Dark Souls. Even whispering the name of FromSoftware's 2011 action-RPG is enough to excite or exacerbate, depending on which side of the 'Git Gud' divide you fall. For what it's worth, I stand with the former. From Demon's Souls to what I've played of Elden Ring so far, I love 'em all – even if overcoming Ornstein and Smough took me around 100 attempts during my first playthrough over a decade ago. Call me a glutton for punishment, but that is the power, the pull, and the essence of the Souls series. That said, speedrunning in Dark Souls is too much, even for me.
Speedrunning in Dark Souls is a different beast entirely. It's for the true die-hards. The players with the patience of a saint, an iron stomach, and nerves of steel. More hardcore still are the glitch hunters, those who scour maps for breaks and bugs for hours on end to enable faster runs. The real twisted souls among us. "Sometimes I wake up thinking about glitches in the middle of the night," says Stennis.
Stennis is a world record-holding Dark Souls speedrunner whose game of choice is Dark Souls 2. At the time of writing, this demon of Drangleic can finish the entire second series entry in just 14 minutes and 20 seconds (opens in new tab). The crowning run really is a sight to behold, and while there will always be facets of purist players who decry Any% speedruns – runs which leverage map breaks, glitches, level clipping, and otherwise unintentional workarounds – the systematic precision each second-shaving twist and turn demands, all inside a game whose most generic foes can chop you down with a single strike, never fails to blow my mind. The thought of spending hours at a time literally banging your head against a wall in search of that one weak spot that might allow the map to break, to skip a boss battle or a segment of the game world is hardly my idea of fun, but I admire the sheer dedication and perseverance required of those who do it.
To this end, Stennis says speedrunning in this way, in a game that can be as punishing as Dark Souls and its successors, requires a very different skill set from other speedrunners whose central objectives differ. Here, getting from start to finish as quickly as possible is the name of the game, and that wouldn't be achievable without the help of glitches – over 40 of which are recorded on the SpeedSouls community page (opens in new tab) across the entire Souls series. Community, Stennis explains, is a vital part of Dark Souls glitch hunting because the process of peer reviewing helps determine exactly what causes each newly discovered glitch, and, crucially, how to reliably replicate it under pressure. Stennis adds that most new glitches are built upon old discoveries too, lending a legacy element to the process, again feeding back into that sense of community.
"Most of my finds have been in Dark Souls 2 and involve Parrywalking – a glitch which allows you to go out of bounds, run in the air, and click through parts of the wall after parrying enemies," says Stennis. "Over time, we've found new quirks related to existing glitches, and so if you're already involved in the speedrun categories, and know what skips and glitches are used, then it becomes easier to extrapolate from there."
"A few years back, we discovered what we call Ladder Warping. If you're already in the state of Parrywalking and you head into a ladder, as you grab it, you can phase through a completely solid wall. That was pretty game-breaking because it meant we could go outside maps that previously we thought were closed off. We've since found maybe 15-20 different examples of this which have in turn completely changed the path of certain speedruns."
Skip a beat
Another Dark Souls 2 speedrunner who understands this too well is Pseudostripy. Building on the long-established 'Pursuer Quick Kill' – whereby the player must perform a series of actions in order to bypass the game's Pursuer boss fight – Pseudostripy inadvertently discovered a variation on the glitch (opens in new tab) that let him skip the boss and collect its 17,000 souls, something the previous version didn't allow. The problem was: reliably replicating the glitch proved increasingly difficult.
"The glitch saves a lot of time, mostly because beforehand we'd use this glitch to skip the boss, and a different glitch to obtain an item which nullifies fall damage, which in turn helps with sections later in the game. By actually gaining the souls here, though, you can just buy that item. After loads of investigation, I started writing macros to make sure the glitch wasn't just a fluke. By writing macros, I wanted to see if a computer could replicate the glitch reliably, and the answer was: it could, but only 50% of the time. So it didn't look great for us humans!"
Pseudostripy says that in the midst of a speedrun, while playing a standard 60fps game, the likelihood of nailing this version of the glitch is around one in ten, meaning planning for failure is essential. That to me sounds bonkers – as if speedrunning Dark Souls wasn't stressful enough – but pseudostripy explains if you're gunning for a world record, nailing this particular glitch will knock 45-50 seconds off your time. And if you're running the entire thing in under 15 minutes, then taking it on the chin and starting over until you land it suddenly makes sense.
This abiding trial and error ethos underpins the Souls series glitch hunting scene in its entirety, with swathes of iterations and reiterations surfacing on a weekly basis within the speedrunning community. In September 2016, for example, ImmersedCimp discovered a Blighttown Skip for the first Dark Souls, before CapitaineToinon and Kahmul found a faster slant over three years later. The Villhelm skip in Dark Souls 3's Ashes of Ariandel DLC was first discovered by Peachy Mike shortly after launch in late 2016, and was further developed by Distortion2. Conversely, just about every glitch discovered in the original Demon's Souls on PS3 in 2009 failed to carry over to Bluehole's 60fps reimaging on PS5 a decade later – a fact which underlines the precariousness of glitch hunting and speedrunning in general, when factoring in patches and updates on the developer's side.
Now, on the cusp of Elden Ring's release on February 25, Dark Souls players far and wide are gearing up for FromSoftware's biggest twisted action-RPG playground yet, which appears to have traded the series' signature stacked vertical maps for something flatter, sprawling, and open. Which will invariably impact the Souls speedrunning community and its intrepid glitch hunters. Not that this has taken away any of the excitement for Stennis and pseudostripy, though.
"I'm definitely interested in the game, and I'm sure it'll be interesting to speedrun," says Stennis. "At any rate, I'd like to help up with glitch hunting in Elden Ring because that's something that's fun and it's always such a great feeling when you discover something new and share it with the community. Even from the trailers we've seen so far and the network test, there are a lot of mechanics there from Dark Souls 3, so all the glitch hunters among us will be trying to replicate those in Elden Ring."
Pseudostripy adds: "I didn't play the tests and I've been avoiding reading or watching anything about it. My first one will be a casual playthrough. Although some of my casual playthroughs sometimes have four-hour sections of me just jumping against the wall out of curiosity. I'm very interested in speedrunning Elden Ring eventually. Once satisfied that I've enjoyed my first playthrough suitably then I'll hop onto the service, start watching the videos, and catch up with all the good content. And then hopefully add to that content if I've managed to discover anything myself!"
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