Saving Games

In Video Games on June 6, 2012 at 8:14 pm

Being able to save your game is important, but I don’t think developers are aware as to how important this mechanic can be. Far from merely offering a stopping point or a convenient fallback point for players, saving, how the game saves, and how it broadcasts this fact can drastically alter how players approach the game. At this point, saving is far from a technical achievement — there’s no reason why you can’t save anywhere at any time in any game — so developers need some self-awareness where these mechanics are concerned. Too often today do games have save systems that undermine one or more core gameplay tenets, out of adherence to convention or sheer laziness.

Broadly, there’s three types of saving mechanic: save points, where the player is given some obvious location in-game to save their progress; checkpoints, where the game will save periodically or at certain milestones; and the “save anywhere” option, popular for open-world games these days.

Each of these shares in common the emotional and intellectual information they impart: relief in that your progress is safe and the knowledge that you may optionally stop or continue playing. As each mechanic also differs in implementation, each also sends additional messages.

Checkpoint systems tip the hand of their pacing by letting you know when and where the ebb and flow of an encounter occurs.  Checkpoints that occur during large encounters and conflicts let you know that another wave might be approaching, or that the encounter is now over and you can safely progress. Checkpoints after dialog tacitly inform you that the plot is handing focus back over to the gameplay.

Depending upon the game (though this is more often the case today), it also tells you that anything you haven’t done or explored prior to that point is now off-limits. Going into a room that results in a door slamming down and a checkpoint indicator lighting up means you can’t go back unless the game wants you to. As these systems don’t offer redundant save states, your only option is to progress.

Depending upon the game, the effect on the player may be great or small. In the days of yore, I might have wondered if I missed an awesome weapon in my shooter du jour; today, these action showcases are far more likely to lead you directly to big set pieces and interesting weapons, leaving behind only collectibles and minor details on backstory.

Checkpoints also create a paranoia about saving damaged progress. As you’re not in control of when and where the game saves, you’re much less likely to experiment or just let loose and see how much you can break the game.

Fable offers the best example for this. The game makes use of a very opaque checkpoint system, as you’re rarely specifically aware when the game is saving your casual, non-mission progress. It also offers persistent momentum in its save state, meaning you can never go back to a previous level or checkpoint.

For good characters, this imperils cutting loose and playing the bad guy because you never know when the game will force you to live with having decimated the townsfolk or being caught thieving. Fable II played on this mechanic wonderfully when it threatened the player directly (“torturing” your avatar) with severe level and experience loss unless you betrayed something of your moral code. Not only were you threatened with losing something material to your power, progression and gameplay, but it was fairly explicit that there would be no reloading if things were too severe. You had to take that risk and live with it, and because it couldn’t be undone, it lent considerable gravity to the moment.

Apart from that, Fable is a series where generally I don’t worry about saving or loading. I put the game in, and I’m right back where I started. I can turn it off at any time, knowing I’ll start near where I left off. I don’t have to worry too much about what I missed, since it’s nearly impossible to go and re-experience content without playing through the entire game again.

Mass Effect affected similar results through its in-mission “checkpoint” system. While you could save at any time during normal gameplay, during missions you were not allowed to save but at certain points. The game also automatically saved periodically, but it never did so when you couldn’t manually save.

To add gravity to the big decisions and set pieces, checkpoints for these missions were usually set fifteen to thirty minutes of gameplay out from the next savable point. Which means, should you wish to go back and change your choice, you had to put in more than a minute of saving and reloading to do so. Perhaps a token gesture, in a game that totals more than thirty hours in length, but enough to make you really consider those tough choices.

On the other hand, you knew when one of these big moments was near whenever you realized you hadn’t been able to save for ten minutes.

However, the game never forced you down a road you couldn’t go back and adjust. Not only did you have your own personal save points and checkpoints to choose from, but in-mission you could restart the mission, altering your loadout and squad selection. Smart players would save before distributing skill points. Both of these meant that, if a particular encounter was too difficult or your strategy just wasn’t fun, you had a few options for adjusting it.

So Mass Effect tried to give gravity where it counted. All the same, you could see all three endings using the game-made checkpoint before the big multiple choice offering.

Then we’ve got our Fallouts and Elder Scrolls. The former is the worst offender of the two.

Both games let you save whenever you want, in addition to autosaving whenever you fast travel, enter a new area, sleep or whatever (Skyrim even offered redundant auto and quick saves). Now, Fallout 3 and New Vegas let you pick locks and hack computers, with failure resulting in a jammed lock or a locked-out terminal. Getting past these obstacles was never essential to progressing, but most players just reloaded the quicksave they’d made by habit before the attempt.

And then the game had the gall to offer two high level perks that would allow one — one — additional attempt if you failed as above. This gameplay was completely invalidated by the save mechanic.

You’ve also got titles like Human Revolution, which don’t severely push you in one direction or another until the end, and it even allows you to save after the “these are your choices” cutscene. It is utterly trivial (in all Deus Ex games, actually) to see all available endings regardless as to how you played the game to that point, the impact of which basically diminishes how much you were actually affecting the plot. Kind of like Mass Effect above, but at least the series had a tradition of doing so.

Saving anywhere almost gives you too much freedom. However, it also lets you experiment and muck about due to the generous safety net it provides. You never stray far from home base in these games and you might be bolder for it, and you might actually be surprised by what the game throws at you since it’s never telegraphed by the checkpoint notification.

Lastly is the humble save point. An elegant system for a more refined age, save points combine the freedom offered by “save anywhere” systems, because you can save whenever you want as long as you can march back to a save point, along with the pacing control offered by checkpoint systems. During boss fights, you know exactly when and where your last save was, which can add tension or relief, depending. Save points are also seen as a resting point while playing, where monsters won’t attack you and the plot won’t advance.

They also offer unique opportunities for developers who integrate them into the experience. Maybe one of the save rooms gets wrecked or attacked, heightening tension and paranoia as your sanctuary becomes unreliable. The save points might also be a real, in-universe thing that the players recognize. Whether it’s the type-written notes to “other survivors” in Resident Evil or Silent Hill, or the bizarre self-scrutinizing anomaly in its sequel or a symbol to control god in the one after that, it’s an opportunity to mess with the player’s expectations. Chrono Cross even made you feel bad for using them, as they were revealed to be the mechanism by which fate is controlled.

Silent Hill offers a good study because it’s moved away from save points in recent titles. Downpour especially just guts the tension with its near-constant “saving” message on the screen. That this indicator was apparently lying half the time — I had loads of progress lost despite it — obviously wasn’t intentional and just makes the game that much worse. Far Cry 2 also had a variant that was undermined on the PC. A very “first person focused” game, you always see your hands, legs and everything whenever something happens. To go along with this, the game saves when you sleep at hideouts and strongholds. Except in the PC version, where you could save anywhere. It diminished the immersion.

Save points are associated with the kind of exploration that games have been moving away from. Checkpoints allow for a steady forward progression without stopping to make the player save; save points let you know that you’ll be in the area for a while, searching for clues, keys, weapons and just generally mapping the area out. Even without enemies present, a long stretch without a save point can add tension. That long road becomes a burden that gets unloaded at the next save point, refreshing you for your continued experience.

Tradition and momentum also lead games down the path of using the wrong save system. take Final Fantasy, for example; this game should just be using a checkpoint system at this point. You have zero ability to affect the plot through choices anyway, and all progression is binary: either you have done something, or you haven’t. Having to run back to a save point in a dungeon is just an irritation at this point, especially as you don’t even need to manage health or conditions outside of battle anymore.

Meanwhile, I do think Bethesda’s open-world RPGs could use at least the option for a singular save slot. I like the idea of loading up the game and instead of seeing my bloated saved game catalog, I would just see the character’s I’ve been playing with along with some details on my playtime with them (game time, main plot progression, maybe a few tokens for guild completion and so on).

  1. I’ve been somewhat thinking about save points as a topic for a little bit now, so I wonder if I should shake my fist for your getting it first or breathe out since you’ve saved me the trouble.

    I do agree that when morality and character choice is a defining factor in the game experience, some form of auto-save is a must, since the entire experience is defined by the player being responsible for their action. I actually recall having a great time with this in Heavy Rain (whose own designer said it’d be better if most people really just played it once), during an tense moment when I accidentally shot a man. The wife urged me to reload before the game saved the action, as if I should be trying to do a perfect run on my first outing, but I implicitly chose not to because I wanted to experience the story as it was intended to be expressed. In the end, I didn’t get the very best ending, but things still turned out alright, so I came out of it feeling pretty good.

    I recall shaking my head at that one perk in Fallout 3 for exactly the reason described. I do like the multiple auto-saves in Skyrim, however, and I think these are the kinds of games that do prosper with a “save anywhere” structure, one I tend to feel should be used sparingly because it can be far too easily abused and can effectively gut the challenge.

    Challenge is a big thing, however, when I look at how save data is conducted. I feel the reliance on check points hurt Downpour’s often muted tension quite a bit (I mentioned as much regarding Amy the other day) and I’ve been having a bit of frustration with Max Payne 3, whose narrative pacing often feels rushed- either Max or his partner are constantly yelling at me to keep moving, in a game which has various collectibles hidden in the environments, and moving ahead before you’re ready does tend to mean you can’t go backwards even a little. The game seems to want to constantly rush me ahead and lock me out.

    To that end, I couldn’t disagree with you more regarding Final Fantasy (presumably RPGs in general?) and checkpoints. Final Fantasy XIII already relied on a soft version of such a system simply be removing the possibility of failing a battle and reloading right before the ill-fated fight began, further diminishing a fairly linear game experience. Final Fantasy is already being heavily streamlined as it is, with aspects such as party control, resource management and combat strategy already having been greatly diminished.

    Good dungeon design in part involves the player sometimes getting lost and falling back (or circling back) to familiar ground, and exercising the option to save is, at times, part of that experience. Locking in on a checkpoint system would only serve to compromise exploration in the genre at large (since such points would have to save when a player is going the right way) and (depending on the game) potentially screw the player if it locked them in a place at low collective HP or dead party members (and using an auto-heal system like FFXIII is not a good solution since it, as said, simply removes player involvement from the challenge of the experience).

  2. You should also write a save gamey thingy.

    Yeah, I think I should have said, “Final fantasy might as well use a checkpoint system at this point,” due to all of what we mention about how streamlined it is. It’s never going to put you into a situation where your lack of potions or phoenix downs is going to screw you.

    I remember playing Final Fantasy VII, and experiencing a very tense trek back to town through a dungeon with all party members down and only Cait Sith still up with minimal health. It was a tense moment with great relief when it ended, and this moment would have never have happened in FFXIII — but it also wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t so stingy with buying potions and other supplies.

    I think FFXII struck the perfect balance in this regard: save points restored health and mana (some could even teleport you!). Mana was restored by walking and I think doing damage to enemies, but there was also this progression as to how far you could venture out past the save point, with a very real moment being when you became self sufficient.

    Playing the game felt satisfying because I felt it rewarded preparation and clever execution (with the gambits).

    FFXIII, with its drastically reduced player control in battle and minimal resource management, only really needs you to make two decisions: what paradigms to set ahead of time, and which ones you should rapidly change between during battle.

    So a checkpoint system would mean little since they’ve already gone most of the way there with other mechanics :p

    In other games: Max Payne does rush you forward, from what I’ve read. It even fails you sometimes if you muck about too much. The other games at least had some exploration, even in a burning building you were never forced to move forward.

    Downpour needed save points so bad. Part of the game was supposed to be a mechanic of actually seeking shelter from the rain. I think they could have accomplished this if they put save points inside the random shelters you can find in the game.

    That is interesting about Heavy Rain though (and thank you for not spoiling anything about it. I want to play it one day! Might buy a PS3 this year).

  3. Fair enough point about FFXIII. :-p I would just rather see them move away from such linearity and back towards something a little more involved, but a true checkpoint system was the only thing missing at that point.

    I’m a bit mixed on save points and healing spots occupying the same space. I do rather like it when finding a place to get fully healed is an uncommon and pleasant occurrence, separate from simply being able to log your data, though I think this depends as much on the difficulty scale and what sorta critters are placed in the dungeon as much as anything else, but I’ve gone through a couple of Shin Megami Tensei titles (most notably Strange Journey on the DS) where the challenge in regular fights trends towards tough-but-fair.

    And, yeah, I did have Max Payne fail me once while I was checking around an area. My dumbass partner got himself shot. I had never played MP1 and 2 before 3 came out, and I went through them prior to playing the new one, so I have a pretty damn fresh perspective on how the previous games were paced by comparison, and they definitely did not make you hurry through the game the way 3 does (which is funny in a way, since the addition of things like a cover system would seem to be a more paced mechanic than the previous two titles reliance on jumping into the open and gunning people down). But now we’re just moving away from save discussion, so I’ll digress. I’m still on Disc 1 anyways.

    And Heavy Rain is pretty well made from a number of standpoints, and certainly worth playing once. Aside from the part where Vamp kills E.E.

  4. A few thoughts.

    One being that you missed the obvious examples of “Grand theft auto” and “Saints row” one featuring a save point system that almost punishes a person for using it (to use, one must traverse the game world to find one and then by saving they move the game clock forward) and the other featuring a ‘save anywhere’ mechanic that promotes the games ‘have fun’ mentality.

    Had “Saints Row” featured the save point system it would have been terrible, as many locations were unavailable at night time (itself an annoyance, fixed int he sequel). To my recollection GTA doesn’t have this problem so you might suggest that the save point system worked well for it. But do you remember that one mission where you had to drive all the way across town and then get in a shoot out you weren’t prepared for so you had to start the mission over? so then you had to drive across town again, because GTA doesn’t believe in checkpoints (until “ballad of gay tony”). Afterwards, rather you are tired of mindless driving or simply happy with success you still have to…drive all across town to save your game. But then you turn too sharply and nick a cop car and it’s a big chase and you are getting shot at and your health is low and the safe house is two blocks away and all you wanted to do was save your game!

    My Uncle was recently upset with “Red Dead Redemption” because of it’s save system. As it uses the GTA mode of saving it can be a pain to preserve your progress (though the camping mechanic mitigates that somewhat). After a game session he encountered a bug and the game crashed losing a good chunk of progress. Afterwards he directly placed blame upon the unwieldy save system.

    Frankly, as long as the game design won’t be negatively affected by it, I fully support save anywhere. I also disagree that it harms immersion, in that games are an interactive medium and expecting them to pull the full weight of it is unrealistic. I mean c’mon, we are talking about about a mechanic that allows you to cheat death and alter time, if you want your save system to be fully immersive they would remove it completely.

    I’m going to use the “Farcry 2” example for this. You suggest the immersion is diminished due to an implemented ‘save anywhere’ mechanic. When I get into a game, actually enjoying it and want to be part of the world, I will force myself to jump through certain hoops. Maybe it’s the role-player in me. This is why, in “Saints row” I typically return to my home to end a game session even though the game does not require it.

    I suggest that if the game has succeeded in it’s immersion you will want to find a camp, or safe location to save and shut off the game. In fact I further suggest that requiring me to find a safe location to save in draws attention away from immersion and makes the fact i’m playing a game more obvious and detracts from the time I could be, you know, playing the game.

  5. I wouldn’t postulate that immersion is ever so good that one is going to forget they’re playing a game for anything more than a short period of time, but rather that immersion means becoming emotionally invested in the experience to the point of feeling elation or tension or terror where appropriate.

    A game by definition (and I mean definition) is competitive (re: challenging) and involves “skill, chance or endurance.” How challenging an experience is and how demanding it is of those three factors listed may vary from game to game and from the needs of experience to experience. A game should be fun on some level (fun, admittedly, being subjective), but if the mechanics hold the player’s hand so much that every would-be challenge is circumvented, I would argue that an overly friendly save system is ultimately hurting the experience more than it’s helping it.

    I do feel there’s merit in suggesting a player should either be able to fall back to a safe point or take a break, depending on the circumstances. Portables games have become extremely friendly in this regard because the system can be put into sleep mode without disrupting the experience, and in cases where endurance runs are meant to be part of the experience, quick save systems can be a good compromise.

    I don’t agree with a universal save-anywhere system in any game for pretty much that reason though. And I’ll mention in consideration to that, Lunar 2 is one of my fave RPGs ever, and you can save anywhere there… though for that system, I like the Sega CD version best since it allows the luxury but doesn’t give it to the player for free, basically asking for a portion of the player’s Magic EXP, otherwise used for leveling up character spells. It’s a case where the system is provided, but also shackled so it can’t be heavily exploited. I was, admittedly, a little dismayed that it was absent in the remake.

  6. Some games do try to move away from just using save points to save, using in-game justifications as to why you might do this. I think this is where those few games (Farcry 2 and GTA and Red Dead) make it so your character sleeps at these moments, but then there’s no real reason otherwise — you won’t go nuts or die from deprivation.

    Jack, I do think you’re somewhat unique in your ability to dedicate and restrict yourself to conform to a certain role. I am not so strong. When I played Fable 2 (spoilers), there’s a moment where you have the opportunity to save a random NPC from a vile sacrifice. Doing so ages your character considerably — you get wrinkles and your hair lightens in color. This is permanent, in a game that is very good about catering to your vanity.

    Same thing with scars. You can’t die in combat, but each time you go down you get a permanent scar. Were saving and reloading possible, I might have gone back and changed my decision.

    But that’s me, and I also like it when games try to carry players to certain decisions.

    The upcoming Spec Ops: The Line is going to use its own characterization to make players question the gleeful FPS behavior, where killing means nothing. You can already believe that, knowing each kill is theoretically a person with a past, a future and a family in-game, but in this case the developers are specifically carrying you to that conclusion rather than relying on you to make it.

    But I must confess: I never played any GTA game for more than an hour or so. I think the home base mechanic could work for it, if it were to add a destination you had to get to. Like if you robbed a bank, the save point would be like dropping off your loot or shaking off the cops in your gang’s HQ.

    Rather against SR3, I felt no connection to my cribs or HQs, especially due to seeming to randomly show up in them after saving anywhere.

  7. It’s interesting the type of gameplay and immersion that each system promotes. My characters in fallout/skyrim have all gone on murder-sprees at one time or another. In Dead Space, I’ve often progressed with sub-optimal health/ammo usage because I didn’t want to backtrack even 10 minutes of progress.

    That being said, I can’t remember the last game I played that both had checkpoints, and also forced me to make real game-breaking decisions.

    If I had to sum it up, I’d prefer checkpoints in games where plot decisions matter, but I also want save points so I can ‘try before I buy’ talents/perks/skills/weapons.’

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