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.
It was at this point that I found myself with the opposite extreme relationship with Tales of Symphonia, where I was treating it like a competitive sport and trying to chase the Serena Williams of ToS despite being nowhere near that level of play yet. I was resetting over encounters in Martel Temple, over being 10 seconds behind at Vidarr, when I had minutes to save throughout the run by having better movement and cleaner menus and just more consistent execution. But I lacked that perspective, and just saw time loss as failure. I relied on adrenaline to keep me focused on a run, and when good pace was lost I refused to try and see it through. So I got exponentially more practice on the early game than the late game, and fought an uphill battle to finish any decent run.
I managed to bop 3rd place. To become the 4th person ever beyond that 6:30 time barrier. I was feeling pretty gamer, if I'm honest; but Jay's time was still a solid ten minutes faster. I still couldn't quite grasp what it was that made us so different.
Glitch Hunting and a Wake-Up Call
I may not be a world-record-level speedrunner (Abyss 3D doesn't count), but if I may say so, I am good at glitch hunting. I have a good intuition for how games "work" from just playing them a lot, and a sense for how to exploit my findings. In all 3 of my speedgames - Tales of Symphonia, Tales of the Abyss, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - I've either found or contributed to relatively major time-saving skips (upwards of a minute each), because I'm perfectly willing to push Harry Potter backwards into a wall at specific angles for 4 solid hours several days in a row until I make some progress with it.
After my sub 6:30 run, I noticed something weird in a subsequent PB: when I went to take one of the Welgaia elevators, I pressed "A" to ride it up but at the same time I also slid off of it. So I was pressing "A" to take the elevator from across the room. Now at the time I was on a good run so I didn't look into it, but after the run I decided to see if I could make something of it.
It took some minutes to replicate, probably an hour to do something weird like slide diagonally, and several more to try that off of an elevator with a backdoor that might be exploitable. It took several more days working on a setup to take it from "TAS only, but neat" to "doable by a human but could kill your run" to "basically a free time save." And with the help of this skip and a godly slug, and more practice and above average execution/luck, I was able to bop 2nd place. I was feeling really good about myself. Finally... someone wedging themselves between the JayMota16 and Dabomstew duo, who had been untouchable for years.
I was about 5 minutes off from Jay's record! Things were getting exciting.
At this point, Jay did another run, matching the pace of his previous standing record - before considered to be "run-killing" good - and nailing the new skip. Thus a 5 minute gap became closer to 7, and I realized that we were still leagues apart, and I was reaching the upper limit of my own skill. I didn't know where else I could possibly save that much time.
A New Game-r
It was clear to me that running NG+ over and over and over was not going to get me on equal footing with the only contemporary competition I had. I decided to take a break from the category, and for as long as it took, focus on learning the New Game route and getting better at the game.
"As long as it took" ended up being about a year. The exact opposite of how I approached NG+ initially, for NG I made practice saves and grinded each fight and menu for months, even did segment runs of each act, before I touched a full run. My first complete run was 2 seconds off of 3rd place and my second run bopped it with plenty of breathing room. I took a year to focus on the category, and while I only have 2 runs to show for it, they were both decent-ish, and they gave me a much-needed new perspective on the game.
NG forced me to improvise and react on the spot, because if your item management is subpar you die. NG reminded me how to sit for a longer run, because it is about an hour longer in total. NG required my battle technique to be precise, because if it isn't you die, and you must maintain that precision for the duration of significantly longer fights. NG made me pay active attention, as it has much higher variance and you must react to what the game throws at you. NG also gave me an appreciation for how much potential there is to bring back a bad start with a good end in a run this long, and that there is meaning to be had from just finishing.
I had never just finished a non-PB run of NG+.
This was, I realized, a problem.
I quit NG before getting all that good at it because the longer fights are absolute hell on my wrists. I do intend to return to it someday, but it's really difficult to justify the physical cost when NG+'s much-shorter fights make it much more accessible to me. But even just that year with NG brought my level of play to heights far beyond what my endless NG+ runs alone could accomplish.
A Healthy Perspective
And now, here I am, back on that NG+ bullshit. The way I'm approaching it couldn't be more different from either the personality streamer of 2018 or the out-of-my-depth tryhard of 2020, though.
I still have my webcam and mic off. I know myself: I cannot get my best times if I am also speaking with an audience. There are no 2 ways about that, and that is fine by me. The focus is between myself and the game before anything else.
That said... writing the "50 Favorite Video Games" series reminded me that, while Tales of Symphonia is my main speedgame, it is also a game I genuinely love. There have always been moments during my runs when I get visceral glimpses back into a "casual" perspective, where I am simply moved by the setting and atmosphere, or touched by a story beat, even as I skip all of its dialogue. Moments that reminded me that playing games should be fun and meaningful.
I am a little ashamed that it had, at some point, become more of a gaming resume booster to me, than something that sets my heart aflutter every time I boot it up.
I have come back to NG+ because I want a sub 6:20 time and beyond, of course. I'm still a competitive asshole. But I have also come back to NG+ because I missed it, and I thoroughly enjoy playing it.
I have medication for my ADHD now, which makes managing my own focus much more tangible, allowing me to intentionally sit for the full duration of a run much more easily. Running NG helped me internalize how important it is to just do full-length runs from start-to-finish for experience, and I now know that I will need many, many more such full-length runs under my belt before I have the foundation to challenge a time like Jay's. And during these full-length runs, while I am focused and constantly working to self-improve, I am also somewhat relaxed - allowing the game to win me over with its vibrant colors and story all over again.
I guess you could say that no-resets can now bring me the same kind of enjoyment that those "casual" playthroughs gave me for all those years growing up. Chances to just... experience the game in its entirety and all that it offers. Once I've done a lot more of them, I might be ready to go for some pretty gamer-tier times when I start bringing back tryhard resets. We'll just have to see.