In the realm of speedrunning, all achievements seem to pale in comparison to the world record run that breaks a long-awaited time barrier for many speedrunners and viewers alike. For those initiated in the community, these runs, both classic and modern, immediately spring to mind. In recent memory, Dwhatever’s grind in the 70 star category of Super Mario 64 is a shining example — months of work poured into shaving off frames, all to finally break the 47 minute barrier by tenths of a second this past June. The dedication of top speedrunners to their game is what drives our grassroots community forward, and seeing talent and hard work finally accumulate into a singular blissful moment of success is a breathtaking experience to witness. Dwhatever and Super Mario 64 were not the only participants in such a spectacle this early summer, however. An equally iconic game born in the late 90’s saw a renaissance as well, the full extent of its highly technical movement and optimized routing on display. I am alluding, of course, to Half-Life.
Enter Maxam, a Swedish veteran of the speedrunning community and the premier world record holder of Half-Life’s Any% Scriptless category coming into 2020. His style of play is instantly recognizable, effortlessly moving through the chorus of the game as though Gordon Freeman was programmed intentionally to be able to shatter the entire story in less than half an hour. He employs difficult and flashy strategies (dubbed “Maxam strats”) that often trap new players into believing the key to success and speed is emulating him, even though the related time saves are often minimal. He spent 2018 challenging the then first place runner, Proto (a brilliant runner from Australia credited with pioneering some of the games most important exploits), but by 2019 he was whittling the world record down in a solo endeavor, being the first to break the 28 minute barrier with a time of 27:54 in January of 2020. At the time, he described a “sub 27” run as “barely fathomable” and requiring “a new approach towards improving skill” to even begin to scratch this milestone. At the time, his statements were correct, but even he could not predict how quickly the game would be pushed in such a short amount of time. Additionally, he had extra encouragement in the form of a young Hungarian runner by the name of Muty, who undercut Maxam in February by 7 seconds with a personal best of 27:47. Maxam was able to reclaim his title by two seconds within 14 days, but Muty was transforming from a shadow following in his footsteps into a premier competitor.
Barely a month later, it became clear that Maxam had found the new approach: he delivered a stunning new personal best (by 30 seconds) and a world record of 27:13. The normally composed Maxam is left speechless at the end. “What is this time?” he inquires of his chat in disbelief. This run left Muty far behind, but also set a new stage. Sub 27 was no longer “barely fathomable,” it was now an inevitable reality that a monstrous grind would achieve, and one that Maxam would undertake without hesitation. Unfortunately, this time around, the necessary thirteen seconds required to break the next barrier would prove far more elusive than past challenges. Maxam buckled in, honing and perfecting his running skills over the coming months in addition to updating the quality of his stream. The spectacle soon to come was slowly blooming, as Muty would not be left behind without a fight.
Whereas Maxam paths his way through the game in an eccentric way unique to him, Muty’s playstyle could not differ more. Even when behind Maxam by a large margin, the fact remained completely clear that his mechanical mastery had no equal. While his camera motion seems wild and almost erratic to the untrained eye, in reality, he winds up for a pre-strafe (a technical grounded exploit that starts a bunny hopping chain at optimal speed) with a terrifyingly uniform consistency. The moment space between Muty and his objective can be covered, he flies from a standstill, bunny hopping down tight corridors or open fields, piloting Gordon as if he were a laser beam with thousands of hours invested in movement mods as his guide. Selected strategies are weighed objectively by their risk, and Muty obliges for time saves only when he views them as strictly necessary and repeatable. Matching his intense in game vision is a raw stream aesthetic fueled by him and his viewer’s energy. Twitch chat selected songs blare as he bounds through the game on an uncommon screen resolution (1400×1050). Maxam’s polished presentation of gameplay could not be contrasted more sharply here, but both are to be appreciated in their lanes.
Maxam’s 27:13 peak in March was looking increasingly vulnerable as he plateaued for several weeks in his grind. In this time frame, Muty would begin chaining personal best’s together. The unstoppable war machine Muty had become would eventually culminate into a 27:16 that would send a clear message: sub 27 would not fall to Maxam as easily as the 28-minute barrier had. Tension had begun to mount. A chatter in Maxam’s stream innocently inquired as to what his hobbies were; with a wry smile, he replied “refreshing Muty’s speedrun.com page” in reference to his nervousness that Muty would pull ahead in their duel. And suddenly, at the start of summer, Maxam’s fears would be confirmed as Muty would clock in a new world record of 27:06 with a gleeful shout of “gg!” The race was now in full swing with both players in striking distance of their collective goal. Maxam, now energized to break his momentary plateau, would kick his efforts into the next gear and both players would stream their attempts nearly every day, often at the same time. Maxam’s splits soon gained a healthy green color, and after the death of a godly run (30 seconds ahead of his personal best’s pace) at the run’s pivotal trick infinite health door, it became clear that the seven seconds separating the two runners meant very little. Either one of them could break the 27 minute barrier on any given run.
New world records would start to fly as the competitors shaved precious seconds off. Maxam would regain his status as the best runner with a 27:05, only to see it fall within 24 hours to Muty’s 27:03 rebuttal. Intrigued runners and community members would have both streams open side by side, switching from one player to the other when a run would die. Half-Life’s community was captivated by the thought of who would be the first to push the game into its new era of 26:xx world record runs. It was not uncommon for Muty or Maxam themselves to have each other’s stream open in the middle of their own run during the test chamber (there is a couple minutes of unbreakable dialogue at this point in the run), noting time benchmarks of when certain objectives were achieved and mentally preparing to beat those times. Competition became so close that both streamers would be on pace to achieve a sub 27 world record simultaneously, only for simplistic mistakes to reset the timer to 0:00. And finally, on June 26th, the epic, three-week race between Half-Life’s best would come to a timely finish. In the end, with a time of 26:56.436, the veteran Maxam would prove to be the first to cross the finish line, just as he had done with the 28-minute barrier. “I don’t know what to say” is all he could muster for a moment after slumping back in his chair, years of work complete. Shortly after…
“This month was the greatest period of Half-Life speedrunning.”
His goal achieved, Maxam’s stream would disappear from the Half-Life category as he sought new games to conquer. Fortunately for the community, more content would come in the form of Muty’s push for sub 27. This achievement would come three days later than Maxam’s, with a time of 26:56.681, a quarter of a second behind the world record. After a short break of a week, Muty would return in July in a form even greater than what was seen during the race. Legendary chapter splits in both On a Rail and Lambda Core would net him the world record at 26:48, made complete by a soundtrack consisting of Phoon’s infamous bunny hop theme and the even more infamous Streets 1:12 sound bite (courtesy of twitch chat). Two months later this record still stands tall as a testament to the pinnacle these runners pushed each other to achieve. It would be faulty to use winning the race or holding the world record as evidence to leverage who the stronger player is; both players sought out to achieve in a niche game that they love, and both carry an unforgettable role in the community. On behalf of the couple hundred of us Half-Life speedrunners, thank you, Maxam, Muty, for giving us a memorable distraction from the chaotic world we live in.
Editor’s note: The SourceRuns marathon starts on September 11th, in which Muty will be participating on the 12th playing both Half-Life and its expansion, Opposing Force.
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