“AHHHHHH, NO!” Nerissa Hart, known as “RUBIEHART” online, screams. “Give me your face, please! Come here. Babe. Babe. Babe. Babe! Come on! AHH! OK… Give me the plant. Give me the plant. Give me the plant. Thank youuuuuu!” Hart sings the last word at a high pitch the way an opera singer would, as their character plunges his sword into a beautiful, strange beast, killing it.
Hart isn’t catcalling anyone, nor are they begging anyone for their plants or faces. They’re “speedrunning” a videogame for Games Done Quick, where such seemingly bizarre phrases are commonplace and understood by thousands.
After over 10 years since its first livestream, Games Done Quick (GDQ) is a well-oiled machine, producing two enormously popular week-long speedrunning marathons each year, grossing millions of dollars for charity each time. Sometimes racing against others and always against themselves, speedrunning—the act of finishing a videogame as fast as possible—has become increasingly popular as well over the past decade, in large part thanks to GDQ acting as one of the largest stages in the speedrunning community. If each individual game is a sport, GDQ is the Olympics, where the best of the best “runners” meet to showcase the results of thousands of hours of practice to thousands of in-person spectators and hundreds of thousands of viewers online.
Separate from the two annual GDQ marathons, the “Fatales” marathon runs started in 2019 with the “Frame Fatales” event, each subsequent marathon’s name being a spin on the original’s, such as this marathon, “Fleet Fatales,” and the next one, “Flame Fatales.” There’s one big difference: only womxn (a term including nonbinary and transgender women) runners may apply.
The person behind the event is Hannah Marrcarr, although she often goes by her online username, “Muffins.” A full-time volunteer coordinator for GDQ since 2014, Marrcarr started Frame Fatales as a “passion project to show how many women there were in speedrunning and to try to encourage more participation,” Marrcarr writes in an email. The original intent was for the event to only have one or two runs per night, but as the idea caught on in the community, Marrcarr states that it “spun out of control” into a five-day, 12-hour-per-day event. It’s only grown from there.
“The reception of the event seems mostly positive now that people have seen our commitment to it,” Marrcarr writes. “We’re happy to see that our events have been encouraging more women to participate in speedrunning events.”
One runner who made their GDQ debut as part of the marathon’s most recent iteration, “Fleet Fatales,” is Hart, a professional actor who livestreams their runs on the streaming platform Twitch, and who identifies as genderfluid. All around them is red, from their drawer to their chair and water bottle, as well as the red overalls Hart wears during their run, with “THEMME FATALE” written in bold lettering in the center. They wear big, shiny hoop earrings and have long hair parted to one side.
Hart has taken the week off work in order to practice more before their run on Saturday, one of the last runs of the event. Their “estimate,” how long they anticipate an average run of the game will take, is two hours. The game: Shadow of the Colossus.
“It’s an absolutely gorgeous game,” Hart says. “It’s one of the best games that’s been created, in my opinion.”
Hart’s passion for developer Team Ico’s somber and mysterious game about hunting and killing 16 majestic beasts is evident. Initially discovering the game in high school, Hart created a yearly tradition that started as them and a friend passing the controller back and forth until they beat the game and evolved into full, competitive races where friends would spectate, some taking shots every other time one of its titular “colossi” was felled. Hart also has a tattoo of the game’s art on their foot.
Earlier in 2020, another friend urged Hart to try streaming the game online. Hart didn’t think it would be entertaining.
“I told him, ‘Look, I’m not on a professional level. I’m just gonna shout ‘babe’ at things a lot, pet talk the colossi and then scream profanities,’” Hart says. “And he said, ‘No, that makes it even better!’”
They’re not exaggerating. During runs of the game, Hart is cheery and talkative while moving between colossi, explaining each upcoming trick in simple terms and looking directly into the camera while waiting for the game to load. Once they get to fighting them, however, they become more serious and intent upon the game, their face drawing closer to the screen as they exact highly specific tricks. When facing difficulties with a colossus, Hart shouts their signature “babe!” phrase, and when they get something especially difficult right, they sometimes give a high-pitched operatic scream, followed by throwing their hands in the air in excitement after finishing the level.
It wasn’t until around March 2020, however, when Hart started streaming. With rehearsals canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, streaming from home provided a much-needed replacement.
“I didn’t have that creative outlet, that creative space anymore where I really felt like I thrived. But with the Shadow of the Colossus community, it was something I really loved doing, and with streaming, I felt like I was engaging in a similar way, but it was much more casual,” Hart says. “Getting involved in Twitch and getting really good at playing this game not only introduced me to a lot of really great people, but it helped give me a creative outlet in place of theater during the midst of the insanity.”
When they finally timed how long it took to beat the game, without knowing any of the formal speedrun tricks or glitches, Hart placed ninth on the game’s global leaderboards. Soon after, others in the Team Ico speedrunning community (a group that collectively runs the developer’s three published games) reached out and invited them to the group, where they learned how to improve their record further.
“As a femme in the gaming community, I have been gatekeeped from many communities before,” Hart says. “But the Team Ico community around speedrunning is so wonderful and inclusive and fun, and especially during the pandemic, it’s really come together. And that’s really what made me stay and want to learn the tricks. Not only was I getting better and better at my favorite videogame in the world, but also I was learning it with all these really cool people.”
For Hart, that’s not the type of welcome they always receive. In communities around other games they enjoyed, such as Left 4 Dead or League of Legends, players suspected of being female would often be mocked, harassed or dismissed unless they proved themselves to be far above the average skill level—a “badass,” in Hart’s words. There has been progress in communities becoming more accepting of different gender identities since Hart’s days in high school, but anti-female sentiment is still high in many online gaming circles.
Now, GDQ is attempting to push its own space, which still mostly features white, male runners in its marathons, to be more inclusive, through events such as Fleet Fatales.
“I only saw guys running at GDQ when I was introduced to it,” Hart says. “And when I found out that Frame Fatales existed, I got really excited about that because it shows that GDQ also wants to make sure that there is a space for people who are femme and who are strong and who are talented-as-hell gamers. They’re making a space to help them showcase their talents. And I think whenever you have the ability as someone with any kind of privilege… being able to elevate other people who haven’t been given the same opportunities or who have been constantly pushed down, I think that’s really, really important.”
As not only the first female-presenting person to run Shadow of the Colossus at a GDQ event, but the first person ever to run their chosen category of “any%,” playing from beginning to end, Hart feels a combination of “excited,” “overjoyed” and “terrified.”
“I want to make sure I do right by the community and can represent the Team Ico community the best I can,” Hart says. “They’ve taught me so much and I’ve become so close with so many of them. I just want to make sure I do a good job.”
Although there aren’t any gold medals handed out to the best runners of any GDQ event, being on one of the biggest stages in speedrunning often comes with feelings of pressure to represent oneself and one’s community well. For womxn in gaming, there’s often additional pressure to perform well, lest others blame their less-than-optimal performance on their gender.
Such has been the case with “Ashewyn,” who also goes by her first name, Ashe, and who runs Dark Souls, one of the most notoriously difficult and punishing games out there.
“I’m by far not the fastest speedrunner when it comes to Dark Souls, nor am I the best,” Ashe says. “And I had this fear, how would people feel to see a female speedrunner for Dark Souls, when notoriously, it’s always been males, especially at big events like GDQ? How would chat receive it? How would people see mistakes that I would make? Would they be harsher, more critical? Would they default to bigotry or fall back on really age-old stigmas like ‘women do not as good as males’? So these are ideas that have definitely snuck into my mind.”
Compared to the excited, vibrant personality of someone like Hart, Ashe appears to be more calm and calculated, despite her fears. Wearing a black shirt and a yellow beanie in a softly lit room, Ashe speaks in the same professional, focused manner throughout her run. In order to speedrun a game as tough as Dark Souls, you especially need that level of focus.
“Speedrunning Dark Souls is going to come down to the mastery of knowing what can happen and how to respond to it, and making the best decision-making possible,” Ashe says. “This is one of those games that you need to keep practicing, because you can get rusty very fast and it will show.”
Just because she doesn’t show it, however, doesn’t mean that she isn’t nervous for her run.
“Since this was my first speedrun for a marathon, it was a little bit nerve-wracking for me, but I think overall it went well,” Ashe says. “There was a bit of a rough spot in Blighttown where I died a few times; I think that was just nerves kicking in, but I managed to recover from that, salvage it and went strong for the rest of the run, which was fantastic.”
Ashe appears to have that same composed, focused attitude in her broader career as a speedrunner and streamer, as well. Whether dealing with trolls online or the literal trolls and beasts she fights in Dark Souls, she remains calm and focused on her goals.
“I like challenges. I like overcoming things. I like getting better,” Ashe says. “What I want to do is what I want to do, and it’s not really in their power to have a say about it. That’s the important thing: it’s what you want to do. It’s not what people think of you. And whatever you have in your heart and mind to achieve, you should go out there and do it.”
Upon completing her run in just over 41 minutes, significantly shorter than her 55-minute estimate, Ashe highlighted the importance of the charity Fleet Fatales supports, the Malala Fund, which works to provide education for girls in developing countries, a challenge that has become even more pressing with COVID-19 forcing many schools into remote learning.
“I want to say thank you to my mom for inspiring me and empowering me all my life to do everything that I’ve always wanted to,” Ashe says on-stream upon finishing her run. “And that goes hand-in-hand with this Malala Fund that we’re benefitting here at this event. Please inspire and empower the people in your lives, and if you can’t do so directly… donating to a cause like this really helps. I can tell you this because I come from one of these countries that really benefit from giving girls the tools to education so they can make decisions for themselves and feel empowered.”
Ashe’s native country of Syria isn’t one of the eight in which the Malala Fund does work, but it does benefit girls in Lebanon, where nearly a third of school-age children are Syrian refugees, as well as those in seven other countries across the world.
When deciding on which charity for the Fatales marathons to benefit, Marrcarr was looking for something that had far-reaching effects for womxn, was able to accept the large sum of money donated, and put donations toward primarily helping people instead of paying administrative fees. With the Malala Fund meeting all three criteria, it became the obvious choice.
“When we started reading about what Malala Fund does, we knew we wanted to work with them,” Marrcarr writes. “With 120 million girls worldwide unable to access an education at all, it seemed like a good place for us to focus our efforts.”
Despite having operated mostly remotely since its first marathon in April 2019, Fleet Fatales has also been “drastically affected” by COVID-19, according to Marrcarr, although not always in a negative way. Because volunteers weren’t able to fly in people to help with the event, they cut down from their usual 24/7 schedule to eight to 10 hours per day. Because of this and a weakening economy, Marrcarr expected total donations to be less than the roughly $54,000 they made in their last event.
Instead, they exceeded it, raking in $81,118 for the Malala Fund. And the reduced hours actually ended up helping, with it being easier to keep on schedule and everyone being better-rested. Now, she and others are considering never returning to the old 24/7 cycle for future events, the next Fatales one being “Flame Fatales” in summer 2021.
“This event blew away all expectations I had, from viewership to donations,” Marrcarr writes.
Hart, whose Shadow of the Colossus run is scheduled as one of the event’s last, ends up breaking a different kind of record. With an estimate of two hours, they reach the ending in one hour, 37 minutes and 37 seconds.
“TIME!” Hart yells, then gives a long exhale, nervously covering their face with their hands. “What was the time, what did it come out to?”
A long pause.
“I don’t know, I can’t see the stream…” Hart’s co-commentator says.
“Oh no! Oh gosh, oh, OK…” Hart says, laughing nervously, checking for their final time.
A longer pause. Hart’s eyes suddenly widen as they finally see it: a new personal best time, or “PB” for short.
“I GOT A PB! My best was 1:38, oh my gosh!!” Hart shoots their hands into the air as they and their commentators laugh and yell in celebration, having performed their best-ever run of the game on speedrunning’s biggest stage.
Joseph Stanichar is a freelance writer who specializes in videogames and pop culture. He’s written for publications such as Game Informer, Twinfinite and The Post. He’s on Twitter @JosephStanichar.