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The Prince of Persia speedrun where absolutely everything went wrong

At midnight last night, a speedrunner by the name of Joe "Henneko_" Usher kicked off a run of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time that was expected to last a breezy 80 minutes.

By 12:11, the run had gone straight to Hell.

Though Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time has been around for nearly 12 years, there's been a lot of activity in the game's speedrunning community for the past few months. That's because of a new exploit discovered in February, which has allowed runners to shave about one hour off of the game's former world record time — a colossal improvement that the game's runners have been practicing since its discovery.

The exploit works like this: The player executes an action (usually a jump or lunging attack), and then a series of canceled steps. Upon using the game's time-rewinding dagger, those steps transfer their total momentum to the action that preceded them, allowing the Prince to "zip" forward through walls or upward through ceilings. Using those zips, a runner can break the sequence of the game, skipping battles, cutscenes and entire levels in the process.

Eleven minutes into the run, the game crashed. Usher had not saved.

The video above shows Usher demonstrating what the zips look like during his Summer Games Done Quick 2015 attempt. It's an impressive maneuver, and speedrunning Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time requires that you pull it off dozens of times. It's a tall order, and last night's run was made even taller by a series of unfortunate technical difficulties.

Eleven minutes into the run, the game crashed. Usher had not saved.

The game is known to do a lot of weird stuff on PC, particularly when its player is playing it in such an unintended manner. At one point in the game, Usher skipped a cutscene where the Prince tears off one of his sleeves — as a result, later in the run, his body texture just straight-up doesn't load:

prince no face

The technical issues with The Sands of Time are well-known, but Usher wasn't expecting a crash so early in the run. Now he was forced to start over with a gigantic time deficit, racing to clock in under the run's 80-minute estimate.

At 44 minutes into the run, the game crashed again.

It wasn't just the crashes that were hampering Usher's progress. His controller hadn't been calibrated correctly, he explained, which made him botch the demanding timing of a number of zip attempts. A bad zip typically just fails to execute, but the worst case scenario can send the Prince careening to his death — or, worse still, into a run-ending, inescapable Game Over loop.

At 67 minutes, a checkpoint that Usher had zipped to failed to activate, forcing him to repeat a punishing sequence of combat and zips that he had only just completed.

usher tweet

The run passed its 80-minute expected duration, and Usher's troubles didn't cease. At minute 89, a failed zip killed the Prince at arguably the most inconvenient time possible — Usher had earlier zipped past a cutscene in which the Prince loses his time-rewinding dagger. After dying, the game caught up to him, revoking his ability to skip the game's final, arduous platforming segment.

What's remarkable about this run — which Usher completed at 96 minutes by zipping up into the closing credits — isn't its countless examples of Murphy's Law. What made it my favorite run of SGDQ so far is Usher, who maintained an impossibly cheerful attitude even as bad luck repeatedly screwed him over.

By the end of the run, the whole thing had a It's a Wonderful Life vibe

Speedrunning games is a profoundly stressful activity, often requiring thousands of perfect, precise inputs to accomplish a run's various tricks. Attempting a run in front of a live audience — and a streaming audience of tens of thousands — only amplifies that tension. The fact that Usher kept such a cool head under all that pressure, even when his run went terribly, was, for lack of a better word, heroic.

I wasn't the only person who thought so. Usher's positive attitude brought in hundreds of donations for Doctors Without Borders (the chosen charity for Summer Games Done Quick 2015) and messages of support for the runner. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time did its best to break Usher's spirit, but by the end of the run, the whole thing had a It's a Wonderful Life vibe. It's one of the best things I've ever seen at a Games Done Quick event:

You can watch all of Usher's fateful run at this Twitch archive, and follow his other run attempts on his Twitch channel.

The next level of puzzles.

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