posted on 2013-08-14
The option to save in video games is an important feature to gamers everywhere. Without it, your progression in a game is limited within your gaming session. When you play Super Mario Bros or Prince of Persia, you have to beat the game in one sitting. There's nothing else you can do ! You have to finish this game or to fail. But nowadays, games are longer. Unless you're playing Call of Duty Ghostly Modern Ops 27, you can't beat a modern game in one sitting.
But before I begin to explain the implications of every saving method that I can think of and which one is the best, I shall warn you that I am a PC gamer and that my opinion will be focused on that aspect even though, I'll try to think about good console implementations.
I'll first talk about a saving method which is very limited in application but perfect if appropriate: Level-focused saving. What I mean is that in this case, the game is divided into levels and you have to beat a level in order to be able to save. Sometimes, if the level is linear and long, you can have a few checkpoints in order not to have to restart the level from scratch when you die. However, the checkpoint will not be saved if you turn off your game because you cannot save unless you beat the level. Some games give you a saving ability but it's often meaningless considering that most of the time, you can replay levels and the stucture of the game itself is composed of blocks: you must do everything in a predefined order and you have no choice in the game. In this example, forced auto-saving might be a good thing. It works magnificently well in Super Meat Boy or even in the New Super Mario Bros series. But there's a problem ! It's limited in range. Most of the time, you can't arbitrarily cut a game into levels. If you do, you can't show it to the player or you would break his suspension of disbelief and destroy all your efforts to immerse the player into the game. This is why I think that this kind of saving is limited to a few genres like platformers and brawlers.
NEVER USE THAT! NEVER! DO YOU HEAR ME? NEVER!
Except if it's for saving the seed of a procedurally generated map, maybe… If you're nice…
Now let's talk about elegance. You are given either a limited or unlimited number of saves and save slots, and the ability to save via a menu. Also, sometimes, you give the option to the player to name the save. That's all. Well not exactly… I've just talked about limiting the amount of game slots and the number of saves. This is something serious that should not be done arbitrarily. You need a reason to limit those. As far as good reasons to limit slots, I can't really think of any except memory space. In the 21st century, this should not be a problem. However, limiting the number of saves in an area, level, or even in the game (that last one is pretty dangerous though) is possible. Let's take Hitman for example: this game was pretty clever about limited manual saving. The number of available saves per mission was dependent on the chosen difficulty. You couldn't save at all during a mission in the hardest difficulty! The game was automatically saved at the end of a mission and you could replay them any time you wanted after that to get a better score. By the way, you can combine save systems. You are indeed responsible for saving your game regularly which can be terribly frustrating if you forget. Thankfully a solution to this problem has already been thought of: Autosave
What is this concept of autosave? An OPTIONAL, but enabled by default, save that happens either regularly or at certain places. Why should it be optional? Because there are people out there that prefer to manage their saves manually and autosave would drive them crazy and immensely reduce their gaming experience.
So I'm going to spoil the end of the article right here, right now. To me, manual saving with the possibility to name your saves with optional autosave is the best saving system ever.
It was a dark and rainy night. The apocalyptically diluvian rain was only covered by the sinister roar of thunder. Sitting on old couches, their leather worn and torn in places, the team was waiting for the power to come back on. Two men on the left were smoking old, humid cigarettes. Mixed to the smell of wet ashes was old but cheap brandy. One man was periodically rising and pacing every five minutes. He was becoming more and more agitated. He had never been one who dealt with stress well. Given enough time, he probably could have butchered the whole room. Not today, because suddenly, he stopped and started to laugh nervously. Everyone else turned in his direction, as lightening struck. "I've got an idea", he said. "We're going to make something grander than anyone has ever done. Ha ha ha ha ha." Lightning struck again, harder, and so, checkpoints were created…
Or at least they probably were created in similar circumstances. Checkpoints were created by an ill mind that decided that saves were either too good or too bad for players and that they needed all freedom and decision taken from them: that they need to be taken by the hand in order to do anything and everything.
Checkpoints are worse than bad: they are an atrocity, an aberration. No matter how hard you try, you can never place them correctly. People will always have to replay a boring part or will not be far enough ahead of the hardest parts to be able to prepare themselves properly. Also, it's impossible to imagine how every player will react. Developers can't put the checkpoints in places that are convenient to each individual player. What is easy as pie for some, is hard as hell for others.
So why? Because players can cheat with saves? Then why not deny them saving under certain conditions like in combat or story-driven sequences? Because it's too hard/complicated/long to save on console ? Children played Final Fantasy VII when it was released: your argument is invalid. No, there is no good reason to use checkpoints.
If you're a game developer and you decide to use checkpoint as a save system in your game, then you're an asshole. Unless you're making a game of a certain genre, like a platformer, nameable manual saves + optional save is the only way.
There is one exception to my arguments about saves that I forgot. Roguelikes, and more generally, Permadeath-based games.
Yes, these games are fun. No, you don't need to be masochist to enjoy them. I might write an article about them later. These games are based on the principle that by trying over and over again, you get a better understanding of the game and therefore, you get better. They are based on multiple playthroughs. They have ways to cancel the monotomy of repetition, usually via randomness.
So, when and why would you save in a permadeath-based game ? That's very simple. You will save your game because game sessions can be long : multiple hours long. Basically, saving can take two forms that complement each other :
Pause-like save : you stop your game, and you will continue it later.
Replays : because every playthrough is a valuable adventure that you might want to remember or tell.
Then, when do you save ? Whenever you want ! There is absolutely no possible gameplay exploitation since the saves are deleted upon loading. And even if you could, it would spoil all the fun of the game.
What about replays ? Well, they are most likely saved upon death so you can replay them. There's also a cool thing that can be derived from that : ghosts. Some games save your dead characters in the form of ghosts that you can meet or that you must fight. I can only think of one : Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, which by the way is free (both as in free speech and as in free beer).
The only saving concerns you should have about Permadeath-based games, like Roguelikes are saving the game so you can resume later, a thing that you should be able to do at any time, and saving replay, for fun. Oh and try Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup if you like roguelikes.
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