Welcome to Net Positive, a series about nice places and things on the world wide web.
A woman in a low-cut dress descends into frame. “If I could have a moment of your time — ” she begins, but gets no further, as the TikTok hard cuts to a split screen of a man who utters a dispassionate “no” before going on to zoom through the game Geoguessr, in which players are dropped into a mystery location on Google Earth and must determine where they are, the less distance the better. The player, who goes by the username “georainbolt,” plays expertly, and more importantly, really fast. The pace he’s achieving in this TikTok isn’t even the fastest that Georainbolt can go; a video uploaded not long before that one boasts speeds of 0.05 seconds, which is to say: he can figure out his location after glimpsing a generic street photo for not even one-tenth of a second.
What georainbolt is doing, in essence, is speedrunning Geoguessr. Speedrunning is playing a video game as fast as possible, a feat of talent and determination and luck and physics. Speedruns are finite in runtime and infinite in quantity. Gamers game, assuredly, but now they speedrun too, a cracking open of the core of a game to figure out its most exploitable glitches and shortcuts in order to best each other at sprints across virtual worlds.
As a nascent-but-bad gamer, I turned to YouTube first for walkthroughs and then speedruns, and now I put on speedruns like I would TV or a movie. It started with games I was currently playing (Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, Hades), and then games I’d been too scared to play (Dark Souls), and also games that seemed to defy the very act of speedrunning at all (Animal Crossing: New Horizons). When the massive hit game Elden Ring came out a few months ago, I waited patiently for the speedruns to appear online, with each attempt growing exponentially quicker each week on the record boards.
In speedrunning, there are a number of variables that connote a successful run. You can do something called “Any%,” or “any percent,” which involves leaving out as much of the game as you can in order to complete the whole thing in the shortest amount of time possible. Then there is “all,” which requires the game to be finished to its utmost completion. In between, you’ll find “all dungeons,” in which players need to hit all of the major settings, or “all bosses,” in which the player has to go up against every big bad present in the game. There’s more inherent joy to Any% runs, in part because they often involve exploiting a game’s glitches. In Breath of the Wild, the speedrunner known on the charts as “Player 5” — and who am I to call him anything else? — commands a Link who walks through walls and midair, twitching violently back and forth. In Elden Ring, a game that I barely understand even when it’s being played regularly, a guy known as “Distortion2” uses an arcane maneuver called the “zip glitch,” which breaks the gravity of the game so fundamentally that it kills the final boss without the player having to meet them face to face.
The joy of watching speedrunning is like the joy in watching the Olympics: I will never be this good at anything, but it doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy watching athletes at the top of their game. Unlike the Olympics, the antics of speedrunners are not narrated by breathlessly bombastic sports commentators or met with anthem-accompanied pomp and ceremony. That lack of grandiosity — the routine, almost boredom, of the attempt — is partly what makes these videos so magnetic. Players often narrate their own runs, soft-spoken and technical — the best speedrunners explain what they’re doing, but often, they whip through silently — and because these runs are streamed on Twitch, occasionally the players engage in light small talk with those watching along. Player 5 chats about mundane parts of his life, which days are better to stream on, an upcoming school holiday — all while, in the background, the relentless clicking and tapping of him on his controller is a reminder that he has to keep mashing the buttons, even in moments of downtime, in order to prevent his hands from slowing down. Part of what was so funny about georainbolt’s video was his dry, straightforward “no” before launching straight into his geo-guessing. It’s all an unperformed surplus of skill, purely mathematical and strategic, like when someone says calculus is “beautiful” without elaborating. Or maybe it’s just really cool when guys go fast.