An independent scholar Fraser McKissack and Lawrence May from the University of Auckland, both having an interest in horror games and cinematography, have assessed speedrunning from a zombie media archetype perspective through an analysis of two live broadcast speedruns of the game Left 4 dead during Awesome Games Done Quick marathon.
These runs were selected for the case study due to their practicality in providing information on the subject through the insightful explanations on what is going on in the run. In the analysis of the runs, they have relied on the ideas of Deleuze and Guattari, the functional approaches for seeing how games and players affect each other and form an interactive ensemble.
This study aims to add to the still sparse collection of research on speedrunning and to explore its role as an emergent form of cultural activity as well as shed light on what possibilities video games can provide for us.
In the study, speedrunning serves as an allegory to the traditional zombie catastrophe depictions. Speedrunning is to a game what a zombie apocalypse is to society; it breaks it apart but enables clever ways of survival. Speedrunning is usually seen as a transgressive form of play, as attested by game developers’ frequent attempts at patching exploitable game mechanics.
The authors argue that while speedrunners may seem to be breaking the game, they are in fact demonstrating a truly free will, whereas, the game itself is transformed into a zombie, a form whose will, the narrative and design, has been succumbed to the players will, likening it to a voodoo zombie.
These games make the casual player follow the traditional depictions of zombie media where humans try to rebuild and reclaim their living space from the zombies by segregating themselves from the zombies, finding shelter, and by tries to eradicate the threat. The speedrunner instead rebels against the pre-determined narrative the game pushes on the player. The effects of the speedrunner’s actions on the game world can be seen as something similar to what the zombie outbreak does to the world. Whereas the game developers who try to patch the systems speedrunners are exploiting, or breaking, can be seen as the zombie-warding rebuilders. This notion demonstrates how a new narrative is born as an effect of speedrunning.
The authors take Deleuze’s filmmaking concepts of movement-images which create meaning and coherence for the spectator as an example; in video games, they manifest as content which ties the player to the narrative environment. While not true in all cases, speedrunning techniques typically do not break the linkage of movement-images, enabling the relationship of action and movement to stay connected in a way that makes sense for the player.
Time-images, however, disregard the need for sequential sensemaking. Warping from one place to another can be interpreted as a time-image that does not logically convey the passage of time, it is not made explicitly clear what is or has happened in the image. The player is not moving through space but rather time, and in this sense, the out of bounds space is an autonomous disconnected space that represents the time dimension.
Being freed from the narrative compulsion, the speedrunner becomes something else, transforming the virtual body into something else, and so does the concept of death in the games. McKissack and May state that the body is understood by what it is capable of doing. The body of a speedrunner can go through walls, get launched by a grenade, but for the casual player, there are only certain predetermined ways to use the body.
Casual players may not risk their virtual lives to rescue teammates, putting survival first, but for speedrunners, the most important goal is to complete the game as fast as possible and then one’s own life is not a priority and sacrificing it may be a strategical move and death becomes a tool which creates an emergent narrative of the apocalypse.
Speedrunning is a forceful act but not simply destructive, it enables expansion of narrative and creates new opportunities for players and games alike.
McKissack, F., & May, L. (2019). Running With the Dead: Speedruns and Generative Rupture in Left 4 Dead 1 and 2. Games and Culture. https://doi.org/10.1177/1555412018821528
A screenshot: Left 4 Dead by The Master and Mr. Deagle in 1:02:58 – AGDQ 2017 – Part 117
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