Saving is ruining your experience
So you're playing a tense game that has you totally immersed. Danger lurks at every corner and each action may be your last. You quickly tap the quick save button before turning the corner. Nothing of importance actually happened. But it still might. Better save again before you hit the end turn button no? I mean, what harm can a little button do? The next turn goes just a teeny bit worse than expected. No problem, you can just tap the quick load button and make it go exactly as expected, especially since the game gods have now gifted you with foresight. Unfortunately, I have bad news for you. You're a save scummer.
By abusing the saving system you effectively negate the state of tension and the illusion that your every choice matters that the game has tried so hard to achieve up to that point. Reloading is not an option in life, so by doing it you disconnect from the immersion you had in the game. Knowing that you can turn back at any point and remake the decisions since your save, makes them effectively worthless.
Why is saving so prominent?
- For games that are longer than a typical play session, it lets you go back to your real life without worrying that you're going to lose your progress.
- For games with a game over screen it lets you replay only a reasonable portion of the game instead of all of it, which would be obviously frustrating in the case of a 10+ hour game.
And thus the harmless and useful autosave/checkpoint is born. But players see various poor implementations of autosaves during the years and demand that developers give them a manual save. But with great power comes great responsibility. Players start using save games in abusive ways such as the example above and developers have effectively given the players a way to play a different, inferior experience to the one that they have crafted.
Other problems arise when developers build their game around save abuse, maybe without even realizing it. The Homeworld 2 campaign is notorious for its brutal encounters that you can't predict the first playthrough, so the winning strategy is based around dying, reloading and playing knowing the future. This trial and error method often feels frustrating and unfair because the punishment is so great and the trial has little leeway for error.
Let it go
So after around two decades of games built around manual saving, it's refreshing to see a resurgence of game design that embraces the death of the player, acknowledging it as a learning tool rather than a punishment.
- Rogue-lites can get away with permadeath because a full game session is rather short, and (ideally) each playthrough is different from the previous thanks thanks to an entropy generator like procedural content generation.
- Survival games are top selling on Steam. While a playthrough is open ended and can last a long time the game is designed to show you a good part of the depth of content before the average death time and leaving you wanting for more. In this case, the behavior of other players is the entropy generator.
- Strategy games with manual saves usually offer an ironman mode so the player can protect himself from the urge to save. The player is usually offered a reward for choosing this mode. Crusader Kings 2 actually goes all the way, disabling all achievements if you do not play iron man, basically stating that you are not 'achieving' anything if you save and load.
- Games like Dark Souls and Alien Isolation rely on scarce checkpoints and no manual saves to create the difficulty and tension that they need for the gameplay to function.
- Life is Strange also deserves a mention here for taking a metagame mechanic like reloading and transforming it into an actual gameplay mechanic and story element.
But surely you can't fit everything into these categories. What if a game needs a game over screen as punishment but doesn't want to be so brutal as Dark Souls? How can it manage without manual saves? I'll talk about this and why it is actually beneficial to avoid game over screens in the second part of this series.