No Chill

Why gamers are racing through Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley

A whole new style of play..

Max Fleishman

Want to get married in less than an hour? Consider becoming a Stardew Valley speedrunner.

In the world record for the marriage category, which requires romancing a non-player character (NPC) in the country-life simulator as quickly as possible, a speedrunner named TheHaboo got hitched to the alcoholic chicken-lover Shane in just over 39 minutes. Their virtual farm is almost completely neglected as they sprint to toss a leek or beer at their beau first thing in the morning, only to be back in bed by 7:30 am to prepare for another day of frenzied wooing.

On the surface, there’s nothing terribly elegant about throwing dozens of breakfast beers at a Stardew bachelor, or blowing through Animal Crossing: Wild World in under half an hour. But the appeal of speedrunning a Mario or Metroid game is obvious. Aside from the chance to claim that you’re the best among a field of thousands, genres like platformers and racers encourage precision and refinement. Every improvement, every tenth of a second shaved off, makes the run more elegant and thrilling.

That same mentality also comes into play for speedrunners of more “relaxed” genres like sims and narrative adventures. It’s about the satisfaction that comes from showcasing your mastery and expertise to the fullest, and a rare chance to learn more about how games are made by pushing a carefully designed experience to its limits.

Love, Stardew style

Stardew Valley speedruns are a mesmerising blur of efficiency, exploits, and sheer silliness. What’s supposed to be a chill experience becomes frantic. At the start of every in-game morning, a TV fortune teller randomly determines whether your day will be full of treasure or trash. For most players, luck is a minor factor. A lucky day can mean a profitable adventure in the mines, but an unlucky day can be better spent focusing on menial labour. The statistic, randomly generated for each in-game day, affects the odds of finding treasure, the amount of wood received when chopping down a tree, and other variables that control the player’s ability to efficiently turn a profit.

The cyclical nature of the game means that your luck will average out over the course of dozens upon dozens of hours. But for Stardew Valley speedrunners, one ill-omened day can scuttle an entire run.

In addition to the random nature of luck in Stardew, there are two main reasons marriage speedrunners favor the alcoholic chicken-lover NPC known as Shane — he’s an early riser with simple taste in gifts.

“He’s by far the fastest and the easiest,” TheHaboo explains in a video for 2020’s Games Done Quick, before joking, “We’re just going to wait outside his door at 7 a.m. every day, like any other normal person does to the person they want to marry.”

“It’s a simple run once you get the hang of it,” TheHaboo continues, “but there’s a lot of memory and praying for [luck].”

ConcernedApe

Marriage runs also can easily be scuttled 30 minutes in because the randomly generated weather hasn’t cooperated. That’s partly because the Mermaid Pendant, Stardew’s equivalent to an engagement ring, can only be purchased on rainy days.

As of September 2021, Stardew has sold more than 15 million copies, though its speedrunning community is comparatively small. There are just 43 slots on the game’s marriage leaderboard at speedrun.com. A mere 10 runners have clocked their restoration of the community center, which is the game’s central goal. (By comparison, over 3,200 players have completed at least one Super Mario Odyssey speedrun.)

The Fickleness of Fish

Like Stardew Valley, Nintendo’s Animal Crossing series includes an element of chance that can frustrate speedrunners. Towns are randomly generated upon creation, so if you’re trying to wipe out your fictional mortgage as fast as possible, you’ll need a very specific layout. The shop where you sell items needs to be close to the town hall where you manage your finances. If they’re not, you’re best bet is to nuke the town and start over.

But for players like Drew Paganetti, these obstacles are just another bump on the road to perfection. Paganetti currently holds five world records apiece in Animal Crossing: Wild World and Animal Crossing: City Folk. But he only started speedrunning in late 2020 after playing the series for years.

Nintendo

“I first found out about Animal Crossing in the early 2000’s while I was over at a friend's house,” Paganetti tells Inverse. “When I got home I asked my mom to buy me a copy, I convinced her by saying that I would be paying off debts on my house, and learning about financial responsibility. I was hooked — the relaxing pace was right up my alley.”

In 2020, Paganetti looked up Animal Crossing speedruns on a whim and was entranced by a Japanese City Folk runner named yorunoteiou542, who streamed almost every day.

“I was immediately hooked. It was fascinating to see this game, which I played so much and thought I knew everything about, be played in a completely different way with a completely different goal,” says Paganetti. “When I first started, the active community was entirely Japanese, but they were very supportive in helping me.”

Paganetti’s records include capturing every Animal Crossing: Wild World bug in one hour and 41 minutes, nabbing the golden rod for catching all of Animal Crossing: City Folk’s fish in three hours and nine minutes, and settling millions of bells (the game’s in-world currency) of debt in Wild World in just 23 minutes.

Serious runners will also need to study up on every aspect of Animal Crossing’s many indexable bugs and fish, including the times they appear and how they behave when approached.

“Certain bugs are very rare, and can single-handedly kill a run if your luck is bad,” Paganetti says. “Fish are even worse, as you don't always know what you're catching until you pull it out of the water. You may waste hours catching duplicates looking for the final ones that you need. It takes preparation, knowledge, adaptability, on-the-fly decision making, and luck.”

To maximize efficiency, Animal Crossing runners often use USB keyboards to quickly change the date and time to catch seasonal critters. They play the Japanese versions of the games, since the text scrolls faster. What’s more, the Japanese Wild World has an inventory system glitch that lets players earn piles of money very quickly.

Paganetti originally fell in love with Animal Crossing because of its meticulous attention to small details, from the rhythm of the seasons to the hourly music changes. Speedrunning has helped him appreciate the games even more, as he’s discovered new facets of titles he’d already sunk hundreds of hours into.

“Specific requirements for bug and fish spawns were completely new to me. I also discovered some irrelevant small glitches, like fruit falling in odd ways from trees, that made me wonder if anyone playing normally had ever discovered the same things,” he says. “I have really come to appreciate the level of effort and care that the developers put in.”

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