The reason that speedrunners usually get media attention is for the hours and hours and days and days of time they spend playing the same game over and over to see who can complete it (to varying degrees) the fastest.
In contrast to traditional eSports, speedrunning has been called "the freestyle parkour of the medium - often free of reward, aimed at self-improvement, and aimed at breaking rules."
If you've never heard of speedrunning video games, MakeUseOf has produced a detailed overview and claims speedrunning is the future of single player gaming.
Although its origins can be traced all the way back to early 90s games like DOOM, speedrunning has grown exponentially in recent years, thanks in part to the popularity of streaming on platforms like Twitch and marathon charity events like Games Done Quick, which have allowed strong community bonds to form over the grueling amount of practice required to achieve speedrunning notoriety.
Most observers find the dedication required, the commitment to creating muscle memory and the eye for detail down to single frames, to be the most interesting part, or they simply feed off of the frustration of speedrunners working towards their own personal bests and world records being thwarted mid-attempt and subsequently losing their shit.
But what could be the most fascinating aspect of speedrunning is not the "cosmic horror" of thousands of hours of human effort distilled into a single sublime performance when a record is broken – it's speedrunning's demonstration of the multiverse.
Breaking into multiverses
Theoretical physicist Brian Greene has been propagating the theory of the multiverse at least since 1999, in his book The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, which was then turned into a three-hour television series by NOVA, explaining string theory, quantum mechanics, and other mysteries of physics for a broader audience.
In this scene (approximately 31 minutes through 34:30), Greene is illustrating that, according to the theories of quantum mechanics, anything is possible. Our normal laws of physics are possible, but so are (theoretically) every other subversion of those laws. Quantum calculations show that it is probabilistically possible for him to walk through a wall, but it would take an eternity of walking into the wall according to the laws of our universe's physics before he had a reasonable chance of succeeding in passing through. And in some alternate universe to ours, he does succeed.
There are two parallels to speedrunning to be found here. The first involves breaking the laws of physics within the game world: finding places where walking through walls literally is more possible due to the game design, pushing past the boundaries of the visible space, and taking advantage of fluctuations in physical mechanics to disrupt the normal flow of time.
Finding these glitches in the universe is essential to all but "glitchless" speed runs, which are their own category, as are Tool-Assisted Runs, where players get godlike powers using emulators which enable them to manipulate the game at a level not humanly possible.
This anonymously-pasted text about "The Five Levels of Speedrunning," is meant to dissuade anyone interested in speedrunning by implying that the "god run" – that is, the world record breaking completion of a game in the quickest possible time, without any human errors – is impossible to achieve.
Darbian, who until February of 2018, held the world record for speedrunning Super Mario Brothers, was recently beaten by a player called Kosmic by 66 milliseconds (approximately 4 frames of difference), and has said something similar about the "perfect" run of 4 minutes and 55 seconds: it would take "tens of thousands (or more) attempts needed to even get the chance at saving that time."
But this is the second way that speedrunning interacts with multiverse theory. In addition to breaking the mechanics inside of the game, speedrunners are also attempting to bring into being probabilistically impossible universes in the real world as well, through sheer repetition.
Kosmic estimated he attempted as many as 40,000 speedruns since 2011 to beat Darbian's record. To the community of dedicated gamers that make these attempts for hours every day on Twitch and YouTube, tens of thousands of attempts are not impossible.
Even games that are about bending the normal laws of physics like Portal are broken back into shape – the current record for a completion of the game without walking through a single portal is 47 minutes and 51 seconds, set by icy after playing the game for 1300 hours. In the first seven minutes, they get through part of the game that they expected to take the better part of an hour to complete.
(Icy tends to say "fuck my ass" as a mantra of concentration, and is relying on meme music to get in the zone while performing this feat, so headphones are recommended):
Without knowing anything about the prop mechanics, it's quite hilarious that when the player has a gun that shoots travel-through-walls beams, they are choosing instead to run at a single corner of the room holding a radio repeatedly.
Bludgeoning the wall with the radio does work, however, and allows them to juke through the void of non-space behind the walls of the level to end up at the starting place for the next sequence, walking backwards into the corner of a particular door frame to be launched above the normal playable area and skip through several rooms.
The thing about games is they have rules, and while the rules may be nonsense to begin with, their structure allows for the freedom of developing new strategies within and against them. The thrill of victory comes not only when you win by following them, but when you can win despite breaking rules that other people don't even know can be broken.
There are specific strategies that can be used to exploit randomness in games, called RNG manipulations (RNG = random number generator) which help speedrunners save time by knowing where certain items or enemies will be, or perform other calculations behind the scenes that influence the game's behavior. In part, speedrunning is a science, through which players are discovering the rules for making what seems random predictable.
It's also the definition of insanity: repeating the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. But the results don't lie, and out of hundreds of hours of trying, whether by luck, skill, or quantum mechanics, they do find ways to pass through the walls of the game universe, and thousands of playthroughs in the real world manifest record times that skirt the impossible.