The fantasy theme of rationality, or the big mood of speedrunning

Speedrunning is an eminently rational practice. In terms of being a rational practice, it has the advantage of wearing its prime rational value on its sleeves. That value is speed, which supersedes any and all other priorities whenever a run is made. A run being whatever happens between pressing “new game” and the end credits rolling; whatever it is, faster is better.

At this point, some readers might object that completing a video game in the shortest amount of time possible is the opposite of rational, and that nothing good comes out of it. This is a valid criticism to make, but it misses the point, and slides on the definition of “rationality”. Being rational means having a goal and taking effective steps towards achieving that goal, measuring and evaluating one’s performance over time. The goal itself may or may not live up to the description of being a virtuous pursuit worthy of striving for, but once the goal is established, whether a course of action is rational or not is fully determined by whether it advances the progress meter towards that goal. Rationality is fully process-oriented, and thus, it can be rational to play video games at high speed.

What makes speedrunning such an eminently rational practice is that it lays bare the shedding of other values in the pursuit of the goal. During the course of a run, the speedrunner actively ignores or bypasses many aspects of a video game that are usually considered vital or important, such as text, story, narrative themes, feats of graphical majesty or works of musical mastery. The goal is to get to the end as fast as possible, and stopping to smell the roses (or behold the game as a work of art) is the opposite of going fast. As the runner finds ways to bypass ever more components of the game, we come to understand that this is how other rational processes come to shed components of a practice that might be viewed as important when considered by an outside onlooker. Rationality strips away everything that is not goal-oriented and distills the process to the barest viable minimum. In the context of speedrunning, we have the advantage of knowing explicitly what the goal is. In other social or economic practices, we are unfortunately not always so blessed with clear definitions.

Fantasy themes have the advantage and disadvantage of being one of the most useful analytical tools stuck with the absolute worst name imaginable. A fantasy theme is a critical (as in ‘rhetorical criticism’) attempt to recreate the spirit of what it was like to be there (as in “you had to be there”). Most fiction acts according to this principle – skilled authors know how to write in such a way that when the punchline or climax arrives, the reader is in the perfect frame of mind to appreciate it. The fact that it takes a while to arrive at said frame of mind is a feature, not a bug. When an author or a social situation manages to create a fantasy theme powerful enough that more than one person feels it, the results are pure magic.

Of course, reconstructing these themes after the fact is a difficult thing, and even more so to write a text that conveys what went through people’s heads in actual social settings. The payoff, however, is immense – decisions that in hindsight are inexplicable or seemingly irrational are suddenly contextualized thus that they make sense, or even attain a measure of inevitability. The past is made present, and thus we are reminded that we are all equidistant to eternity. The challenge lies not only in collecting enough material support for the claim that a certain theme permeated a certain moment, but also in avoiding the temptation to go full Herodotus and just invent events that did not happen but fit the narrative. It behooves a critic to remain faithful to the sources.

At the intersection of speedrunning and fantasy themes, we have this 2019 Summer Games Done Quick showcase of a Chrono Trigger run. The fact that it is six hours long is both natural and significant. Natural, in that Chrono Trigger is a very long game which takes a very long time to finish, making the six hours an impressive feat indeed. Significant, in that because of the duration we are able to see the fantasy theme emerge into the situation and how it affects those present. What begins as a rather straightforward showcase of a speedrunner’s rational bag of tricks to avoid getting bogged down in time-consuming minutiae (the hallmark of these kinds of games), gradually morphs into an emotionally intense scene where the only proper response is a prolonged triumphant yalp, which cannot help but infect the audience even now, years later. Not only is it impossible to step into the end without understanding the series of events that led up to it – it would be to miss the whole point. What amazes and amuses me is that we end up with a perfect blend of rationality and fantasy, of solidly goal-oriented measurable accomplishments and a relentlessly intangible case of “you had to be there”. Sometimes, you gotta go slow in order to go fast.

Should you decide to take the plunge, be aware that the video is in fact six hours long, and that you do not want to be in a hurry to do anything or go anywhere upon its completion. The ending is a mood a person has to sit with for a while, and this text is but a nod in appreciation that it exists as an object in the world at all. Most fantasy themes are irrevocably lost to history, but this one – this one we managed to catch. It is perhaps the most anomalous aspect of the whole event.

The fantasy theme of rationality, or the big mood of speedrunning

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