Anyone with an interest in the limits of endurance and a spare 18 hours and 55 seconds could do worse than watch a Japanese high school student known as Sakinyan smashing a record at speedrunning — the tech-cult that sees players compete to complete video games as quickly as humanly possible.
As with most speedrunning feats, the stage for Sakinyan’s triumph was a small bedroom. Her achievement was the fastest-ever recorded play-through of Ring Fit Adventure — a Nintendo Switch game that puts players through the mill of calisthenics, yoga and gruelling physical exercise.
Nintendo expects any sane player to divide Ring Fit Adventure’s extensive story mode into a series of sessions — with the whole thing played out over several weeks of daily exertion.
In a nervy pre-emptive strike against heart attacks and lawsuits, every so often the game implores players to stop and take a break. But, in consummate speedrunner style, Sakinyan ignored the warnings and completed the game in a single go, knocking an hour off the previous record.
Speedrunners are subversives as well as perfectionists — their obscure, velocity-obsessed endeavour is focused not on playing games for pleasure, but on treating them as a foe to be plundered for every conceivable millisecond they will give up. It is an art that draws on many techniques.
One (as with Sakinyan) is simply to be physically faster on the buttons in order to exploit every minute advantage the game legitimately offers.
But, when that is exhausted, the next step is to probe the game’s flaws for the accidental tunnels and trapdoors that the designers never knew they had created. The real breakthroughs can come from a deeply researched understanding of the technology.
As a spectacle, this is not the stuff of $1m prize esports tournaments held in giant arenas and streamed to millions. Fundamentally, speedrunners inhabit a cult of private worship through repetition and experimentation. The results only go viral when they succeed and celebrations have a distinctly lonely vibe.
In 2018, speedrunners held their collective breath as a player known as Kosmic pulled off an achievement long thought impossible, completing the 1985 classic Super Mario Bros in under four minutes 56 seconds.
Footage shows that Kosmic’s justified elation is short and shared only with a chest of drawers and the dun curtains behind his chair. After Sakinyan’s marathon defeat of Ring Fit Adventure, she sat cross-legged alone and then checked her phone.
Yet somehow this does not diminish the excitement speedrunners are capable of generating. As the multimillion clicks on YouTube and Twitch attest, the whole phenomenon is addictively watchable, especially when it involves players taking on older games such as Mario, Metroid, Tomb Raider and other classics.
For the games sector, this could prove a vital weapon. In mid-January, industry analyst Newzoo published an illuminating report on why gamers play in the largest markets (the US and China).
The report also identified the “lapsed” gamers, now in their thirties and forties (54 per cent of them female), who no longer play because of other less fun drains on their time.
A quarter are itching to play something within the next six months, but the rest need more serious prompting. This group is chief among the demographics that developers are desperate to engage, given its higher incomes, plus proven interest in gaming.
Could the speedrunners hold one of the keys to winning them back? Newzoo’s report at least hints that it might: as the industry works out how to keep older players interested, one way of reviving lapsed gamers is “having them passively enjoy the IP [classic games] they used to play”.
In effect, by grabbing them — and offering some form of service — after they have watched a YouTube video of an older game being mastered. This, adds the report, goes hand in hand with the evolution of various low-threshold ways of gaming such as cloud gaming (where players don’t need to purchase a console or disc).
For the past couple of decades, speedrunners have fretted and fiddled on the periphery of gaming. Now, in the minds of developers, there is a brewing thought that their brand of quixotic ransacking could have great commercial value.
Leo Lewis is the FT’s Tokyo correspondent
Follow @FTMag on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first. Listen to Culture Call, the FT’s transatlantic culture podcast, which interviews people shifting culture in London and New York. Subscribe at ft.com/culture-call, Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Get alerts on Gaming when a new story is published