Saturday, November 19, 2016

Half-Life 2 speedrunning is dead

Some time ago a YouTube user nicknamed Apollo Legend made a video about "the death of speedrunning". In this video he's not saying that speedrunning is becoming less and less popular, but that the organization has, in his view, become stagnant, and that there is little progress in terms of organizing speedruns (eg. speedrun races), poor leadership, and so on.

On a rather different tangent, and quite unrelated to that particular topic, I wrote a comment to that video that in my view speedrunning of some particular games seems to be completely dead. And I mentioned Half-Life 2 speedrunning as the quintessential example. What do I mean by this? Well, here's an essay on that subject:

Firstly, we have to define what we mean by "speedrunning". In essence, it's playing a game from beginning to end as fast as possible. To reach the ending of the game in as a minimal time as possible.

Of course it's not that simple. Some ground rules need to be set, by necessity, to better define what we consider a valid completion of the game.

To understand why, let's consider this (deliberately) extreme example: Suppose that after starting the game I alt-tabbed to Windows, launched a hex-editor, proceeded to make some changes to the save file of the game with it, and then went back to the game and loaded the save... which throws me right to the ending of the game. I think you would agree that this is not a legit completion of the game. I didn't actually play the game from beginning to end. Instead, I used an external tool to alter the game's state and jump to the end without actually playing it. I don't think many people would accept this as a valid legit speedrun.

Thus, a line must be drawn. Some techniques must be considered illegit, while others are allowed. And the question is: Where do we draw this line?

One could hastily come up with a rule of thumb like "if it can be done from within the game, without going to the system or any other program, then it's ok." While at first that might sound like a good rule, it's actually not enough. Half-Life 2 itself provides an excellent example: The developer console. Said console can be opened completely from within the game, using only what the game itself provides, and commands can be written to it, such as a command to jump to a particular level (such as the last level of the game). I think you'd agree that this wouldn't be a legit completion of the game either; and the speedrunning community at large also agrees with this. The developer console in Half-Life 2 is banned from speedruns.

Thus not everything can be allowed even if it can be used completely from within the game itself. In other words, the limits must be tighter. So where exactly draw the line?

And here's where my opinion differs from that of the speedrunning community at large.

Let's take another example to illustrate: Would you consider it legit to pause the game, go to the save/load menu, delete a quicksave from there, and then try to load it, causing the game to glitch in some manner and allowing bypassing some obstacle faster?

This wasn't a theoretical example, but an actual technique used in actual Half-Life 2 speedruns.

The speedrunning community at large says yes, it is allowed. I question this. What exactly is the difference between the developer console, and the menu that allows you to delete a save file?

In both cases we are talking about meta-features that the game program offers that are not directly related to playing the game itself, ie. not gameplay proper. Their basic difference is that one is accessible through a developer console popup that accepts written input, the other is a menu usable with the mouse. But those are essentially just a difference in user interface, not in role and functionality. You cannot argue anything (in terms of acceptability in a speedrun) from the difference in user interface alone. Both deal with non-gameplay metafeatures, rather than playing the game proper. Why is one allowed and the other banned?

In fact, when I have discussed this with people online, only one answer tends to pop up at the end: It just has been agreed by the speedrunning community.

I take this as an admission that the distinction between the two is arbitrary, and there isn't actually a good reason why one is allowed and the other isn't.

And do you know what makes it even worse? If you look at any modern Half-Life 2 speedrun, as being run by some speedrunner on a live stream eg. on twitch, you'll see that they spend several minutes of the run just saving and loading (at some points spending a minute or two doing nothing else), and the clock will actually pause when they are doing so. In other words, all that time spent saving and loading (which takes a couple of seconds each time) is not counted towards the time of the run. Essentially they can spend as much time saving and loading as they want, and it won't make the official time of the run any longer. They could spend an hour doing nothing else, and that hour wouldn't be counted. And this is supposed to be the "fastest" completion of the game...

Personally I do not consider abusing any of these meta-features to affect the actual game (eg. to glitch it) to be legit speedrunning. It's not playing the game. As in controlling the playable character, acting upon the game state using the input that the game provides for that purpose. These are meta-features unrelated to actual gameplay, for other purposes. For example, in the case of saving and loading, to be able to suspend playing and resume later where you left off. Saving and loading are not gameplay proper; they are ancillary meta-features.

Remember how we defined "speedrunning" in the first place: To play the game from beginning to end as fast as possible. Emphasis on "play". Saving, loading, deleting savefiles, changing graphical settings, writing commands on the developer console... none of these constitute gameplay. They do not constitute playing the game proper.

Speedrunning used to be more "pure" in this sense (and, in the case of many games, it thankfully still is, although in most cases that's because the game simply doesn't have the sort of bugs that would allow abuse of meta-features to glitch it.) With some games, however, this "purity" of gameplay has been lost. Abuse of non-gameplay meta-features is becoming more and more prevalent and ubiquitous.

Half-Life 2 is the quintessential example because that's the only category of speedrunning that exists there anymore. With some games, which allow similar abuse, some speedrunners may still opt for creating new categories where such glitches are not abused. But unfortunately Half-Life 2 is not such a game.

The last legit Half-Life 2 speedrun was created many years ago. Then they discovered all the save-loading glitches, and deleting-the-savefile glitches and so on, and that's all they have done ever since. That's all you get today. There are no options.

From my perspective, Half-Life 2 speedrunning is dead. It died years ago, after the last "pure" speedrun that didn't abuse non-gameplay meta-features to glitch the game. No legit speedrun has been created since.

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