I can remember October 26th, 2004 like it was yesterday. I was 16, and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was finally available. I was a good boy who followed all the rules, so I knew I would be unable purchase a Mature rated game on my own, so I had a plan to get it. My mom, the absolute saint that she is, went to the local Gamestop and picked it up for me, excitedly trying to convince the clerk that she was ready to “cap some asses” and “rep my boyz”.
I had played all of the GTA games before (including those awful top-down ones), but something about this iteration was different. Los Santos’ hood was a wild, thriving, magical place I could not get enough of. Big Smoke’s order to this day makes me crave a drive-thru meal from Popeyes, with extra dip. I will always find an excuse to wax nostalgic about the great times I had in San Andreas, much like the hundreds of people that do the same on Twitch each day.
As we’ve previously discussed in our very own interview with Twitch streamer Hugo_One, speedrunning is an addictive pastime that’s receiving wider attention in the gaming community in recent years. What used to be a punch line of weirdo Japanese kids exploiting old Nintendo games has morphed into a marketable skill, and something worthy of praise to all avid gamers. But how hard is it to go from a n00b casual to skilled runner? What does it take to learn the ins and outs of a classic video game and exploit it for a masterful condensed play through? Armed with about 50 hours of Twitch spectating and thin understanding of the rules, I set out to try it myself.
Much in the same spirit of late George Plimpton: I am the Paper Gamer, and these are the confessions of a last string speedrunner.
Choosing My Game
While trying to conquer GTA:SA as fast as possible would best fit my interests, let’s first examine what makes a game popular for a speedrun. Checking the stats of speedrun.com shows us that the most popular run games include the words “Mario” or “Zelda,” and have an average World Record completion time around an hour or less. Obviously, linear games with a defined ending are going to be the most competitive, and probably the most satisfying for the player. Improving your “routes” and shaving off precious seconds each time is going to give players the drive to run it over and over again. Grand Theft Auto games are known as “sandbox” games, where anything can happen as the player transverses large distances, completing the game missions at whatever pace they chose. If my favorite game was going to work for this, I was going to need to take it seriously, and find some help.
Setting up for Speedrunning
One part of the experience that I severely underestimated was the setup of my “battle station.” I have a fairly decent PC for gaming, and I knew that a game from 2004 would be of little concern in regards to computing performance. What I failed to consider however, were the ball-busting specifics needed to get a fairly straight forward computer game into a speedrun-ready state. If you’ve ever viewed a speedrun on Twitch or Youtube, you’ve probably noticed the intricacy of the all important timer or “splitter” along with all the neat graphics and overlays on the screen.
The splitter keeps time for you, and more importantly, breaks a game of this size up into its specific quests or missions, giving all parties involved some instant feedback and a veritable scoreboard for the player’s performance. In my case, the splitter was non-negotiable. This requirement however, also meant that my game had to be played in “windowed” mode if I was going to be able to see both the timer and game on the same screen. Moreover, my Steam copy of GTA:SA had to be “downgraded” to a 1.0 format. If that weren’t enough, I had to download a special program to make my PS3 controller work with and around all the other bullshit I spent the better part of three days fucking with! ALSO, as I came to learn after trying to start my first run, I had downloaded the WRONG “windowed” mode modification, as my screen was awash in graphical glitches. The only appropriate analogy I can think of here is starting a professional race-car team: you source all this equipment, have no idea how it works, and are soon forced to compete with professionals once you’re up and running. Anyway, after fiddling for what felt like a lifetime of trial and error, after countless attempts to make my computer, peripherals, and 12th party software work together….. I was finally ready to learn how to play the damn game.
The participation and subsequent success of any sub genre or brand of video game in a speedrun format is going to depend a lot on the strength of its community. Sure, a quality YouTube comment section is a great way to talk about a game and argue about 9/11, but for my pursuits I was going to need a bit more help. Luckily, I already had the upper hand here. While the GTA community has its fair share of toxic assholes, the resources to learning the speedrunning routes and strategies were all readily available to those who sought it out. Looking back at speedrun.com or Reddit, most widely known titles have an active forum with tips, tricks, and ideas for improving speed. For me, I relied on Hugo_one’s guide to San Andreas on YouTube, and feverishly studied both the video and his live streams to try to memorize what I could. Learning the routes and tricks were one thing, but you can only study the playbook for so long before it’s time to get on the field. After getting comfortable with the basics, it was time to give it a go for myself.
Off and Running
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has a current Any% (beating the game as quick as possible without “cheating”) World Record time of just over 4 hours. Naturally, a scrub like myself would be more than triple that time if I tried to play such a long game on each play through. Thankfully for runners like this, we have “extensions.” Extensions are simply condensed or segmented sections/conditions of a game with it’s own timing charts and finish line regardless of what occurs before or after in the normal play through. Again, it’s important to remember just how big the modern Grand Theft Auto games are, so having a speedrun for an introductory chunk of the game is imperative to a noob runner. Completing the first “Los Santos” section GTA:SA seemed to make the most sense, so I narrowed my scope to meet the LS% requirements. If you’re familiar with San Andreas, LS% is from the beginning of the game until Sweet is arrested by the police and CJ is dumped in the back country. With this strategy I was estimating to play from the start of the game until the end of the Los Santos section in about 2 hours. Not wanting to waste a moment of embarrassment, I decided to stream all of my runs on Twitch, success or failure be damned.
At first, everything seemed almost too easy, like I had planned too well and spoiled some of the fun. I learned the basic but weird little “strats” for completing early missions faster. It wasn’t even about knowing what was required to complete a mission, but what seemingly silly little quirks I had to exploit to make them happen. With this, speedrunning’s most unique trait comes to life, the exploits. Seemingly more important than simply completing a mission is to find and execute moves or actions that advance time or progress at a pace that the game couldn’t even prepare for. Jumping out of a car to improve a future fight, spray-painting the WRONG side of a wall, and the ever-popular blowing up of Ryder’s car in the first real mission of the game to save time on a cut scene. In San Andreas, nearly every mission has some funky little exploit that no driving route or sharpshooter could improve without.
The early missions were rattling themselves off in fairly short order. Sometimes I’d fail a mission or two and have to research what went wrong between practice runs. If I only had an hour of free time for a night, I would get as far as I could before picking it up from there the next day. After a few days, I was able to do a complete LS run from start the finish in just over 2 hours. While this would only be good for 69th place in the world (nice), the beauty of speedrunning is that there was now a clear goal for my improvement. Sub 2 hours. Before I could be satisfied and move on to running other parts of the game, I have the clear goal of less than 2 hours. I couldn’t make the character’s play out a different story, but I could make them do it faster. I was making my favorite game from my adolescent years live again.
Speedrunning: Now and Forever
Going in, I never considered that I would want to pursue speedrunning beyond the scope of this little self-indulgent investigation. This shit is far from perfect. My runs alone are all considered illegal on speedrun.com due to the program I chose to use for my game controller function…and the less said about the amount of actual cheating from GTA players, the better. All that aside, I’m hooked. Every play through I’m seeing methods of improvement, from better luck of the draw RNGs to better planned driving routes between missions. Every time I pick up the controller I feel in some way I’m playing an old game afresh. Playing on Twitch whether it’s for 3 people or 300 brings back fuzzy memories of playing games with my friends at home in the living room, talking endlessly about the silly lore or how beating a video game made us feel like we could somehow solve real world problems. When I was younger, I collected piles of video games for the sake of collecting them rather than appreciating them. Based on my newfound experience, I want to dust them all off and see how fast I can play them, or what crazy exploits I could find to make the whole thing a nutty, satisfying experience. There’s still 5000 more words I could write to describe why speedrunning is worth every gamer’s time, but use this strat instead: find your game, and make it yours again.