Repurposing the Save Point

A save point is a design flaw. It’s a plaster patched over an obvious shortcoming of the developer, and it’s become a staple that we’ve forgotten was ever an issue. Just give it a moment’s thought, think about what exactly a save point is for, primarily, and try to figure out where I’m coming from.

So gaming started in the arcades, and they didn’t have saves because of the nature of the thing. Suddenly you put the system in a home, and people, understandably, want to save their progress. They want to be able to stop the game when they’ve had enough for that play session, and then come back to it later on so that they can continue their game. So far so ok, and really, that’s what saves should be doing. Not the crutch that they’ve become.

Save points in games get a lot of stick, and rightly so, because they’re a convolution of a convolution, forcing the player to not only adhere to the stupidity of saving in the first place, but also forcing them to have no control over when and where that save point occurs. Even worse are games with liberal checkpointing and save points, rendering the entire exercise useless. Having limited save points is there to build tension and a sense of loss when you fail, because you’re getting reset to a previous point. Sprinkling the space between save points with checkpoints renders that entire exercise useless. It seems like you’re just shoving save points in there because they’re in games you like, and so you’re going to go with them here, except you’ve completely misunderstood what they’re for.

More than that, though, people complain that there’s no quick save, something that’s distinctly PC. And I get it, man, I get why you’d want to be hammering F5 every two seconds, just in case you get taken out and you might have to relive five minutes of your life all over again. It’s not you, it’s the game. They’ve pushed you onto this save addiction, and now you want an unhindered supply of your fix, so that you never have to go cold turkey again. But it’s ok, I can cure you. Or, indirectly, I can try to make the situation better by highlighting games that kick the opium peddlers in the balls and show you a world of joy without your drug, and naysay those that don’t.

But first, I need to explain properly why saves are stupid, why they are a hindrance rather than an enabler, and why we need to get rid of them. First and foremost, saves in games are there for when you fail, when you die, when you fuck up and have to try again. They’re a by-product of the fail state, which is bullshit in and of itself. Thing is, developers just haven’t been arsed to get around to figuring out a better way of doing it. Prey had a go, with its afterlife mechanic, having you shoot at wraiths in an underworld before being spat back out in the game world. BioShock made another attempt with its Vita-Chambers. They’re to be applauded, but that’s almost as much of a botch job patching it over as a quick save or a checkpoint.

No, there’s only two games I can think of that fix things, or at least take a large step in the right direction, and, coincidentally, they’re the only ones to carry real weight and consequence with failure. Heavy Rain is one, and Mount and Blade is the other. They’re two incredibly different games, but they both take the same approach, which is to make the player invincible. What they do in addition to that is make the player choice have true, possibly negative consequences, and suddenly you’re craving for that quicksave, you’re jonesing, man, but these games? They aren’t going to give in and let you have a taste. They’re unrelenting, and they’re bastards about it.

Fuck up in Heavy Rain, and one of the four main characters could be dead. One of countless supporting characters could be dead, and it’s all because you made the wrong decision, or failed to have the hero of the scene come out victorious. Ignoring the obvious problem that Heavy Rain is far too easy, Quantic Dream have made a game where there is no fail state, and that’s terrifying when you first start to play. You can genuinely panic. You can genuinely worry about which choice to make, because, short of manually turning your Playstation off, you can’t go back and have a do-over. There’s no quicksaving before the final scene and playing it over and over again to see all the endings, and that’s not least because it’s the choices leading up towards the end that affect it, rather than a snap decision. You’re forced to live with your actions, and that means you’re instantly more invested in the outcome.

Mount and Blade does a similar thing from a completely different angle. Instead of a tightly scripted storyline, you’ve got a world where every action carried out by the denizens is all but random, reacting both to you and to the goings on around them. The proviso here is that while you may be invincible, and while all your named companion characters might be, you can still lose fights; your men can still die. And when you’ve built up seventy odd men, trained them from farmhands into hard as nails huscarls, to have them suddenly defeated in battle, all lost or captured, is beyond crushing. You know you’ve been set back days at least, not to mention that, while not dead, all of your companions are captured along with you. You’re going to escape, but their fate is far less favourable; they’ll be put in a jail somewhere, and then dispersed like so much seed on the wind throughout Caldaria. You’re lucky if you ever see them again, these people you’ve fought alongside, equipped, talked with. Just imagine if something like Mass Effect did such a thing, these characters you’ve spent so much time with, disappearing into the galaxy, somewhere out there, but somehow out of reach.

And this game turns the save back onto you. Every little action, from buying bread in a village, having a conversation with a fellow lord, or taking a huge enemy town, every single one has a save slamming down on the other side of it. There’s not even an option to alt F4 out of the game, because the save has already happened, overwriting what was before. You’re stuck with the consequences of your actions, and, along with the immortality of your character, so are your choices immortalised and forced down your throat. It’s refreshing, and exhilarating, and while there’s a little suspension of disbelief in having a character who can’t be killed, it’s no less ridiculous than one that can reverse time every time they perish.

So come on developers, let’s try thinking a little more creatively, and get rid of forced, trite mechanics like saving.

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About Phill Cameron

I've graduated, had a look at the world, and spat. Now I'm devoting my time to moving from 3/4 of a games journalist to 9/10ths. I figure I can get away with 9/10ths.
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