Groundhog Day

Having to deal with yet another bad designer’s stupid implementation of “save points” is the worst part of being a console gamer. Almost everyone gets it at least a little bit wrong. Many designers get it very wrong. A few game designers get it so wrong that you want them to be put into suspended animation and then revived only when the Earth has been conquered by a race of technologically advanced yet horribly malicious alien beings who will transport them into a whirling nightmarish dimension of transinfinite pain. For those of you who are not gamers, allow me to explain the idea of “save points.” Back in the 1980s, game consoles had extremely limited memory profiles and storage space. To allow larger games to be played in several sittings, designers introduced the concept of save points – when you reach a specific point in the game, the player can save their progress to some stable or semi-stable storage. This allows the game designer to merely have to store a bit meaning “I have reached point 4” rather than keeping track of all the state in the game world.

The existence of save points caused a number of conventions to be placed on the narrative of the game worlds: the idea that enemies come back whenever you play the game, even if you’ve “cleared” that section, the idea that, since all gamers are 12 years old, they won’t have to stop playing at a moment’s notice, and the idea that if you die halfway between save points, you have to play the last segment of the game over again. And over. And over. And over. And over.

Here’s what other types of media and life experiences would be like if they were implemented the same way some game designers implement their games:

There’s a kernel of truth in some of these. Yes, it’s true that a player can ruin the fun of his game by saving immediately after every hard challenge is passed. So what? The bottom line is that the player can better manage their happiness than you, the game designer, can. Based on my own experience and the conversations I’ve had with fellow gamers, the single most common reason a player puts an otherwise good game down and never comes back to it is because of the inadequate placement of save points. No one wants to replay a segment that they already played through just because they made a mistake 90% of the way through.

In today’s videogame world, the common case is that the design of the game sucks. The common case is not that I am sitting there, unable to save, saying to myself “Gosh, I sure am excited by the dramatic tension introduced by the fact that if I die here, I’ll have to spend 20 minutes trudging through the castle and fighting the same monsters I just defeated to get back to this point all over again.” The common case, rather, is that most people, most of the time, say “I just died because of the stupid camera, and now I have to do the whole stupid lava level all over again from the stupid beginning, because the stupid designers were too stupidly arrogant to put in enough stupid save points.” You know what most of us do when confronted with that sort of game?

We stop playing the stupid game.

I have a friend who never finished Shenmue, because the climactic battle was a horrific 40 minute deathmarch. With no save points, and with plenty of unpausable cutscenes. He had started playing it early one evening, not realizing what he was getting himself in to. And he was about to go out on a date, and had to stop. Was he going to play the entire 30 minutes he lost again? No. He decided – correctly, in my opinion – that the annoyingness of the game exceeded whatever pleasure he might get out of seeing the end.

Listen. I know it’s hard to accept. But the odds are, simply, that your game is not that good. Really. It isn’t. We want to play your game because we want to see what comes next, not because we want to see the stuff we’ve already seen 6 times because some boss keeps defeating us. If the player wants to ruin your big dramatic moment, too bad. I can pause Scorsese’s movies any time I want, and I should be able to leave your game, and come back to it, any time I want. If Scorsese can get over it, so can you.

The other objection I hear is that to get the sort of “instant save and restore” functionality I want, I can just pause the game and turn off the TV. This is a morally disordered argument: someone else might want to use the console to play a different game, immediately. Some games – those would be “poorly designed games” – don’t let you pause any time you want. And, frankly, I grew up in the 1970s with the “Energy Blues” playing on Schoolhouse Rock. I don’t want to leave my console on when I’m not using it. I want to turn it off. Lastly, I guarantee that if I turn the TV off but leave the console on, someone (such as myself) will turn the console off accidentally.

There are basically two ways to fix the brokenness of save points: the somewhat wrong way, and the right way. I’ll describe them, and then I’ll describe an alternative solution that, I think, will eventually become the norm.

The somewhat wrong way to fix the problem – which is still better than nothing – is to put a metric ton of save points around your game, so that the player has the opportunity to save “frequently enough” that they’re not bothered by them. Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance went this route. As I say, this is at least better than nothing, since it will likely allow the player to not have to play for a solid hour to get back to where they were when they died. The risks here are twofold: first, you might underestimate what “often enough” means, and second, if you provide a save point the player will feel obligated to use it, so a larger percentage of the game is taken up with the mechanics of saving. Halo tries to fix this latter problem by frequently “checkpointing” the player’s progress – just silently saving it when the player crosses certain boundaries – but I’ve never met anyone who felt that it actually worked right, since it only works within a given session, not across sessions.

The correct solution is to allow the player to manage their own save points. Let them get access to a menu anytime, anywhere, and save the game immediately. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic does this, and it is a pleasure to use.

The software developers – particular the user interface geeks – among you may have noticed a systemic problem in what I’m describing. It relies on the game developer doing the right thing. As game developers are apparently intent on proving, over and over again, that they don’t know or care about proper user interface design, I will suggest a different idea. The issue I’m most concerned with is not “saving” for purposes of time travel, but the ability to stop playing at a moment’s notice and to pick up exactly where I left off later. That service could, and I argue should, be implemented by the console itself, not by the software developer. When I want to suspend or hibernate my laptop, I don’t have to go around to each application asking for permission: I just suspend the damn thing. On a system with a hard drive (hello, Microsoft!) doing this sort of hibernation is a solved problem.

In summary, this is not a game-specific issue. This is a user-interface issue. You’d dismiss as unacceptable a word processor that refused to allow you to save your work unless you finished the paragraph you were writing. We should not hold games to a lower standard.

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