Seeing Random Walks in Speed Runs (Part I)

Link Eyes

3…2…1… GO!!! And the race is off. Got the boost. Looking good. Drift the corner and…. WO!?!? there goes my ghost from last run. An unforgettable and befuzzling event that seems to be a motif of speed runs and time trials.

It is with these kinds of events that I came to realize that the path to success is not necessarily a straight continual improvement, but more of a random walk with drift.

Being successful in life often leans on understanding the dimensions of progression. Analyzing these “rules of the game” can really help us plan an attack that fits these rules. And beyond this, a keen eye to the elements of progression will keep morale high in rough times. Even while my mean times improve with practice and familiarization, to keep my morale high I need to consider that variance exists in my runs attempting to mask my gentle progression.

The Dimensions of Progression

Racing Games: A Linear Progression

Racing games are a great place to start to understand this phenomenon of progression. Progress in this genre is generally one dimensional; there is the time I post at the end of the race and that’s generally it. I need to consider the best way to take each turn, where to accelerate and decelerate, and perhaps when to use certain boosts, but this spawns only so many candidates for “the best” route.

The simpler the game is (like Mario Kart), the more this holds true; the more complex the racer (F-Zero for example) the more these “only so many” routes may shoot up fast. But even so, the single dimension of track time acting as the indicator of success narrows the scope, making it fairly clear what steps must be taken to succeed.

However, this simplicity can be one of the most frustrating settings; the road to success is highlighted, and still there are inconsistent results. For example, racing games often have staff ghosts. As a gamer who thrives on challenge I enjoy digging my teeth into these staff ghost races (vampire vs. ghost? Who wins?).

Some of the hardest races for me were always the easiest levels. I remember sitting down for an hour or so with Baby Park in Mario Kart: Double Dash!! or Twist Road and Sonic Oval in F-Zero GX and just crafting each of those races. Even after that hour had passed, there were the times where I missed a starting boost, clipped a wall or (in F-Zero) just went plummeting into oblivion. It’s hard to accept that I know what needs to be done, and even after crafting the skill for hours I’m not getting there.

While this can kill morale, I am coming to realize more and more that there are always signs of improvement which keep morale deflation in check. It’s easy to focus on the times I have to restart the race and ignore those times I’m posting an hour later. Where once I was putting up times of 2:13-2:11 perhaps now my top five are in the 2:11-2:09 range and my sub par runs are on par with my earlier winners. The downs will always be there but remembering the mean can be a great way to keep a smile on my face.

Dealing with Multidimensional Success

With a single goal, failures can be demoralizing, but at least I know that I am (theoretically) doing the right thing. When success is a function of multiple variables things can get pretty messy. Everything I mentioned in the previous paragraph still applies, but there is an added component of understanding the rules of the game.

Sometimes, there are simple additive relationships like in Sonic Adventure 2: Battle. In this game, Sonic and Shadow’s levels are ranked on a time component added to a ring component. Many levels are laid out in very obvious ways so as to make speed and ring collection concurrent, but in others it can be vital to understand when to take a 10 second detour to collect some rings, or when to ignore a bunch of rings for a shortcut.

When different variables act as multipliers, this relationship can become even more complex. A simple example of this is the dives in Kingdom Hearts 3D. Though these are not overly complicated, it is generally not possible to get a high rank without completing the level in a fast enough time to get the highest time multiplier. Since the multiplier plateaus are so drastic, the strategy has to be to get as many points as possible while making sure to hit that highest time plateau.

Ultimately, my point here is that one should always take the extra time to learn the rules of the game in these situations, as dominating variable A and ignoring variable B could lead to unsatisfactory results. It is important to understand the weight that is put on each variable as well as how they interact.

The Dimensions of Success In Life

It’s always important to consider these dimensions when attacking everyday problems. A test, for example, is more one dimensional; that is, answer the questions correctly and the grade will be good. Perhaps a caveat to this may be that extremely time-sensitive tests often have a time management variable, where scores depend on nailing the low hanging fruit and wasting less time on the longer, lower point problems.

As such we can often plan an attack based on building that mean knowledge base. Go over material, homework and practice problems enough times to really build that foundation of information.

On the other hand, a performance review at work is a multidimensional grading. For example, if an office grades me on A, B and C from 1-10, a rating of 5, 5, 5 has very different implications and ramifications than a 1, 10, 4. These are not numbers that are taken in isolation, summed, and ignored.

There needs to be some kind of proficiency in all categories not to raise some boss’ eyebrows. In this setting it is important to understand the mechanics and expectations of the dimensions that are being factored into the equation. For example, we can consider that speed is rewarded in many work environments, but not when it comes at the cost of quality. If that 10 is speed and that 1 is quality, you may want to reconsider your priorities and the variables of evaluation (or perhaps you may need to start brushing off your resume).

When all that is said and done. When the rules are evaluated and your giving it your best, at the end of the day we just need to keep the random walk in mind. Keeping an open mind and high morale no matter the score, because those troughs exist no matter how much time we put into the material.

Here is my obligatory stopping point because this is getting way too long. I’m going to post Part II at some point soon, so stay tuned. So for now, I’m not even going to ask a question.

Thanks for stopping by. Until next time, game on and learn on!

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