One of the most common academic books you’re ever going to hear me mention, if you hang around me for any meaningful length of time, is going to be The Grasshopper: Life, Games and Utopia, and I’m not double checking the order of the terms in the title. It’s a book published first in 1978, by a guy called Bernard Suits, a lecturer from the University of Waterloo. The book is considered, now, fundamental to the philosophical consideration of games, and is the source of one of the most common definitions of games you’ll hear — indeed, the one I use to be maximally inclusive: A game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.
If you’ve listened to me explaining games in any expansive way, you’ve absolutely heard me quote this. Maybe sometimes I’ll say consensual instead of voluntary and maybe you’ll see noncompulsory instead of unnecessary, or restructuring the sentence back to front in some other way. If you only learned one thing from the book, odds are good, it’s this definition, which is useful for a bunch of reasons. It gives you freedom, it’s very inclusive, and it also asserts that you can’t be forced to play, which I found very important to instill in those I teach, that if you’re not choosing to do it, you’re not playing.
It isn’t the only idea in the book, though.
The book is very readable, compared to other books of its type. Conventionally, academic writing takes a particular form, with an arch, technical wording that favours long, clausal sentences designed to be read in a similarly academic way. You know, the this such as that and also this while in the context of that other thing (someone, 1989). Instead, The Grasshopper is written to be treated as a fictional book of a bunch of people having conversations, following the last days and death of the titular Grasshopper from the Aesop’s Fable story The Ant And The Grasshopper.
As the Grasshopper is dying, he explains to his followers that he has lived his life by the rules of a Utopian, that he lives his life the way people should live their lives, and the way people will get to, once utopia is upon us. This conversation takes some winding and explaining, and yes, it starts out with a definition of games, but it then moves on to discuss other topics along the way, and one particular idea is cheating.
Chapter 4 is titled triflers, cheats and spoilsports, and it describes different ideas about the way people can ‘play a game’ without ‘playing a game’ – after all, what about a poker cheat? The person at the table who is trying to get the most money out of the pot and ignoring rules of the game in ways that involve manipulating and deceiving other players, in ways that the game system permits (and you know, there’s a lot of stuff in how poker pieces work and are set up to make sure that it’s hard to conveniently cheat for playing the game). In this structure, though, the book describes the way a cheat needs the game to exist, but the cheater is looking at the goals of the game without respecting the systems.
This is all while the book introduces the idea of efficiency and inefficiency. Games are definitely a less efficient way of doing things; if your goal is to take your opponent’s king, you can do it very efficiently by reaching across the table and picking it up, but that’s not congruent with the rules of the game. The rules of the game present an inefficient way to pursue the goals of the game, and complying with those rules to achieve the goals is part of how the game works.
The process of the book works to hone games down to the simplest versions they can. Cut away the number of parts or the number of players or the number of actions in the name of the game, in order to try and get down to a rule applicable to as many games as possible. One example is the idea of how a race is a game; even if it’s on your own, even if you’re doing it for the first time, to see how fast you can do it. The metaphor that the book uses is the idea of racing the sun.
And this is where we draw this around to this week’s theme.
A speedrun is a game made out of a game; now we can set aside the concept of ‘no wrong way to play’ – that’s a different way to look at games. What you need to consider is that a speedrun is a game that needs the other game to make the game matter. After all, there are a number of states of any given game that, agnostically, are as important as one another: you need the fiction of the typical design of the game to assign value to those game states. The ‘end screen’ of the game matters only because the fiction of the game as normally played makes it matter (and even then, those end screens don’t matter to all the possible speedrun goals; consider there are speedruns like nipple% Super Mario Odyssey).
Essentially, the simpler, let’s say naive gameplay experience is a game that sets the parameters for the way the game can be speedran. It has instrumental components, it has rules and boundaries, and it has a fiction that holds those things together. And yes, even games that don’t seem to have ‘a story’ have a fiction, and we can talk more about that another time. For now, accept that everything the game tells you matters in the game is part of a fictional construct; shotgun shells and the medikit do not relate to one another except in how they both change variables for your character, who is fictionally, representing some dude.
It is this fictional naive version of the game that the speedrun uses to determine what goals it cares about, and then, at that point, the discussion begins about what systems can be disrespected on the way to the end of the game. What’s really noteworthy though is that these aren’t entirely about an absolute value of speed: For almost all games, hacking the game before it starts so that the game completes instantly is almost always going to be faster than any speedrun with a human hand on the controller.
The speedrun is picking a different set of unnecessary obstacles to overcome, but the original game serves as the sun that the speedrun races.