Italian Plumbers and Perfection in Non-Linear Time

It goes without saying that there are some pretty interesting subcultures on the Internet. Within the video gaming culture, there’s a subculture of people who try to do speed runs of various popular video games. Another subculture is the ROM hackers: people who modify levels on various older video games like the SNES Super Mario World (often making them a lot harder). When those two subcultures meet, forming a sub-sub-culture, you get something like this:

Seriously, stop to watch the video if you haven’t. You owe it to yourself.

Wow, can you imagine a more perfect and amazing performance? Would it change your mind if I told you that the person who created that video was using performance enhancement?

Welcome to the world of TAS: Tool Assisted Speedruns. TAS is performing a speedrun like the one you see above by continually saving and restoring the state of the game in an emulator. Every mistake you make gets undone, you back up to your last save state and try those last 5 or 10 seconds over again, repeating until you finally succeed at that piece and go on to the next. At the end of 10+ hours of try and retry over the course of several days, you have 8 perfect minutes of Super Mario virtuosity. You can post a video of that 8 minutes, and it looks like a single, uninterrupted narrative. You aren’t lying to anyone about how it happened, everyone knows how you made it, but it is nonetheless considered as a single performance for the TAS community.

Here’s what the process looks like behind the scenes, with nothing edited out:

This is very interesting to me, because I’m not sure how to assess the final product. Should I look at the whole exercise as smoke and mirrors that creates the illusion of perfection? “Yes, it looks impressive and does involve skill, but it lacks purity. Isn’t it like saying a pitcher pitched a perfect game because he had nine perfect innings in different games scattered across the season?” Or is this process of creating genuine perfection from imperfect inputs impressive in its own right?

The Super Mario World game can be looked at as an enclosed system with its own rules of cause and effect. None of those rules are being violated in these TAS performances. They are just not being performed straight through in our perspective, if we watched them being done, but rather spread out in small pieces over a larger amount of time with all of the unwanted bits removed like noise to signal. In fact, when a performance is complete, all of the inputs are played back into the game, which occurs in real-time. This works because the game is deterministic – Miyamoto does not play dice with his universe.

This reminds me a little bit of Dust Theory, which is a concept I recently read about in the novel Permutation City by Greg Egan. The idea, very briefly, is that each pattern provides its own frame of reference, and multiple patterns can be applied to the same data. Neither is intrinsically more correct that the others. This is somewhat analogous to frames of reference in Special Relativity, where different people could experience time at vastly different rates. Only in Dust Theory the events could also by nonlinear or occur out of order. For our TAS, the events making up the performance are peppered across several days, interleaved between the dark matter of much less interesting gameplay.

This concept of undoing mistakes by reversing time isn’t just in TAS, it’s intrinsic to at least a couple of video games. Prince of Persia: Sands of Time had this gameplay as a core conceit, as did the pretentious indie hit Braid. Sands of Time allowed you to do it until your magic hourglass sand ran out. Braid, on the other hand, allowed time to be rewound without any restriction but with a twist: certain objects would not be affected.

Rewinding back from failure is an inviting concept to lure in a broader audience. In a game where any mistake can be taken back, there is no losing – just “haven’t won yet”. That’s probably a better approach for life in general now that I think about it.

This is an idea with mainstream appeal. It’s no accident that the movie Groundhog Day was a huge hit. Bill Murray takes hundreds or thousands of attempts at the same day and finally executes it perfectly. Tell me that wasn’t a TAS.

Personally, I find something a little bit magical about playing with time to become retroactively infallible. Maybe we should just enjoy that magic rather than find a reason not to.