside, the amount of game knowledge, precision, glitch usage and general skill can make speedrunning seem like an impossible hobby to enter. Despite the scene’s incredibly friendly community, its level of standard can almost feel like gatekeeping, a bit of fun that you are not in on. However, as those who live and breathe speedrunning consistently say, getting into the hobby is easy, and people can ironically go at their own pace. When speedrunning, you aren’t up against others, nor are you really challenging the leaderboard, you’re simply competing with yourself.

When players are ready though, the competition is out there. Prime examples of this are the scene’s two main events: Games Done Quick and Awesome Games Done Quick. Both events speak volumes for the networking power of the scene, as well as the transformative force it wields for good. However, a third, more competitive event is on its way: PACE. Eschewing the personal, solo efforts of previous speedrunning events, PACE is set to be a head-to-head speedrunning event, pitting one runner against another in a literal race. Not only does this move against the grain of self-improvement for speedrunning, but it adds a new dynamic of competitiveness to the hobby.

Speedrunners have naturally expressed reservations about whether events like these will undermine the community spirit of the scene. As soon as head-to-head competition and streaming is involved, soon the esports money, sponsorship deals and dissolution of a tightly-knit network in favour of one that is merely competition follows. Back in April, Bryon “Bryonato” Rothfusz, a Titanfall 2 speedrunner who took part in the PACE event, said that events such as Games Done Quick “are always going to be about the presentation. They aren’t going to use riskier strats and lose a lot of time due to an error. [PACE] has increased the grind. I think we’re going to see some of the highest level of speedrunning we’re ever going to see.”

Speedrunning, then, is ever-evolving, and as soon as this sense of head-to-head competitiveness enters the field, the way we interact with the medium will change. Right now, though, speedrunning is and looks to stay as the same warm, welcoming community that facilitates improving your fellow runners.

A criticism often levied at indie games is their lack of replayability. Beautiful, short games packed tightly with mechanical depth, such as Celeste and Dead Cells, simply do not get the attention they deserve as they are seen as malnourished in replayability.  With speedrunning, indie games such as these can show that they have the same limitless depth and sky-high skill ceiling of demanding multiplayer efforts.

Speedrunning is a way for indie games to stay evergreen and build communities. Logging performance, coming up with new strategies and learning new skills are the three pillars of what keeps the world’s most financially successful games ticking, and indie speedrunning brings these same fundamentals to games whose design may inherently lack them. It splashes a League of Legends-esque scale of competition into the lap of a game with more humble beginnings and aspiration.

Maybe speedrunning is here not only to breathe life into these games but show that we have been playing them wrong all along.