What is AGDQ and why should you be watching it?

We’re just days into 2017 and we’re already in the midst of one of the year’s gaming highlights, because this week is Awesome Games Done Quick. If you’ve been on Twitch or Twitter lately, you’ve probably seen updates about it, but if this is the first you’re hearing of the charity event, consider this your primer on what this week is all about. Or if you’re a veteran of this livestream, here’s a reminder of why it’s worth tuning into the final days of AGDQ 2017.

Games Done Quick is a charity speedrunning event. It happens twice a year: Awesome Games Done Quick in winter and Summer Games Done Quick in, you guessed it, summertime. Both events run for a full week, and during those seven days, viewers are treated to non-stop, round-the-clock speed runs of games.

What’s the deal with speedrunning?

The core concept of speedrunning a game is simple: finish as fast as you can. Within that basic approach, however, lies a large amount of flexibility.
Think about the first time you saw somebody slam through Super Mario Bros in less than 10 minutes by sneaking their way into the warp gates. That’s one example of how you might approach a speedrun: by looking for ways to subvert the obvious and break the rules of both physics and code. In this type of run, called Any% in the speedrunner lingo, it doesn’t matter if you complete a single in-game activity that’s normally required to finish Mario’s mission. As long as you get to the end screen, it counts.

But other runs have different options. A runner might challenge themselves to not use any glitches, or to beat all the bosses. Perhaps they’ll try on the hardest difficulty level, limit their weapon choices, or stick to a non-violent playthrough. Each set of limits for a run has its own world record and its own community of fans.

Okay, fast = good. So what happens at a GDQ?

People from all over the world can apply to showcase their speedrun skills for a specific game run at the event. The staff decides which games will be showcased, then assembles a schedule so that there is always a run in progress, be it at 5:00 pm or 5:00 am.

During the course of the week, viewers can make donations through Games Done Quick’s system directly to the charity in question. Many will donate just for the cause, but rather than rely solely on altruism, there’s a system of incentives, bids, and prizes to make sure the cash keeps flowing.

One of the highlights at any GDQ is a run of the classic Super Metroid. In the game’s final moments, the player has the option to save the animals before the planet explodes or to rush right to the ship and let them die. Leaving the animals to their fate saves a few frames of movement, and thus allows a runner to shave a few seconds off their time. But it also means the critters die, and nobody wants that. Viewers can make pledges toward either “save the animals” or “kill the animals,” and the runner will play whichever ending pulls in the most money. That might seem silly, but the save/kill question has already pulled in nearly $100,000. By the time you’re reading this article, it’ll probably be notably higher.

That’s one of the signature elements of GDQ, but specific runners also find ways to encourage donations around their games. Viewers might have the chance to name the protagonist or the save file; those incentives usually accumulate a couple hundred bucks. Others are pricier but offer a cooler spectacle. For instance, after receiving $15,000, the stream featured a run of Super Metroid Rotation, a fan-made work of madness that takes all the elements of the original game and rotates them 90 degrees. Same game, whole new strategy and hilarity to watch unfold.

Why you should watch

First and foremost, the major headline with Games Done Quick is the group’s philanthropic work. After so many events, the organization has established some solid relationships with a few charities. For instance, this week the beneficiary is the Prevent Cancer Foundation, which has been the donation recipient for all of the AGDQ events. In other years, the beneficiaries have been Doctors Without Borders, relief agency CARE, and the Organisation for Autism Research. With so many clever prizes and incentives to bid on, the money has really added up over the years. So far, all the Games Done Quick main events have collected more than $8.57 million. Five of the individual events have raised more than $1 million, and the 2017 AGDQ is likely to join their ranks.

But there’s another angle to why these events are so fascinating, and it’s more about education than entertainment.

The staff behind Games Done Quick does an admirable job of putting a variety of titles on display each time they stage the event, but a large chunk usually winds up being from the earlier years of gaming. For some viewers, that means a chance to stroll on down memory lane. It’s a rather pointed form of nostalgia, marvelling at how games that took hours and hours of gruelling work can be dispatched in minutes with the right know-how and hand-eye coordination.
But it’s also the game equivalent of seeing the Wizard of Oz pulling levers behind the curtain. You can see not just what old games looked like on a screen, but as players pick them apart at the seams, you get a sense of how the theories behind making them changed over time. You might be laughing your head off at a runner’s commentary, but you’re also learning about hit boxes and damage mechanics. You start to realize the scope of technical achievement behind even simple-seeming two-dimensional platformers. A save screen becomes a tool instead of just a safety net. The event is a history lesson in game theory and practice.

And finally, Games Done Quick is worth watching just to pay respect to the madcap creativity it puts on display. Over the years, runners have also posed some truly bizarre challenges to themselves. At AGDQ 2016, TheMexicanRunner tackled Battletoads’ brutally difficult tunnel section blindfolded, using only muscle memory and sound cues. During that same week, players sinister1 and zallard1 donned their own blindfolds and raced their way through Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! And at SGDQ 2015, FearfulFerret and Oginam used their forces combined into just one controller to tackle Dark Souls II. You never know what wild idea a runner might try next.

Awesome Games Done Quick is happening this week, with the finale scheduled for about 10 pm on January 14. The entire thing is streamed on Twitch, as well as on the group’s own website. You can also find a very thorough catalog of past runs on YouTube or on Archive.org.

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