One night not too long ago, I found myself sitting in a darkened room, huddled over my computer screen with a friend, watching one of the most incredible displays of talent I'd ever seen in my life. It wasn't an incredible parkour athlete, stunt expert or dancer like you normally find on YouTube. No, it was a video of someone playing Battletoads - a game that almost killed us with frustration as kids - damn near perfectly, beating every single soul-crushingly difficult level of the NES brawler in a cool 34:17. Hooked on my first experience, I hungrily searched for more games - especially old NES favorites that I thought I was pretty good at - and watched with rapt attention well into the wee hours of the night.
That was my first baby step into the dazzling world of speedrunning, the practice of beating videogames at breakneck speeds. There's an entire subculture of gamers who live to break existing records and improve their runs to the absolute limit of possibility. They use technical-sounding tricks like "sequence breaks" and bizarre, hard-to-find glitches, and they train with their prescribed games for weeks, months, even years on end. They're a bit like elite marathoners, but instead of giant thighs and muddy shoes, they train with joypads and video cameras.
Among my gaming brethren, I'm not exactly what anyone could call "stalwart." When I become frustrated by a game, I generally either hurl my controller at the floor or turn off the game immediately, never to return. Occasionally, I do both. That's partly why I was so attracted to the idea of speaking with a few of these guys, cherry-picked through my own unscientific method of watching runs googly-eyed and writing the player with an interview request.
Speedrunning is not exactly a happy-go-lucky vocation - it takes ridiculous amounts of time, patience and experimentation to find optimal routes through each game. That means thousands of deaths, hundreds of foiled trial runs and reams of paper on which to plot routes and jot down notes. It takes serious determination and guts - and sometimes, a few extra controllers.
Across the board, every runner I spoke with for this article would fit the psychological profile of the ideal Cold War-era spy: strategic, cunning, smart and extremely patient. Above all else, they're perfectionists. "I love problem solving and challenging myself intellectually, and I've always found that discovering the nuances and intricacies in any particular videogame engine to be a fantastic way to do this," says Cody Miller, a runner known for his impressive Halo 2 record. "I've always strived to not just finish," he says, "but to discover and master every aspect of the games I play."
Similarly, Freddy Andersson (an old-school runner with the reigning Contra record) is strategizing before he even reaches the end of his first play-through of a game: "I cannot deny that I am mostly thinking about how to 'run' a videogame already before I complete the game and sometimes already before I buy the game," Andersson says. "I am very goal oriented."