[In his latest column examining gaming conventions and the pros and cons of breaking them, Gamasutra contributor Jeffrey Matulef considers the role of save systems.]
Games are a strange activity. It's something we do for leisure, but when our progress is lost, it suddenly becomes "work" to reclaim it. On the whole, games have become increasingly generous with what we have to repeat upon failed attempts.
In the olden days, losing a game of Contra
meant we'd have to start all the way back at the beginning. Mega Man
had a password system, but it didn't help when the entire final third of the game was lumped together under the same code.
Having recently played Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes HD
, I was delighted to learn that I could save between each and every battle (except for a couple late game bosses). Had Persona 3
included such a feature, I probably wouldn't have given up after losing the better part of an hour's progress to an ill-timed random battle. Initially, I felt like this was such a good idea that all games should allow the option to save at anytime.
Of course, these absolutes are always followed by a string of exceptions.
The ugly side to being able to save at any time (i.e. quick-saving) is that it reduces challenge and tension. If you know death is not the end, there's little reason to play cautiously since you'll only be sent back a short ways upon failure. After all, a man with nothing to lose has nothing to fear.
One of my biggest hindrances to enjoying Half-Life
wasn't the game's fault at all, but my own. I couldn't stop quick-saving. After surviving a tough ordeal, I'd hit F5 and go on my merry way, unafraid of whatever came my way.
Of course, I could have simply declined to used the quick-save system, but I'd inevitably have to save at some point, and knowing when was a "fair" time to do so was beyond my grasp. There were autosaves, but they were spaced too far apart, and getting past a couple of them with low health or ammo would leave me too helpless to continue. In short, I was an unstoppable Time Lord, able to renege on his various mistakes.
I much preferred the Metroid Prime
approach of placing save points about 10 minutes apart from one another. This way there was still something at stake, but it wasn't so much that I'd walk away in anger upon getting a game over (except for that part in the Phazon mines where there's over a half hour between save points concluding in a mini-boss).
Aside from cutting down on time spent retracing your steps, quick-saves can be used to cheat important decisions. Anytime I'd have to make a difficult choice in Fallout 3
or Mass Effect
, I'd save beforehand. If I wasn't satisfied with the result, I'd simply reload and try again. I'd try not to do this too much, but in a 40+ hour game I didn't see myself going back to replay the entire thing. It was now or never, and my curiosity usually got the better of me.
Some games have prevented players from doing this by only offering one save slot. Demon's Souls
only allowed one save file per character, turning its generous auto-save into a curse that meant you couldn't fix any of your errors. Anytime you'd die or move to a new locale, your progress would be overwritten.
One of the hardest decisions I ever had to make in a game was at Demon's Souls'
conclusion, where I had to make an important choice who to side with. After 50 hours I only had one shot at this. I was tempted to look up the consequences online, but didn't want to spoil it for myself, so I simply picked a side and went with it (though I later looked up the other ending on YouTube).
An even more unforgiving save system was employed in Dead Rising
. While there wasn't an autosave to overwrite your decisions, there was only one save slot available. Since the entire game was set on a timer one misplaced save could render the adventure literally unbeatable.
This created a tactical choice, requiring players to evaluate their efficiency constantly. Are you satisfied with your results, or could you do better? You can't have it both ways. It was a maddening decision and many cursed the game for this (to the point that its sequel introduced three save slots rather than one), but I admired its stalwart dedication to its premise.
It was great in theory, but in practice it was a bit much. Realizing at the 11th hour that you've mismanaged your time is a bitter pill to swallow in a 12-hour game. This is why it worked much better in its semi-sequel, Dead Rising: Case Zero
. Lasting only a couple hours, it tasked players with being efficient, but failure wasn't enough to drive me away from touching the game again. In fact, to accommodate for its shorter length, it had a much stricter time limit, so a majority of players would have to go through it a second time.
I used to love frequent saves as I felt like making players repeat the same sequences over again was a lazy way at extending challenge, but there's a good basis behind that. It encourages us to get inside a character's head since the stakes are high on both ends.
Often there's a disconnect when our character is in imminent danger, but we make them behave erratically, taking comfort in their ability to resurrect by reloading. Removing this option is a harsh penalty, but for these characters it's a life or death situation so it makes sense for them to behave cautiously, get nervous and make stupid mistakes just as the player's doing.
It boils down to what tone designers are trying to achieve with their game. In Demon's Souls
, it's about feelings of tension and dread, which are accurately conveyed by its uncompromising save system. Dead Rising
is less successful because it's partially about placing yourself in the panicked shoes of a zombie apocalypse survivor -- where the single save approach works -- but it's also about dressing your hero up in funny outfits and finding creative ways to slaughter the undead. Clash of Heroes
fares better because it's light tone encourages unrestricted play and experimentation over a fastidious adherence to logic.
Ultimately, a game's save system has just as much bearing on its tone as the actual content. Half-Life 2's
Ravenholm is full of zombies, aliens, and zombie-aliens, but it's not that scary when you know you that Gordon's life is worthless and can be resurrected at any number of points throughout his quest.
When a shrunken Mario encounters that dastardly hammer brother followed by Bowser at the end of level 8-4, it's terrifying because one ill-timed move means it's game over. No saves. No continues.
[Jeffrey Matulef is a freelance writer whose work can be found at G4TV.com, Eurogamer, Paste, Joystiq, GamePro, and Kill Screen among other places. He's also a regular on the Big Red Potion podcast. You can contact him at jmatulef at gmail dot com.]