This week marks the return of Awesome Games Done Quick, the first of two annual major speedrunning charity events that bring out the absolute best that gaming culture has to offer. As we’re halfway through the week now, I’m happy to say that this year’s AGDQ has already raised more than half a million dollars for the Prevent Cancer Foundation, and by the time the marathon ends on Sunday, it’s likely to exceed more than $1 million. Such is the way of Games Done Quick, an institution so good, it canceled its live event in Florida that would’ve occurred this week over the state’s hateful legislation.
The event is great in even subtler ways than the collective good it realizes though. The Twitch chat, which regularly has viewer counts in the tens of thousands, all call each other cute at every chance they get. They often repeat the same running jokes to each other and because of that, I’ll never say “orb” the same way. Runners often bring on their closest friends and colleagues to commentate as they take on the task of breaking games wide open for charity and the biggest audience of their lives. Sometimes, they even do it blindfolded. For so many of them, putting on these showcases is the culmination of years of passionate work, because why else would you play a game hundreds of times front to back, memorizing it and the unique ways you can exploit the cracks in the surface to complete it as quickly as possible? And all that passion is especially rewarded when world records are broken (two already during this marathon!) and everyone pops off and celebrates as personal and cumulative milestones are crossed. When you spend your time sifting through the crap that fills so much of the lives of people who closely watch gaming communities and industries, institutions like Games Done Quick and the events they put on start looking like a beacon of light.
Selfishly I also really love the event because it’s one of the few public places where our culture starts tearing down the wall of secrecy behind how games are made in a way that feels constructive. If you’re at all familiar with the stuff I care for and rant about when it comes to games, this is among the upper echelon of the causes near and dear to my heart. Speedrunners interact with games in a way few players ever set out to, celebrating getting to know the inner workings of a game and sharing that knowledge with each other and their audiences. I constantly walk away from GDQ runs in awe of how games come together and how developers paper over the blemishes as best they can. The absolute best of these runs, then, are naturally the ones where developers commentate over the speedrun and get to gleefully reflect on their past work, flaws and all. This GDQ, the run that best embodied that open minded spirit was Mattmatt’s run of Blade II, which featured one of the game’s coders, Tom Forsyth, and his blistering commentary.
Over the course of about 46 minutes, both the runner and developer, who clearly got along and had some history of picking this game apart, shared funny and harrowing anecdotes about the nature of movie-tie ins and imperfect development cycles. Forsyth especially revealed countless behind-the-scenes details, like the fact that the game originally had way more platforming segments that were gutted one by one until eventually the only one that remained was, funnily enough, the jumping tutorial. Or the fact that the film’s release was moved up, accelerating the timeline for the development of the game, resulting in a situation where there simply wasn’t enough time to build a better conclusion. “We were a month before ship…we just didn’t have anything,” said Forsyth in regards to the game’s hastily developed final level. “We had a vague bit of geometry and some textures and some vague ideas. And the ideas were crap, we tried them and it was just no fun at all.”
Forsyth didn’t seem upset about any of the uncomfortable truths he was sharing. While I’m sure Blade II’s development provided undue headaches for him and his team at the time, there was a frankness, and almost wistfulness, in his tone that made the countless revelations, like the fact that the developers didn’t have the rights to Wesley Snipes’ likeness of Blade, felt cathartic. It was relieving to hear him poke fun at his own work with so much distance from its release that it didn’t feel mean, and it was especially nice to hear him bounce off of Mattmatt’s own jabs at the game by providing context for why the game sucks in the unique ways that it does. It was also just funny hearing Forsyth be incredulous at the fact that the code he wrote decades ago runs at different levels of effectiveness across platforms despite swearing he didn’t change a thing about it. So many stories about games development, and how wacky it can be, fade away due to NDAs and a general inclination towards secrecy in the games industry, so it’s always a relief when stories like these get to be shared uncontroversially and in such good spirits.
I know games are imperfect and I like to believe a large number of people do too. Sometimes, the way we talk about them seems to miss that fact though, which is why I hope we continue to have moments like Forsyth’s illuminating and deeply entertaining commentary on his own game. Hopefully, we can come together and pave more avenues for such frank conversations to take place. In the meantime, I’ll continue to champion causes like GDQ which, among countless other goods, promotes a healthy transparency that can deepen the way we think and talk about games and how they’re made. Forsyth captured it best as the run came to a close, telling Mattmatt, and by extension the GDQ audience, “Thanks for appreciating this old piece of junk we wrote.” Thank you for letting us really appreciate the old piece of junk you wrote and all the work that went into it.
Moises Taveras is the assistant games editor for Paste Magazine. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.