As Seen While Lurking: Observations of Death’s Door Speedrunning

I am fascinated by the process of making things, the working out not just of what a person wants the finished product to look like, but the ways in which creators think through the actions and strategies that will allow them to bring that vision into reality. I think that perhaps some of this interest comes from the fact that I don’t have a making practice of my own and as such like to watch others think in a way that feels strange and almost magical to me. In my formal graduate work I have the opportunity to think and write about the studio practice of fine artists but in the era of pandemic learning I also find myself spending a great deal of time in internet spaces where different types of creative work is happening. In particular, I spend a lot of time hang out in speedrunning Twitch streams and in the later part of the Fall 2021 semester I watched a small group of runners route, practice, and play, a new category – the any% NMG category for the 2021 game Death’s Door – and I want to write about the experience of spectating the kind of collaborative work that goes into the routing of a new category. 

Now I recognize that the last sentence of that previous paragraph contains a lot of gaming vocabulary that probably doesn’t make any sense without context. I am not going to claim to have an expert understanding of speedrunning but briefly: speedrunning is a competitive community which seeks to beat video games as fast as possible using a combination of clever manipulation of the game’s rules and an extremely high level of skilled play. Categories are further divided within games based on how much of the game is completed during the run (are you picking up every hidden collectible or just hitting the main bosses) and whether or not the runner is taking advantage of glitches in the coding of the game. Generally speaking, runners will focus on one or two games competitively and often perform runs live on the streaming platform twitch.tv while records and leaderboards are kept on the website speedrun.com. The conversation around why I like to watch people play video games as fast as possible, and why I think the practice of speedrunning deserves consideration as a serious form of creative practice, is a discussion for a separate post. But the growth of competitive play around Death’s Door in the late part of 2021 offers a view of what is possible when ideas and information is open source in a way that facilitates exploration and invites new people to participate in a community effort. 

In the case of the Death’s Door any% NMG (beat the game with any amount of completion but without using any major glitches) the routing was largely done by three runners who were already familiar with each other from the Hades speedrunning community: Vorime, Museus7, and Latt_Millard.  Throughout the several months long process of them routing this category, I was consistently surprised by just how much of the work was done during live stream. With one player actively streaming and playing the game and the other two main contributors making suggestions and discussing options in the chat. At times there would be reference to breakthroughs that happened off stream or someone would drop out of chat to go test something, but overall the practice and development was done not just in view of competitors for the top place on the leaderboard, but also random spectators such as myself. As a viewer it means that I understand the many hours of work and testing that are involved in the incredibly smooth but rather incomprehensible hour and 22 minute speedrun. I see not just the slick performance of a completed run but also understand how the elements of the run function together. Beyond this openness to the audience of the completed speedrun, the open source nature of the creation process makes it accessible for other people to pick up. Not only did other speedrunner decide to try and learn the category (I particularly enjoyed JDNsr’s late night Death’s Door streams while writing final papers) but the core group of Vorime, Museus, and Latt were often present in chat on these streams as well even though JDN was not running the game at a competitive level. The three leading runners were able to make suggestions, answer questions, and even pick up new strategies by watching someone else struggle with various parts of the game. 

This collaborative ethos was at its height when there were still a lot of unknowns with the route, when everyone involved knew that it could be done much faster but hadn’t quite figured out how to do it yet. As an outsider (a lurker in the context of Twitch streams), the atmosphere was incredibly interesting to be a part of with a constant feeling of progress that was built not just by a single individual but by a group of people who were willing to share knowledge with each other and the incredibly broad public of the internet. There was a lot of genuine conversation where the person streaming and the other runners in chat were willing to take suggestions seriously and consider that their way may not be the best (fastest) way. Vorime, Museus, and Latt celebrated new discoveries and the lowering time regardless of who made those discoveries and while the run was a shared project, I also noticed that the growing community put a strong emphasis on ensuring that credit is given to the person who discovered a particular trick or piece of tech. I would also like to note that there was a community process of building the rule set for the category and what was allowed in the no major glitches version of the run, however, it seems that much of this conversation happened on Discord or other spaces that I choose not to spend time in. 

As with most creative endeavors, the frenetic pace of the shared work dropped off as the project of routing the game wound down. As Vorime, the player with the most skill from my observation, began rapidly dropping the world record time through optimizations not in the routing and strategy of the game but rather through the manual dexterity and what appears to be pure practice hours, the two other core runners were less able to keep up. At this point, the creative work of routing Death’s Door any% NMG seems to be largely done, the collective discoveries and discussions have led to the most efficient route and improvement in the actual time it takes to complete is more dependent on the skill in the game which is a product of practice. Now there is effort being made to make notes, and guides for folks who may want to give the speedrun a try but from my admittedly limited observations in other speedrunning communities, it is unlikely that there will be another intense period of collaborative work leading to a drop in the world record time. It also seems that the process of routing and optimizing the game is central to the appeal of playing the category for the core group, particularly Vorime who has since turned his attention to the glitched version of the run and took the world record in that category as well. From what is visible to me as a lurking chat member Museus is no longer playing the game with any level of focus and though Latt has had a couple of Death’s Door streams looking to improve his PB recently, he has largely turned his content back to Hades which is his primary speed game. 

For each individual runner there is a collection of individual attempts, personal bests, and world records, but there is also the collectively authored body of work which is the completed route. All of these elements are documented in twitch vods and it is the kind of strong foundation that anyone who becomes interested in the category can come back to in order to learn even if none of the three main players are currently focused on the game. It has also drawn attention to the game as a potential source of future fun and other folks from other communities have picked up different categories. Now as I am writing this post, I have Mathulu playing the 100% NMG category up in the background and although some aspects are clearly drawn from the routing work that was done by Vorime, Museus, and Latt, the nature of the much longer 100% run and his previous work on the Hollow Knight speedrun means that he has a different community of people in his chat helping to build a different kind of run. 

I think there is a lot that can be learned from the creative process of routing a speedrun, particularly in thinking about how to foster collaboration even in competitive environments. There is a clear benefit to letting go of the idea that experimentation or the working process should be kept secret or that there is no reason to listen to people who are engaging with the project but who are not yet competitive with the leading participants in that project. Even though I do not speedrun games I felt like the space that was created in the Death’s Door streams was comfortable and beneficial to my own creative work working on papers trying to finish a challenging semester. It certainly felt like it was a much better collaborative atmosphere than some of the group projects I was working on.  Being in those spaces made me feel better equipped to take on my own creative work and to think about how I could better facilitate collaborative efforts in those projects by trying to be a little less intense about my need to get a good grade and instead focus on working towards a shared vision of the completed exhibition. Beyond just demonstrating now collaborative work enables a better (faster) final piece, the birth of the Death’s Door any% NMG speedrun shows that a visible working process is valuable to a public, even if it is a public that doesn’t have any intention of picking up speedrunning, or painting, or woodworking, or whatever else the case might be. 

I hope you enjoyed this piece, and if you have thoughts, questions or comments feel free to reach out to me either in the comments for this post or through the contact page. If you enjoyed this post you may find my piece about maker communities online interesting, it can be found HERE. And if you really enjoyed this post please consider supporting me on Ko-fi HERE.  I also encourage you to check out the streamers that I am writing about in this post here are the links to their Twitch channels:

Vorime: https://www.twitch.tv/vorime 

Latt_millard: https://www.twitch.tv/latt_millard 

Museus7: https://www.twitch.tv/museus7 

Mathulu: https://www.twitch.tv/mathulu 

JDNsr: https://www.twitch.tv/jdnsr 

If you are curious about speedrunning in general, youtubers SummoningSalt and Tomatoanus both make speedrunning explanation content that might be of interest to you.

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