Like it or not, the act of playing a video game is a form of creative expression. When we choose to engage with a game in a purposefully extreme or obscure way, the results can say as much about the player as they do about the game.
Perhaps the best-known example of this sort of alternative play is speedrunning, the art-meets-science of completing a game as quickly as possible, usually with the aim of vying for a world record. If you peer outside the usual crop of crowd favorites, you'll find runners like CarcinogenSDA, who are pushing themselves in ways you rarely see in the likes of Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
As the practice has proliferated thanks to the popularity of exhibitions like Awesome Games Done Quick, the number of categories for each game has kept pace, with runners devising new and exciting ways to challenge themselves. While Carcinogen got his start as a runner for survival horror games, especially the Resident Evil series, he doesn't do many runs aimed at pure quickness alone nowadays. Instead, this "high-tech monk" aims for a hybrid challenge: attempting to beat his favorite games as quickly as possible without taking a single hit.
Like the (arguably-stereotyped) literary monks found in works like Lost Horizon, he approaches these no-hit runs with a single-minded obsession that some might find strange. He combines the encyclopedic knowledge and system mastery required of pure speed routes with deft reflexes and a near pacifistic-approach to avoiding as many enemies as he can at any cost, and the result is nothing less than fascinating.
Carcinogen began his career in the early days of speedrunning back in 2006, before the autoplaying video-walls of YouTube and Twitch helped catapult the hobby from basements and bedrooms to thousands of screens across the country. According to him, he whiled away dozens of hours waiting for rides after class at his high school with nothing but Resident Evil: Deadly Silence on his DS. The Resident Evil series has a history of hiding weighty unlocks behind quick clear times, and Deadly Silence was no different, granting the much-coveted rocket launcher only to players that could beat the game in 3 hours or less. After he finally managed to clinch that ultimate reward, he endeavored to push himself further, shaving minutes and then seconds off each run.
Carcinogen says that his self-described obsession with speedrunning comes largely from a desire to play the game as "efficiently" as possible. This goal jives well with the labyrinth-of-corridors design offered by survival horror games like the Resident Evil 2 remake, but he says his approach was codified not by the RE series, but the first-person shooter games that he played as a teen, like Counter-Strike. "Being able to know all the choke points of the map, being able to know where opponents are coming from, knowing where to shoot, being able to optimize all of your actions—these are all things I learned from those games, and I apply them to my runs of Resident Evil 2," he says. After he recorded his endeavors onto a VCR tape for the original RE2, and he was absolutely sure he had reached the limits of the game with a time of 40 minutes, he went online only to discover that there was a whole panoply of speed-saving strategies that he had never even fathomed.
"Suddenly, I see this guy who's beaten the game ten minutes faster than me, without the rocket launcher, on Speed Demos Archive. And then he sent me a video of him beating the game with only the knife on PlayStation, and the time was just insane to me. That really opened my eyes to the whole hobby," he says. "Even in 2006, the speedrunning community was thriving, or thriving as much as it could have been, without YouTube and Twitch. Compared to the '90s, when you had players literally swapping Quake and Doom demo files that you had to play in your game client, it was a lot easier with video."
As Carcinogen settled into this newfound scene, he became a regular on Speed Demos Archive, one of the oldest repositories for the hobby online. He claimed several North American records for various Resident Evil games as part of his early efforts, submitting them to both SDA and the burgeoning YouTube community. He also started recording commentary tracks for his runs, to better explain his time-saving techniques. Eventually, he grew tired of simply optimizing his speed routes and decided to branch out into experimental no-hit runs.
Though Carcinogen still enjoys speedrunning, he says that these "no-hit" runs test a set of skills that he finds more interesting: rather than following a prescribed route again and again, he attempts to do something excruciatingly difficult once, just to prove that it’s possible. "It's the same reason I used to do minimum-level Final Fantasy runs," he says. "I just try to push myself as hard as I can.
"I went through multiple phases of wondering why I do this. Is it because I want to be the best, or because I enjoy it on some level? Well, if I enjoy it on some level, am I a masochist? It's honestly tough to say why I continue doing this stuff. If there's no other explanation, it must just be because I find it fun."
Over time, he found himself competing for the standard world records less and less, and putting his hours into his new no-hit playstyle. While they rely on a similar set of skills, Carcinogen emphasizes that the two approaches are completely separate entities in his mind. "If you're going for a no-hit run in a speedrun, you’re probably already going for a world record when you try a normal run," he says. "I view them as mutually exclusive. You can do a no-damage speedrun, but you're never going to get the best possible time for a normal run, because the conditions slow you down. There are times where you might want to take damage in an ideal speedrun, for example."
Even now, more than a decade into his speedrunning career, Carcinogen still specializes in survival horror games, which represent a surprisingly durable branch of the hobby. While they lack the innate sense of speed and maneuverability that mark the most popular speed-games—almost all varieties of platformers—Carcinogen notes that the freedom of movement and non-linear structure offered by Resident Evil games make for a high skill ceiling for runners.
In the Resident Evil 2 remake, which he has focused on over the past few weeks, a traditional speedrun would follow the fastest possible route from key item to key item, picking up the minimum viable number of weapons and ammo along the way. But since Carcinogen can't get hit, he has to take every single zombie he encounters into account, to make sure he doesn’t put himself into an untenable situation—and that's before you factor in the random roaming of Mr. X, a fedora'd, unkillable terror that can take you down in a single hit.
To see this playstyle in action, you can take a look at Carcinogen's recent commentated "no damage, no save" playthrough of Claire's second run in the Resident Evil 2 remake. He shoots to kill rarely, instead preferring to blast them in the leg with a revolver instead to temporarily stun them, and then scampering past them. Since each zombie's health pool varies randomly from run to run, he never knows exactly how many headshots it'll take to permanently down one, so he sometimes has to switch routes on the fly to gather more ammo. In a harried moment in one of his Leon runs, he got unlucky with the spawn locations of two of the zombie dogs, so he closed the door, ran away far enough for them to despawn, then tried again, faring well enough to waste them both and move on.
But while Carcinogen continues to dedicate hours and hours of his life to conquering these games free from even the slightest hit, he says he doesn't much care about the competitive aspect of speedrunning anymore. As one of the few creators making a living off this niche of a niche, he's focused more on finding interesting games to challenge himself than trying to defend his records from encroaching enthusiasts. As a more old-school breed of runner, he doesn't even really consider them to be pure records. "When it comes to speedrunning, all these no-hit, no-damage runs are more like meme categories," he says. "To me, there's low-percent, which is playing a game with as few items as possible, then 100 percent, then any-percent. I like holding the records, sure, but if somebody breaks them, I just think, 'sure, cool.' It's just another way to link to my runs."
Carcinogen's Twitter profile refers to him as a "high-tech monk," a label that I assumed he applied to himself sans irony. When I brought it up in the interview, however, he laughed. To him, it's just a joke. To the rest of us, however, it's a token of what it takes to be truly excellent at something this obscure, and the lengths that you might have to go to deliver the dream. "It's just something one of my exes said one time, when I showed them what I was doing with my runs," he says. "She meant it sort of negatively, that I was living this sheltered, monastic lifestyle. But to me, it's a good thing. I am dedicated to this thing, I spend so many hours doing it, and I know that's not normal. But to me, it's the only thing I want to do, and I'm glad I'm doing it."
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