Omnibus (week of Aug. 13, 2017)

Well this is going to be an odd instalment. I’ve spent the last week at my aunt and uncle’s place in Clarenville, Newfoundland, hearing old stories of Fair Island: the tiny island off the coast that my uncle grew up on, which was resettled to mainland Newfoundland in 1961. That’s my pick of the week. It would be my favourite podcast of the year if it were one. If it were one……

In the meantime, I have only one review for you and it defies categorization by medium. I don’t know what compelled me down this particular rabbit hole, but it’s been a satisfying half hour a night before bed. Given the anomalous nature of this week, I’ll permit myself a temporary format change. I.e. enjoy the paragraph breaks while you can. My one review is of the following set of media:

Various ephemera pertaining to the advanced traversal of Super Mario 64

I have never understood the kids today, all obsessed with watching other people play video games. Every so often I find myself watching part of a Let’s Play, either to get a general sense of whether I want to play a game or to learn how to get past a bit I’m stuck on. But I cannot for the life of me understand why anybody would want to watch them all the way through, even and especially when the person narrating their gameplay has a “personality.” Still, in what I can only assume was a fit of only semi-conscious nostalgia, I spent my late evenings this week marinating in other people’s experiences of Super Mario 64. Particularly, the experiences of people who have taken that game to its farthest extremes.

First, some context. To me, the appeal of a video game generally isn’t in the skill required to play it, but in the space of possibility it opens for decision making and exploration. I like to play games that allow me to explore a fictional space, without necessarily having to hone my hand eye coordination, timing, and skill with the game’s mechanics. I.e. I like weird indie games. I didn’t play a lot of games at all until people started making stuff like Gone Home and Firewatch, which are basically 100 percent story driven.

Super Mario 64 represents an anomaly in my gaming history. It’s the only game I played obsessively as a kid that’s more about skilful negotiation with the game’s mechanics than it is about exploration of the game’s world or narrative. More simply, it’s the only game I really loved where the point is to be “good at it.” I wasn’t, but Mario 64 remains the only platformer where I can actually pick up a controller and perform all of the manoeuvres that the player character is capable of with reasonable fluency. And the thing I specifically love about the game is how it feels to control Mario, and how satisfying it is to get through the (literal and figurative) hoops that the game sets up for you.

The fact that this is the exception rather than the rule for me is probably part of why I’ve never been interested in watching speedruns. Speedrunning is what it sounds like: people trying to beat games absurdly quickly. And it’s not much fun to watch unless you’ve played the game in question and can compare the speedrunner’s gameplay with your own. But I do know Mario 64, so when I started watching an old speedrun by Allan Alvarez (a.k.a. cheese05) something clicked. He practically starts the game by exploiting a glitch that lets him walk through walls. At that point, you realize you’re in the presence of a master. A master of a very specific, not particularly prestigious thing. But a master nonetheless.

Like I said, I’m not sure this will be at all meaningful to somebody who hasn’t played the game. But I’ll try to offer a bit of comprehensible colour commentary.

Alvarez is the current world record holder for speedrunning Mario 64, collecting all 120 power stars along the way. (That’s what you do in Mario 64: you overcome various challenges to earn stars.) The speedrun in the video above is not his current world record run, though it was a record in 2015 when it was recorded. It was the first speedrun to come up on YouTube without any annoying commentary, Thus My Click.

I’m not sure how many times through the course of this that my jaw literally dropped. But Alvarez’s timing, accuracy, faultless knowledge of the game’s exploitable glitches, and ability to move through the space in counterintuitive ways floored me again and again. It’s in the little things a lot of the time, like this thing right here, for instance. In Mario 64, when a power star appears on the screen, there’s a little animation that plays, during which Mario freezes in place — even if he’s mid-air. Again and again throughout the run, Alvarez gets Mario to where the star is going to be in advance, so that when he freezes during that little animation, he doesn’t have to jump again and lose precious milliseconds. That’s efficiency.

But my favourite bits are where Alvarez uses his total understanding of every surface in the game that Mario can bounce off of to traverse an area in a totally different, much faster way than is normal. Let’s take another example from the Snowman’s Land stage. Watch this. The level is designed in a way that directs you on a certain path towards this star — a path that most of us would tread fairly carefully to avoid its many risk factors, including a large, impassable penguin walking back and forth along a slippery surface. Alvarez ignores the well-trodden path completely thereby bypassing all of the obstacles. The genius in this is that the level designers who made Snowman’s Land almost certainly didn’t conceive of this path towards that star. I love that. Since I’m not a member of the speedrunning community, I have no idea how many, if any, of these strategies are Alvarez’s own innovations, or if he’s just learned from others and honed his technique and endurance more than anybody else. Regardless, it’s a hell of a thing to watch.

It’s in the super hard late stages that Alvarez really shines. Watching him clear the 100 coin star in Tick Tock Clock is honest to god one of the most incredible things I’ve seen in my damn life. See, in every stage of Mario 64, you can get a star by collecting 100 coins. Tick Tock Clock is one of the game’s most infamously precarious stages, where if you place a foot wrong, you could fall to your death. I stayed up all night once on Christmas break just working on the 100 coin star in Tick Tock Clock. I made Mario tiptoe over every surface, lest I fall and have to start all over. I don’t even want to know how many times that happened. Alvarez clears it in 60 goddamn seconds. He also clears a remarkable amount of Rainbow Ride without even using the magic carpets that are intended as your primary mode of conveyance through that level. That’s a similar achievement to the way he tackles Snowman’s Land: nobody who designed this level meant it to be that way, but it works.

After watching this whole run, I felt as if I understood what people see in speedrunning. It’s just that there’s only one game I know well enough to appreciate it. Alvarez’s approach to Mario requires encyclopedic knowledge of the most efficient way through its various stages and impossibly finely-honed timing and precision on the controller — not to mention incredible focus and mental endurance. It’s like doing synchronized swimming for nearly two hours. But, you know, on Nintendo.

This gives a brief history of the 120-star Super Mario 64 speedrun. It puts Alvarez in the context of an evolving quest by the speedrunning community to achieve ever shorter times. As an outsider, it can be difficult to see the appeal in a pursuit like this. But I find I’m always less quick to judge once I’ve heard the story of a community from a member of it. The YouTuber called Summoningsalt is basically a speedrunning historian. Useful fellow.

Sometime while I was descending down this speedrunning warp pipe, I recalled a feature on Rock Paper Shotgun I’d been meaning to read about something called TAS, which stands for either “Tool-Assisted Speedrunning” or “Tool-Assisted Superplay.” In my view the latter is a more apt name for what it is, since it’s much more about novel approaches to the game than it is about speed. As I understand it, TAS is when you replace a game’s human player with a computer that you’ve programmed in advance to control Mario (in this case) with a very specific, predetermined set of inputs. By inputs I mean “press and hold A for this long,” “move joystick this much in this direction,” and so forth. This allows you to see what happens when Mario is controlled in very specific ways, without the inevitability of human error.

The RPS feature, written by Steven Messner, focusses primarily on a fellow called Scott Buchanan, a.k.a. pannenkoek2012. What Buchanan does with Super Mario 64 looks like hacking, to somebody like me who doesn’t actually know what that means. But it isn’t — everything he and his fellow tool-assisted superplayers cause to happen in the game is something that the game allows to happen without being altered. They combine the effects of the game’s exploitable glitches to cause freakish effects and accomplish feats that, while technically possible for a human to accomplish with a controller, will never be accomplished by a human with a controller.

Before I explain what I like about TAS, let me first mention that it has spawned one of the most wonderfully bonkers discourses on the whole damn internet. It is a discourse in which it is not an unusual suggestion that one irreplicable glitch that occurred in a Twitch streamer’s Mario game could have been caused by a stray gamma ray entering that player’s computer. Buchanan offered $1000 to anybody who could replicate the glitch in question, and nobody could, so the gamma ray theory was floated. The idea that there’s a community of people who investigate glitches in Super Mario 64 so thoroughly that somebody is able to conjecture “maybe it was gamma rays” is self-evidently delightful.

This video is a good, relatively short example of what TAS actually looks like. The premise of the video is simple: it shows a way to collect a star without pressing any buttons, only using the joystick and adjusting the camera angle. But the content of the video itself is thoroughly mystifying. Mario does things over and over for no discernable reason. The video fast forwards without warning. Things duplicate that shouldn’t duplicate, and it’s unclear why. But there are also bits that, even if you don’t understand what’s going on, are thrillingly absurd. Like this bit, where Mario bounces from one enemy to another, and ends up showered in coins. But at the end of every video, the thing that the title promises does in fact happen, and it’s amazing.

At its most inscrutable, watching Mario 64 TAS is like watching opaque performance art. And while opaque performance art is one of my favourite things, it’s nice to know a bit about why things work the way they do. In my limited experience, your best bet is this video, where Buchanan explains the process by which he can collect a star in Hazy Maze Cave, only pressing the A button, ahem, 0.5 times:

I understand that this video was viral for a while, in large part because of the remark, “but first, we need to talk about parallel universes,” and because of the crazy-talk notion that there’s such a thing as 0.5 A presses. (This is in fact totally explainable and simple, but it doesn’t seem that way at first.) The whole video is casually byzantine in a way I find deeply satisfying. But if you pay attention and read between the lines a bit, you can start to understand what Buchanan is up to. And you start to realize that TAS is a way to provide a more complete picture of what the man-made organism called Super Mario 64 is like: it is deeply imperfect and freaks out in fascinating ways when you push its limits.

I’ve seen avant-garde game design before, but never avant-garde gameplay.  It occurs to me that the absurdity of play in the “0.5 A presses” video may well be a spiritual predecessor to the absurd models of far-future football Jon Bois puts forth in his seminal bit of internet weirdness, 17776. It is Mario that has been pushed to the brink of madness by people whose obsession with it is both idiosyncratic and total. It is beautiful in the way that “Innocent When You Dream” is beautiful. It is not entirely unlike a psychopathic child cutting open the family pet to see what’s inside.

But maybe it is also what Mario 64 would be if it were free to be its truest self: the self that exists unmitigated by the obligation to acknowledge other intelligences, in this case the player. It is Mario in totality: with its weird-ass seams fully exposed. Every one of these counterintuitive approaches to Mario is exactly what it needs to be to be what it is, and is thus a satisfying work of art.

Messner’s RPS story hints at some of the differences in spirit between the two kinds of “speedrunning,” embodied by Alvarez and Buchanan: “If speedrunning is a celebration of human endurance and skill, tool-assisted play is a celebration of human curiosity and understanding. And though they might feel distant, both share a common ancestor in the question ‘how can I do it better?’” The difference between Buchanan and Alvarez’s approaches to Super Mario 64 is the difference between producing a perfectly detailed piece of electronic music, and performing a seemingly impossible guitar solo. I never expected to find that Super Mario 64 was an arena in which humanity’s quest for greatness was playing out.

But then, I don’t understand video games.

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