"That's never happened before" syndrome
Games Done Quick is an organization that runs bi-yearly speedrun events where hundreds of people gather to speedrun games for a good cause. I’ve enjoyed watching GDQ speedruns for a few years now but up until recently I had never tried speedrunning.
Over the holidays, I played through the physics-based “astronaut doing astronauty things” game Heavenly Bodies. I played it once by myself, once more with a friend and, over the course of a week, I played all the way through it once or twice a day. I recorded myself playing and I tried to beat the game as fast as I could.
My first speedrun of the game took me more than hour to complete and, eventually, I brought my time down to 54 minutes and 33 seconds with my most recent run.
I’m now the world record holder for Heavenly Bodies (although I don’t think that’s going to last very long).
Spending a week focusing on beating a game as fast as possible revealed quite a bit about speedrunning, why people do it (it’s fun) and what it feels like (good).
If you’ve watched a speedrun or two, you’ve probably heard runners say the words “That’s never happened before” a few times and been a bit confused.
“That’s never happened before” is not something that someone who’s playing a game for the first time would say, that’s obvious.
But you would expect that a speedrunner who’s played a game a bunch of times to be completely aware of everything that can happen in the game. At least, that’s what I thought to myself before doing some speedrunning of my own.
Speedrunners play their games of choice in a much different way than the average player playing through a game for the first time does.
Speedrunners have complete knowledge of what the game is going to throw at them ahead of time (because they’ve already played through it). They know the game systems in and out and they can use these systems to their advantage to beat the game as fast as possible.
Speedrunners poke holes into the most brittle parts of a game to break it and, by doing so, they often throw themselves into rare game states where weird and never before seen things have a higher chance of happening.
And that’s why speedrunners say “That’s never happened before” more often than you might expect them to.
There are games that are much more brittle than Heavenly Bodies (some runners enjoy playing extremely brittle games), but even this relatively simple game has a few weird edge cases that I ran into while I was speedrunning it.
Here’s a list of “That’s never happened before” moments that happened to me while speedrunning Heavenly Bodies (timestamped at the relevant parts):
- I clip a part to my suit and it keeps flicking back and forth in a weird way.
- I clip a tether to my suit while a ratchet is also clipped to the same clip, making it impossible for me to unclip either of them.
- I try to replace a fuse and all of a sudden it starts shaking me around.
- My ratchet gets stuck inside of a door and was much harder than expected to pull it out.
As the world’s leading expert on Heavenly Bodies, let me try to explain what I think is going on here.
Heavenly Bodies asks you on many occasions to take an object, move it from point A to point B (sometimes clipping it to yourself for easy transport) and, finally, putting it in a specific place.
Once these objects are close enough to where the game wants them to be, they seem to get caught in a sort of mini gravity well that gently nudges them towards where they need to go.
You can also clip these objects onto your suit, and doing so is encouraged by the game. It’s much easier to get to where you need to go if you’ve got both of your hands free to help you fling yourself through the level.
Clipping an object to your suit that has already been caught by a gravity well seems to be a recipe for disaster. The game is trying to nudge the object where it needs to go but the object is clipped to your suit leading to some wacky results as seen in my 3rd example above.
Sometimes when the game logic tries to apply constraints onto the unpredictable physics system, the game gets confused and pushes you, an object near you or clipped to you in some really bizarre ways.
Except for this physicsy weirdness, Heavenly Bodies seems to be a relatively bulletproof game where the speedrun will always be more about skillful and clean play than about breaking the game. Despite this, I really enjoyed learning how to play the game as fast as possible, getting better at it and, eventually, beating the previous world record holder’s time.
The timer constantly ticking up and the knowledge that any mistake will set you back ratches up the tension to 11. I wouldn’t call speedrunning an extreme sport, but, in the moment, your heartbeat and sweaty palms might convince you otherwise.
Due to the widespread use of engines like Unity and Unreal Engine, newer games are becoming less brittle in general and speedruns of these games are less about breaking the games and more about playing them really well.
As the death march that is life continues pushing us forward, I plan to savor and appreciate every time a speedrunner says “That’s never happened before”. Soon enough, you’ll blink and speedrunners won’t be saying it anymore (except in jank ass physics games like PHOGS).
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