Speedrunning Undertale helped me understand my gender betterApril 21, 2021
I’m a trans woman, and I’m also a speedrunner. These two things may seem disconnected, but playing video games fast has actually helped me think about the ways I perform gender.
Video games are unique in that they let us “become” other people. When we play games, we typically don’t just watch someone act out a scene — we can actively participate in the scenarios, gaining experiences that may be outside of our norms. But when I say that speedrunning helped me understand my gender, I’m not talking about identifying with fictional characters or using character creators.
One day about two years ago, on a whim, I decided to try my hand at speedrunning. I started with Undertale because at the time all I had was an old laptop, so I needed a game that didn’t require too much computational power.
If you know anything about speedrunning, you know that choosing the game isn’t the only decision to make. You also need to pick a category, which basically functions as a set of rules that define the parameters of what is allowed or necessary to complete a run. Because there have been multiple major patches to Undertale, I also had to pick which version of the game to play. I selected the Neutral category (Undertale’s version of Any%) and the 1.02+ version of the game, which meant that a typical run for a new player was only about one hour. And, as an added benefit, there weren’t many tricks to learn — though still more than I initially bargained for!
Somewhat unusually, I had never played Undertale in any capacity prior to running it. I’d heard plenty about it, though. The rules of speedrunning completely transformed Undertale from the quirky, self-reflexive RPG full of endearing characters I had been told it was into something that didn’t involve characters, morality, exploration, or plot at all. Instead, it involved practicing frame- and pixel-perfect glitches, resetting over and over (and over) again, grinding for good results, yelling in frustration when I’d softlock the game for the 100th time on a “personal best” pace, and celebrating when I finally hit my goals after months of failure.
Through this process (and through engagement with other queer video game players, peers, and scholars) I realized a game, any game, is just as much the software and hardware as it is the rules we bring to it. We can apply new, unique rules to a game and, in the process, craft what is essentially a completely different experience. This insight was key in framing my perspective of gender.
I’ve had what I’ll generously call an uneasy relationship with masculinity. As cliché as it is to say, I knew for a long time that something was “off,” but I never really had the concepts or language necessary to take concrete action in regard to those feelings. It wasn’t until about a year and a half ago that I came out as transgender. A couple months later, I began medically and socially transitioning. Speedrunning didn’t cause me to be trans, or anything silly like that, but the lessons it taught me about the rules of video games provided a framework that I could apply to the rules of gender and how I did, or more importantly did not, want to follow them.
In the same way that speedrunners redefine the rules of video games, I seriously considered rules that I was unconsciously following. In video games, as in life, there are often invisible structures we don’t realize are there. Scroll through the comments section of just about any video of a speedrun on YouTube and you’ll see all sorts of claims that the runner is cheating or not playing the game right.
But what rules, exactly, are being broken?
There is clearly a perceived correct way games to play that speedrunners transgress, whether that includes ideas like “you aren’t supposed to clip out of bounds” or “you should not skip essential chunks of the narrative.” Video games (as well as many players and designers) try to prescribe “proper” ways to play, proper ways to interact with the game, but speedrunners ignore those demands. The game, for speedrunners, is whatever that community says it is. They take the prescribed rules, and say: “No thank you. Those aren’t for me. I am going to play differently.”
This framing of gameplay happened concurrently with another realization: I desperately wanted to play with gender differently too. The invisible rules of gender weren’t working for me. All the time, from small interactions with strangers to dating and relationships, I had to consciously force myself to “be a man.” Performing it was becoming too exhausting. The rules of masculinity work for many, but for me, masculinity was a costume or a shell I felt forced to wear. It is hard to put into words, but masculinity just never felt natural. Despite feeling deep down that things should be different, I nevertheless felt compelled to follow the rules of gender, whether that was to give firm handshakes, wear a shirt and tie, care about football, or to simply exist in a masculine body.
On some level, we all know the rules of gender. They just become more obvious when we break them. These rules dictate what clothes we wear, how we speak, how we move, how we are supposed to desire, and who we can love. They are imposed on us before we are born and are a key component in shaping who we are.
But why should I follow them? If I can change the rules of a game to create a different way to play, why can’t I also say “no thank you” to these rules of gender if they don’t work for me?
The short answer is: I absolutely can. I don’t have to play by the standard set of rules if those rules don’t work for me. This was a momentous epiphany for me, and speedrunning’s insistence on self-defining rules helped reinforce it.
But what makes speedrunning’s rules any different from the rules of the original game? While speedrunning categories, like gender norms, are usually already set when we get to them, they are still very malleable. Categories can shift to meet the needs of the community, either by modifying old outdated rules or adding new categories to meet the community’s interests. The rules change as the community changes.
For instance, Undertale’s speedrun community recently discovered a major skip they had been searching for for years: The Mad Dummy Skip, which essentially skips an entire battle. The thing is, it doesn’t work on all operating systems. So the community has decided, via vote, to allow a patch that modifies the game’s files, enabling the skip on all OSs. With this change to the rules, the game itself has changed. It isn’t necessarily the thing you buy and download anymore, and through this redefinition more people are able to participate. Speedrunning communities understand that if what we are given doesn’t fit how we want to play, we can change it.
And if, say, masculinity or femininity don’t work for you, it is possible to play with a different set of rules and redefine what we are playing with to begin with.
At the same time, I want to acknowledge that we can never step outside of the “standard rules’’ completely. I was never a part of the Undertale speedrunning community proper, although everyone I have ever interacted with there was lovely to me. I was merely a tourist passing through on the way to other games that I’m much better at and with which I have stronger community ties. Like the act of transitioning, it was a starting point for me that opened me to new experiences. In the same way that I waltzed into Undertale speedrunning well after categories were defined by a large community, I don’t have the power to completely change any rules on a large scale by myself. Taking hormones and transitioning doesn’t undo gender norms any more than Wrong Warping glitches undoes conceptions about how we should play video games.
Like accusations of playing the game wrong on YouTube videos, trans people unfortunately get a similar pushback with more serious implications. Trans people are told all too often they aren’t performing gender the proper way or aren’t really their gender, leading to harassment and lack of institutional or structural support. All the while, many don’t have the resources or support to safely break the rules if they want to. Clearly, the standard rules hold a lot of sway.
Still, I find it inspiring that on a collective scale, through cooperation and mutual aid, we can make positive change. A completed run is never the work of one person. It is the work of many people in a community sharing information, testing strategies, and working together to improve a run. One person expressing themselves authentically is the work of countless people that have come before, as well as those who continue to offer support, even if it may not always feel like it.
With that success comes a lot of inevitable failure too. I fail more than I succeed in relation to both speedrunning and my gender transition. I am well aware of the ways I fail to look, sound, or move in the way I want (whether I should care about these things is another story). Speedrunning, in many ways, has prepared me for a certain kind of patience to endure repeated failure, or at least endure the painfully slow process of transitioning. Transition is often characterized as a sudden thing, like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, but in reality reaching your goal is agonizingly slow, just as it is in speedrunning.
For me to complete my first run of Undertale, I needed to practice individual tricks like the Punch Card Exploit (PCE), which is essential to performing cutscene skips and wrong warps, among other tricks. Performing a PCE requires a very quick series of inputs while positioned on a pixel-specific space. On top of this, for some tricks, if you aren’t fast enough, the game will softlock and you have to start over from the beginning of the game. Building up the muscle memory to perform PCEs consistently in addition to memorizing all of the positions to perform them took weeks of practice.
It was an absolute slog. I messed up hundreds and hundreds of times, having to start over again and again. And this was all before I even started actually running the game!
When I find myself lying on a stiff table while a woman in a mask zaps the hair off my face or looking in the mirror wishing the hormones would just do their damn thing already, I am reminded of the painful, incremental improvements in speedrunning, and how good it feels to finally succeed for the first time. And the beautiful thing is, success can mean whatever we want it to! I haven’t come even remotely close to achieving a top time in most Undertale categories, but I get to define success for myself, whether that is simply completing a run or having the courage to walk down the street wearing a dress for the first time.