Thoughts on navigating my changing relationship to a game I really like after I started taking speedruns of it seriously. This is about me and Tales of Symphonia, but I hope it'll resonate with other people who might have similar feelings about games they've been playing for a very long time. Or maybe not, which means I'm a unique special snowflake. I am perfectly fine with that too.
Tales of Symphonia is my favorite video game, and has been for most of my life. There were brief periods where Persona 3 or The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask usurped it, and I make no promises as to what the future holds; but by and large, for me, this has always been The Game.
I first played it as my sister's 2nd Player and fell in love; thereafter I played it myself, twice back-to-back. I already had full knowledge of the battle system and affection mechanic from my sister so I set about to doing Presea's ending on my first playthrough, because I saw myself as a little girl at the time, and she looked my age and had a cool axe. The complexities around her "true" age were kind of lost on me and I thought she and Genis were cute together.
I no longer remember the exact order I did everyone's endings, but I had made it a goal to get all 8 of them on 8 unique playthroughs. I refused to watch YouTube videos or read any material referencing the Flanoir scenes I hadn't seen yet, because I had made it my mission to earn them all.
It's a story-based game, of course, so I loved it for the characters and the countless sidequests and the worlds and... well, the story. But it's also a game, and I wanted to play it. I would change it up a little bit to make subsequent playthroughs more interesting. I would "main" different characters in battle, or try different S- and T-typing combinations to learn different moves. I would use the GRADE shop to give 1/2 experience or set the difficulty to Mania to challenge myself, and to carry over costumes and techs. I would alternate between the "normal" route and "hard" route and soon learned both like the back of my hand.
I became what counted - in the mid 2000's, growing up in a small rural town - as a personal encyclopedia of the game. I recommended it to everyone I met, but only after giving them an essay about the affection mechanic and how Sheena's summons work. I couldn't accept someone playing this game and just... taking it at face value, when there is so much to it that is easily missed and therefore under-appreciated. I needed everyone to see everything this game had to offer, and sometimes that meant buying it for 2 of my closest friends in middle school so I could play it with them.
I had (undiagnosed until recently) ADHD, and my periods of obsession on this particular game came and went, but they always did come back. I'm so grateful that I had a sister and two very close friends to share my love for this game with when those periods resurfaced. Over time, unsurprisingly, I finished it for the 8th time.
I don't remember how old I was when I finished the final unique ending. I may have been in college? It was the end of a chapter that had taken up, at the time, almost my entire life. "Where do I go from here?" It seemed like a huge question to me at the time, but well, it felt only natural to just... keep playing it, and go for whoever's ending, now that I'd filled my Flanoir Scene Pokédex.
I did so another 6 times. I kept count because I wanted to somehow quantify my lifelong love for it. I played it a total of 14 times, "casually."
Introduction to Speedruns
It was later, after I graduated from university, that I started getting interested in speedruns. At the time, this had absolutely nothing to do with Tales of Symphonia. I watched Sonic Adventure 2: Battle VOD's from GDQ events I found on YouTube, and eventually created a Twitch account solely to follow the runner. Through some raids I started following Super Mario Sunshine and Luigi's Mansion speedrunners, too. Because I had found this specific community via GDQ, it was a very friendly and viewer-oriented stream, where the runners were very interactive as personalities. I didn't know the first thing about speedruns, but it was entertainment. I tried watching other speedrun streams but they reset too much and it wasn't fun.
(Anyone who has watched my own recent Tales of Symphonia speedrun streams may find this surprising. It's important context for where I'm going with this.)
The first game I actually tried my hand at speedrunning was an IL in Sonic Forces, Imperial Tower. It was new, so I had the unique experience of being part of the global community simultaneously learning to break it at the same time. I maintained this preconceived notion that "speedrun" meant "platformer" or other action game; what's the point of "speedrunning" story-based games?
These two interests of mine - Tales of Symphonia, and speedruns - did not intersect until New Year's of 2018. I had just finished my 14th playthrough of the game, and was visiting PBJayz and co. for the holiday. I don't remember exactly how it happened, but I imagine it went something like:
Me being unable to shut up about ToS -> "wanna play it, we literally own it" -> beating Mithos for funzies -> "let's do a NG+ file and see how far we get" -> doing an impromptu blind "speedrun" into the new year -> ....we literally actually did it. We played the entire game overnight on no sleep. It was an absolutely magical experience, thank you PB.
This experience, which had started out as a New Year's joke, actually proved something to me that I never considered before.
I could sit and play Tales of Symphonia in its entirety in one sitting.
The concept of speedrunning this game, actually speedrunning it, had never felt tangible before, because of its length. But we had just tanked the upper limit on what a long run would be, and now there was nothing stopping me from diving in head-first.
This changed absolutely everything.
From Streamer to Tryhard
I started out as more of a personality than a speedrunner. I was going off of what I knew from watching those Sonic and Mario runners: engage viewers, have a fun time, the PB's will come when they come. I've always found it very easy to talk about anything and everything, so filling 8, 9, 10 hours (...yes, okay, I was bad) of mediocre gameplay with my own commentary was fun enough. I showed off some of my recent cosplay work in the background with my webcam because let's be real, I was a much more accomplished cosplayer than speedrunner, so might as well flaunt what I could actually brag about, right?
But man, speedrunning Tales of Symphonia was different from speedrunning Sonic Forces in just about every respect. The game is old. There is an established route, and the world record holder had been mastering it for 6 years (now 9). Almost everyone else had retired. So the only active runners were... a Tales of Symphonia god who singlehandedly took the record in almost every category and is nigh untouchable; and me, who was still playing it pretty casually even if I was following the route. Someone who wasn't even halfway up the leaderboard against reeeeeally outdated runs.
I don't remember what prompted me to make the change I did. I think it was a lot of things: Jay's gamer shit-talking; me having issues trying to stream from a Mac with webcam/audio problems out the wazzoo; my inherently competitive nature... possibly also my living situation (my "room" was a rather public space). Some combination of factors led me to make a decision. It was very clear to me that being good at this game and being an entertaining streamer were at odds with each other, because I get easily distracted by my own anecdotes instead of focusing on playing well.
So I chose to focus on getting better at the game, stream stats be danged.
I axed the webcam and mic. I modified my layout to be just my splits and my game feed. I responded minimally in chat. Average viewership and subs fell, but so did my times. I PB'd far less frequently, but with far more significant improvement, and climbing up the rest of the leaderboard started to feel like it might be possible. I was starting to really understand and respect how much practice, skill, and finesse is required to match the top times.