Why Speedrunners Use Glitches

Any time Kotaku writes about speedruns, we find that a good chunk of the community can't understand why someone would willingly use glitches and cheats to play through a game. Doesn't that make the playthrough less valid? Isn't abusing glitches, you know, wrong?

Let's forget for a second that there are different types of speedruns out there, and that if glitchless runs are more your thing, then you should probably check those types of runs out. Reader Eric Koziel emailed us an excellent breakdown of speedrunning, which touches on the controversial subject of glitch use. It's probably not surprising to hear that speedrunners don't really think about games in the same way the average person does:

Many viewers have an expectation that speedruns clear the game using only the tools intentionally given by the developers. This is an explicit constraint on the run brought on by an internal perception of the game. This by itself is not inherently wrong or incorrect, but it is based on an attachment to the game. Speedruns in the unconstrained case are separated from this in that the game itself is no longer regarded as a game, but is instead the medium. The "game" then becomes the optimization problem, while the medium is just a set of implicit constraints. In this sense, there is no such thing as a glitch, provided that nothing external to the medium impacts it.

In the case that explicit constraints prevent the use of glitches, there are still a few points to clarify. First of all, it is quite difficult to objectively classify what is and is not a glitch. A glitch or bug in the technical sense is when a program achieves an unexpected state as a result of programming errors. A glitch is fairly apparent when a calculator program fails to calculate 2 + 2 correctly, but is not as clear when mapped to a complex program such as a game. In some cases it may not be apparent what the original intention for a function was. A famous example is the original Street Fighter 2, in which consecutive hits were not meant to connect but in some specific cases could be chained together. This was not the original intention according to the developers, but it formed the basis for the "combo" systems seen in every fighting game since.

Earlier in the article, Koziel posists that speedruns are essentially optimization problems where someone tries to find the best possible path through a game—which can mean the use of glitches, if the constraints put on top of the speedrun allow for it.

"In the context of speedrunning, implicit constraints are imposed by the game environment," Koziel writes. "You can't start the game with full power-ups because that's just not how it's programmed. Falling in a pit will kill you. Those are the 'rules' of the game, so to speak. Explicit constraints describe optional objectives, which are better translated into "categories" of speedruns. These include 100%, glitchless, low%, and any other applicable category for a game. Categories exist when the case without limitations (referred to in general as "any%") is uninteresting or effectively solved, or where there is significant incentive to achieve the secondary goal."

He continues:

Many people have an aversion to glitches because they see it as something that goes against the spirit of the game. The "spirit" of the game is in the end subjective; it doesn't mean the same thing from person to person. "Playing the game as it's meant to be played" also changes the optimization goal to maximize for enjoyment, which has no objective measure and is specific to an individual's experience. Thus, in the context of speedruns as an optimization goal for least frames, there is no distinction between glitches and normal play unless called out in the explicit constraints. A glitch occurs as just another transition of state, regardless of what a player may see on the screen.

Not everyone is going to feel the same way about glitches—that's OK. When you or I play a game, we're not necessarily trying to "optimize" the run in the same way a speedrunner might. Heck, in the past I've purposefully made playthroughs of games I enjoyed way longer than they needed to be. In cases like those, doing a glitch that skips an entire portion of a game (for example) might compromise our enjoyment of the game. But a speedrunner isn't playing with the same mindset. Heck, finding something that's new and potentially usable for optimization might make the game more exciting.

Plus, the entire process of finding and using a glitch, contrary to what it might seem, can genuinely take lots of skill. People spend endless hours perfecting their runs, optimizing their paths. With all of this in mind, it's really not fair to assume that a speedrun that uses glitches is somehow less valid or takes less effort than a "legitimate" playthrough (whatever the heck that means).

In any case, if you're interested in learning more about what speedruns are, Koziel's write-up on them is a must read.