On Going Fast

I started listening to Zach Hill’s drumming obsessively around the same time I also started watching a lot of speedruns. This may just be a simple coincidence but I think both things are formally and philosophically similar. They’re fast, extremely so when put up against the norm of an average person playing games or how drums function in most popular music, but rather than being marked by efficiency, their second primary attribute after speed is excess. Watching Zach Hill play, it’s nearly impossible to separate flourish from normal play, in fact it seems like his playing is cut down to well timed and connected flourishes once it reaches a certain speed.

Zach Hill is a Sacramento-based drummer who’s most recently known for his work with the hip hop group Death Grips. Before then, during his solo work and time in the band Hella, most of which can loosely be classified under the banner of math rock or psychedelia revival, the speed and intensity of his style still stands out. The function of percussion in popular music, outside of the occasional drum solo, is generally to fall back and carry the beat, or structure of the song while other instruments and vocals take the lead. In this way it’s almost like the support onto which a work of art is executed, like the canvas to the painting itself.

This performance of Brown Metal is one of my favorites. Not only is half the song played on a kit that seems to include an old mailbox and some kind of plate, but the whirring melody of the guitar feels secondary, a foundation for the drumming to build on rather than the other way around. This play with the expectations attached to a 2-part band is what makes Hella’s dynamic so effective. Especially in songs like these, with all the shifts and flourishes that are almost a constant, it’s hard to pull a unifying rhythm or beat out of the percussion as one would expect to.

There’s an implied rhythm to game design too, the particular pattern of challenge and reward, the gradual acceleration of challenges until the satisfying resolution of besting the final boss, often described as ‘flow.’ The way the player moves through the space is directed by paths, walls, how enemies appear and so on. Speedruns are entertaining because they ignore most of these cues. The speedrunner has become so accustomed to getting the star, beating the boss, speeding through the dungeon, to the point where these aren’t rewards but givens, and the real reward comes from how many time-saving strats they can fluidly incorporate into the run to shave seconds off the end time.

Especially in the case of any% runs, which differ from 100% speedruns in that they allow large portions of the game, including whole areas and bosses to be skipped over through exploiting glitches or performing sequence breaks, any sort of logic of advancement or narrative arc onto which the game is inscribed is completely foiled. An 18-minute run of The Ocarina of Time, for example, sees a child Link battling Ganon and defeating him with a Deku Stick, a found item in the first dungeon. Link’s advancement, communicated through the collection of weapons, skills, heart containers and so on which serve as milestones for the obedient player to measure their progress by, is totally subverted by this approach to ‘winning’ the game.

Even in 100% speedruns, markers go by so fast, or are hit in irregular ways that it can be hard to tell from a brief glance exactly what’s going on in the same way you can read someone else’s normal playthrough of a game you’ve also played. Tool-Assisted Speedruns use emulators to slow down the game so that it can be dissected frame-by-frame to painstakingly build superhuman playthroughs. In these runs, older games especially can turn into almost an abstracted textile as the player character moves at impossible speeds and clips through the game’s functional architecture. The familiar game is rendered unfamiliar by speedrunning. The most beloved, iconic titles are predictably the most popular ones to receive this treatment, turned into something new by an excess of technique. Link rolls everywhere and Mario triple hops, and so the way they move around the space of the game makes issues of timing a constant concern. Even in any% runs, perhaps especially, some way of ensuring timing is essential, as some of the best sequence breaks require accuracy down to a single particular frame.

The process of speedruns is not a process of efficiency in the sense that they encourage the patterns of optimization, achievement-hunting and rapid turnaround that serve the gaming market. They don’t function as commercial strategy guides do, to give the player a clear route from start to finish with insert text to ensure they grab all notable collectibles on the way. John Newman notes in Playing With Games how commercial game guides fuel the forward-looking engine of game consumption. They give the player a goal, the best way to get there, and a set number of boxes to check. The player can feel assured that they are done with whatever this piece of software has to offer, and quickly move on to consuming the next title with similar efficiency, which is the market ideal. Meanwhile, fan-produced guides can continue to update for years after the game is released, increasing the level of documentation as dedicated fans replay, widening their nets to cover glitches, debug rooms, and even speedrunning strats.

Basically, while someone with moderate game literacy can pick up a strategy guide and ‘complete’ a game by the guide’s metric in a fairly efficient way, no single person can pick up a controller and perform the most efficient speedrun, regardless of base skill. While speed is their admitted focus, the performance of the end result of years of community driven discovery and development of strats is what matters. The recorded speedrun, the outcome of  a percussive performance on controller relying on knitting together unusual gameplay flourishes and precise timing, is usually accompanied by an oral history of what the player’s doing, and how they got there, and reveals the key drive behind such performances as anything but showcasing efficiency in the traditional sense. These runs are the outcome of oftentimes years of work, with dozens of fans pushing at the game’s limits until something gives.

During AGDQ, fans of speedrunning donate so they can make shout outs to their favorite games or runners, often talking about how much they love to see their favorite games being ‘broken’ by skillful speedrun play. In the comments sections of YouTube videos that focus on Hill’s live performances, fans marvel at missing chunks in his cymbals, gashes on his hands and arms, and even parts of his kit falling over that he continues to play through. Zach Hill’s drumming and videogame speedruns may seem unrelated besides their apparent goal to go fast, but I think they both have an ethos of pushing at the hard limits set, by game design and marketing, by the traditional role of percussion in popular music, that has a destructive side, a side of wanting to rupture or break through these limits and guidelines, as well. They both have a similar feel to them as the Avant-Garde project of negation, and therefore I think they’re fascinating windows into how culture creates and responds to popular music and videogames, and how individuals can make these mass cultural products their own.