Narcissa Wright used to be the fastest Zelda: Ocarina of Time player. Her best run was nearly perfect, the stuff of, well, legends. Cut to now: Wright has developed hand problems and can't speedrun. She's also decided to undergo hormone replacement therapy. Her life is fraught with change, and some of her viewers aren't taking it well.
Kotaku: You're a high level Smash Bros player and a renowned speedrunner. Not only are you good at games, you're good at very specific games in extremely specific ways. What drew you to that, to mastering these sorts of things instead of, for example, being good at a specific genre or competing in a bigtime eSport?
Narcissa Wright: I grew up around games. I started playing games when I was, like, four. My friends and I played Smash on N64 and then Melee on Gamecube. We also played Soul Calibur and stuff like that. We got really competitive. Eventually it turned into travelling for tournaments and stuff, around 2005. That's when I got more serious with Smash stuff.
As for speedrunning stuff, there were some old communities back in the day [that I followed], but I really got into it when Ocarina of Time started getting broken open. It was around 2006. I found it really fascinating. I wanted to explore it myself. Eventually, that became speedrunning.
Kotaku: In what ways did you find it fascinating? What in particular stood out to you?
Narcissa Wright: It's this game I played through. I'd collected everything, gotten 100 per cent. It felt like there was nothing left to do. But then there was something new to do. People are still finding ways to do things out of order in ways that were never expected. When I first got started, more and more new stuff was being found, so it was like this new journey to break the game open.
Kotaku: Eventually, you worked your way up to setting the world record for fastest Ocarina of Time run. Then, because that wasn't enough, you bested your own record. At some point, though, that must have become absolutely gruelling. How did that affect your feelings toward the game? Did it deepen your appreciation, or did it become a love-hate thing? Because I imagine there were times when repeating sections over and over became just nightmarish.
Narcissa Wright: Certain parts of practicing were really annoying. And it does come down to this endless grind of like... you're just sitting there and sort of waiting for everything to come together. And it's so unlikely that it will come together [in any individual run] that it's just sort of maddening.
Kotaku: What were the biggest sticking points in Ocarina? Were there any specific parts that made you want to round up every special gold cartridge edition of the game on Earth and shatter them into a million little pieces?
Narcissa Wright: So that changed over the years, because over time there were new routes, new things. So when it changes, it's interesting because it's brand new.
So currently — which is a little unfair to reference, because I've stopped playing — there's, like, a 23 per cent chance of something happening. If it does, you can continue the speedrun past the first eight minutes or so. So you have to play perfectly for eight minutes, and then only 20 per cent of the time or so, you'll actually get to continue. That's incredibly frustrating.
But that's after my time. There's other stuff that's really frustrating, though. Like, there's this trick called ESS where you slide really fast. You have to move the control stick really precisely. And sometimes it will just drop because your movement is just a tiny bit off. Sometimes you have to do this frame-perfect trick that has to be done on exactly the right frame. It's human error. You can't be perfect every time. It sucks when you practice over and over to do something, and it comes time to do it, and you slip up by a tiny bit.
No more speedrunning
Kotaku: Why did you move away from speedrunning Ocarina of Time — and also in general?
Narcissa Wright: I was satisfied with the run I did. It did eventually get beaten, and at first I was like, "Should I go back and try to beat that?" But then I realised that I was really happy with what I'd done, and it would just be another long, long grind to shave off a few seconds. I didn't feel like going through that again. It was like I broke out of hell after I finished it. I was free [chuckles].
But then a new route came out, and it was exciting again. If I wanted to go back into it, though, one of the problems was, there was this controller adaptor that modifies the deadzone on the controller and the sensitivity of the joystick. It allows you to do speedruns more consistently. And it's like, is that cheating? People disagree. Some people think it is, some people think it isn't. That plus the crazy 20 per cent chance thing, it all compounds to be this really un-fun thing for me.
You've got people using the adaptor or not using the adaptor, and then you have some playing on Virtual Console — the current standard version to use — and others who aren't. This new route involves a part that crashes on the N64, but not in the Virtual Console version. So it's like, should this count? Nobody can agree on any of the rules, and it's this big clusterfuck. There are other games I could play instead of going back and deciding what rules I want to play by.
There's always a controversy, though. I used to do it on the Chinese version of the game. Some people thought that was kinda sketchy. As well as resetting the console to save time. On top of that, there are always people who are like, "Well, you're glitching to the end. That doesn't count." Everybody has a different opinion on what counts and what doesn't. When you really go all the way down to the input device and everything, it all kinda falls apart in a way. It's open to interpretation. It's not this unified thing. It's very subjective.
I'd like to speedrun Castlevania for the N64. That would be fun. Goldeneye levels as well. That's fun too.
Kotaku: Wait, Castlevania 64? Isn't that game, you know, not very good?
Narcissa Wright: Yeah. I mean, it got alright reviews, but it has this bad legacy. People don't like the game. For speedrunning, though, I think it's really, really good. It's a great length. It's around 40 minutes. There are cool boss strategies, cool skips. All of its elements together are really beautiful. Altogether, it's a really great speedrun.
Kotaku: I really like the idea of a game that, on its own, is mediocre or bad, but works beautifully for speedrunning. Can you go more into that? What can turn a bad game into a great speedrunning game?
Narcissa Wright: It's a common trend, I think. I think there's other games like that too. People like to do really wacky stuff with busted Sonic games. Games like Sonic '06. The game's programmed poorly, so it makes for an interesting speedrun.
Kotaku: You haven't been able to speedrun lately, though, right? Because your hands are messed up? What happened there?
Narcissa Wright: I think it's all the years of playing games. But it got bad when Smash Wii U came out. I think I'm at 11,500 matches now. I played for long sessions. I was playing Melee at the same time too, and that's even more demanding on your hands. If I play too long, it hurts a lot, and it hurts for a long time afterward. It's been a huge problem. It's made me feel like maybe I can't get back into speedrunning as much as I want to with Castlevania and stuff.
I don't have health insurance right now. I'm trying to get that settled. I walked into a physical therapy place, but they told me I need a doctor's note and insurance. I want to get that figured out in 2016. In the meantime, I've been doing stuff like hand exercises — just trying to stretch my hands and take care of them. I also took a two week break from console gaming, and that's helped a bit. But I still can't do those long sessions.
This is a common problem, too. A lot of people have this problem. Particularly Smash players. But I think it happens in other games too. I think StarCraft players get hand problems as well, but I don't know as much about that.
Kotaku: I think people are only just beginning to realise how much people who play games all the time — professional streamers, eSports players, and so on — can tax their own health. It feels like this thing where people ask so much of them, so they keep pushing themselves past their limits. Like, did you see the thing with [popular Twitch streamer] MANvsGAME admitting to drug usage in pursuit of ultra-long marathon casts? I think people view "playing video games all day" as the easiest job on Earth, but there's so much you've gotta do to get and keep people's attention. Some of that stuff has lasting consequences.
Narcissa Wright: Definitely. And I heard about the MANvsGAME thing, for sure. Mostly, though, I know about hand issues in hardcore console gamers.
What happens when a speedrunner can't speedrun
Kotaku: How has your audience responded to your hand issues and subsequent shift away from speedrunning? It seems like you've lost quite a few Twitch followers in recent times. I've also seen some people being astoundingly shitty on YouTube. I mean, I get that it's YouTube, but jeez. There are some merciless dumbasses on there.
Narcissa Wright: There's people who understand, and they're still trying to support me and everything. That's really good. But there's a lot of people who moved away, especially after my speedrunning stuff died out more. Speedrunning was definitely something people really enjoyed.
But I was sort of running out of motivation for that as well. It wasn't just the hand issue. That's when I got back into Smash again. It was like, "OK, time to take a break from this mindless repetition." Time to actually play with other people instead of just grinding this single-player thing over and over.
A lot of people don't like my content now, but that's fine. They can go watch something else.
Kotaku: What are you using your Twitch channel for now? I saw that you've been doing art, which is awesome, but it's also methodical and without concrete direction. I think you might have accidentally taken up speedrunning's polar opposite. Why'd you decide to start doing that on stream?
Narcissa Wright: I used to do some painting in the past, but not on stream so much. So I've been doing that a little bit. It's been fun and challenging. I think art is really, really hard, by the way. It's quite a bit harder than video games [laughs]. It's so open-ended. Making things look right... I don't know, I find it very challenging.
It's also something to do. It's not too stressful on my hands. It's not a focus, though. I'm also spending a lot of time sort of vlogging — just talking to the chat and stuff. That's been fun, but I'm interested in a bunch of different things. First I want to get my hands better and get back into gaming. But I'm also interested in trying some other stuff too, and it feels kinda scattered — like I don't have a direct focus on what I'm doing.
For example, I have an idea for this online board game, and I'm trying to learn how to code it. I'm streaming that more. So there's a lot of different things. I sort of think of the stream as an environment, and I go there and hang out. It's sort of a different way of doing streaming.
Before I was so focused on speedrunning. People would come to my stream for speedrunning, and they'd find the same content every time. And they'd like it, and they'd get into it. It got a lot of momentum like that. But now I don't really have that momentum. It's challenging. But I feel like it's a good time for me to explore different things and try things.
I had ideas for all these speedruns on top of what I'm doing, but the motivation kinda fizzled out. I had to be honest with myself and not force it. I think if I'd have forced it, it would have failed to be genuine, and people would have realised that I wasn't enjoying it. I'd rather stay true to my motivation and passion.
Kotaku: You mentioned that you have an idea for a game. What is it? How does it work? Is it inspired by what you've learned while speedrunning, dissecting games in this super specific way?
Narcissa Wright: It's an idea for a game I've had for about ten years. It feels like it's time to make it.
Game creation and speedrunning are similar in a way. If you play a game a lot, you start to see what is actually optimal to do from a winning perspective, what makes the game fun or interesting, what gives the player agency.
The game I'm thinking of is this multiplayer game, and I want it to be kind of strategic. It'd be interesting exploring what can be done, what makes it good. What I liked about speedrunning is that you're trying to play optimally. Even with fighting games like Street Fighter or Smash, it's like a lot of risk-reward and maximising efficiency. So I want to make something that's really deep, but not stagnant.
At this point I mostly just have rules for the game, but those are subject to change. As for the theme, I'm not sure exactly. I kinda have some ideas, but there's still a lot to do. It's just something I really want to get done. It would be really cool, I think.
Kotaku: You also recently decided to transition and undergo hormone replacement therapy, which is a massive life change. You've been pretty open about it online, which strikes me as necessary when you make a living streaming, but also terrifying given that the internet... well, the internet can be overwhelmingly mean, especially when it comes to something people don't fully understand.
Narcissa Wright: Yeah, the internet is definitely not always a nice place. But it felt like this was a long time coming. I just sort of kept pushing it back and pushing it back. I finally decided to accept myself. A lot of people do not understand, and a lot of people leave really mean comments all the time. It's kind of draining.
But at the same time, I have zero regrets. I know I'm doing the right thing. People can either get over it, or they can go watch someone else.
Kotaku: Yeah, it seems like people have been pretty nasty recently. I saw that you got DDOS-ed.
Narcissa Wright: I have no idea why people do that. It just sort of started happening recently. It was ongoing for, like, a month, and it was a huge pain. I finally got a VPN, and I think that's fixed it for the most part.
It happened in the past too, though. Years ago, I got DDOS-ed. It was similarly irritating.
Kotaku: I saw that you switched your Twitch chat to subscriber-only as well. Were people using that as another place to be shitty?
Narcissa Wright: It was a signal-to-noise ratio thing. Even before [the transition], there were a lot of random comments. It was mildly irritating. I knew that by having the sub wall up, I could clear all of that out and talk more directly to people. Instead of being spammed by giant ASCII toucans or whatever [laughs]. I feel good about my decision.
Kotaku: Have there been upsides to shining a spotlight on your transition for you personally? Have you found support in gaming communities, especially the ones you've cultivated?
Narcissa Wright: Yeah, there's a lot of that. I got a huge surge of support initially, and it still kinda continues. But there's also the huge negative crowd, which you can see in YouTube comments and on various other websites.
People try to drag down others for some reason. Maybe they just don't understand it. It's OK. I still get a lot of support from a lot of people, and I have close friends I talk to. I just feel good about everything.
The future is weird
Kotaku: In light of negativity you've received pre- and post-transition, have you ever had moments where you considered leaving the public eye? Even regardless of people being garbage-spewing toilet monsters, does it all just get exhausting, essentially being on stage all the time?
Narcissa Wright: I'm someone who has a lot of opinions about stuff, but I'm very shy. I don't share a lot of stuff sometimes. I'm pretty quiet. Like, I tweet pretty rarely, even though I have a lot of followers.
So sometimes I'm pretty reclusive or private, but I'm also public as well. It's kinda weird. We live in this society we can't be totally reclusive and alone. I'm making a living off the internet, right? And I want to share the things I'm interested in. I want to make stuff. I want to stream. I want to share my experiences. But it's also weird.
Kotaku: Totally. You also have that side of yourself where you just want to be off on your own, in your own head, without pressure to perform or accountability to thousands of people. These days, though, you can never completely get away. If you're a bigtime Twitch streamer or even just a power user on a service like Twitter or Instagram, life becomes a sort of performance.
Narcissa Wright: Oh for sure. I want to be accountable for myself. I do a lot of reading on my own. There's that side of me as well.
I'm really grateful that I'm able to live off the internet, but it's at this borderline where I have some money saved up, but I'm losing some each month. I'm gonna be moving, and I'm gonna try to move to a cheaper place. Hopefully that will ease up tension with money issues. And I'd like to get on health insurance.
Kotaku: Does the knowledge that you have finite money and users slipping away because you're doing so much experimentation with your stream put pressure on you? Do you feel like you have to heal up your hands ASAP and get back to doing what people want you to?
Narcissa Wright: I'm definitely taking it one step at a time. I don't plan on going and doing something because that's what everyone wants to see. I know people want to see certain things out of me, but I want to focus on what I'm actually passionate about.
Maybe that's kind of ungrateful. It's like, "I'm only gonna do what I'm passionate about; now please pay for my existence." Maybe that's super entitled. But I feel like I'm at my best when I can work on things I'm actually passionate about. Stuff that's actually meaningful, instead of meaningless.
So it's one step at a time. Am I worried? Not really. I'm kinda optimistic. I think everything will work out.
Kotaku: What's next for you? What's your plan for 2016?
Narcissa Wright: Move to a cheaper place, get situated, get my hands looked at and taken care of, get health insurance, and continue streaming. I've been streaming almost every day. It's been different things. Sometimes it's a vlog thing, sometimes I'm doing something like making a Mario Maker level or something. [Editor's note: one of Narcissa's levels nearly drove Patrick mad, which is always fun]
I want to keep doing code too. I just started trying to figure out some code stuff. I'd like to work more with that, and I think I'd like to do it on stream. I want to make my game, or at least make progress on it.
Kotaku: Thanks for your time!