Save Points: From Fun to Fear

   So I was just reading another interview with Alexander Bruce on Kotaku, and it fired a neuron or two.

   One of my pet hates with the ‘Free-To-Play’ model and the way in which it’s implemented most often, is that I find it horrific that a games design company can release a product in which they think that part of the game is boring enough, that people will want to skip it.  It’s exactly why Blizzard keep making it easier and easier to get to the ‘End Game’ in World of Warcraft.
   When so much of a game is about getting to the ‘End’ that doesn’t even exist, it starts becoming a matter of how many games you can ‘beat’, and not the quality of the experience along the way.
   I’m sure there are psychological principles involved, that fuel this drive for getting further, but I’ll save that for another day.  What I’m really interested in are Save Points.

   Save Points, checkpoints, the ability to save, in general, is a fantastic concept.  The ability to put a game down and come back to it later, without having to start again from the beginning, is an essential part of integrating video games into a busy lifestyle.  The invention of the save system, is akin to the invention of the bookmark.  Can you imagine what it would have been like to have to read War and Peace in one go?
   Password systems are also good for taking it up again from where you left off, but a save file is more than that, it’s yours and no-one else’s.  With auto-saves, checkpoints and free saving systems, it only gets better, right?

   I’m not sure how everyone else plays, and so many of these articles will be written from self-experience, but I’m pretty sure I’m not that unique when it comes to my playing style.

   In the games of old, of which the Marios and Donkey Kongs are the foremost in my mind, you could only save after you had beaten a whole level.  Some had checkpoints as well, but these only lasted as long as the game was turned on.  Furthermore, these systems often forgot how many lives you had.
   While it is most likely that this was a result of system limitations, I begin to wonder if the ‘advances’ make us worse gamers.
   These days, most games allow the player to save whereever and whenever he or she wishes, and every single piece of data is saved.  How many lives the player has, the ammo count, the specific world location of the character – everything.  So why do I consider this a bad thing?  For the same reason that I rarely use the big guns in a single player FPS – fear.

   I’m 8, it’s Christmas Day, I’m playing Donkey Kong on my Gameboy, and I’m focused on one thing: getting through the level.  I know that if I don’t get through the level, mum or dad might tell me to turn it off, and that means Game Over.  If I lose all my lives, I’ll lose the progress I made in the level, but that’s usually not such a big piece of play-time.  I’m playing the game, absorbed in it, with the only fear in my 8 year-old mind being the clock ticking down to the time at which I have to turn it off.  I love it.
   I’m 21, it’s an ordinary day, I’m playing Fallout 3 on the PC, and I’m focused on one thing: trying to get the most out of my gaming experience.  I want to see everything, do everything, experience as many facets of the game design as I can, and I’m sure many of you know, Fallout 3 is not that kind of game.  However, my fear is no longer whether I will have enough time, but whether I can collect and complete this game 100%.  What this results in, is stress.  Every time I see a choice that the designer has implemented, it sticks out like a sore thumb.  Hell, even if I wasn’t so acutely focusing on these aspects, there are bars and statistics that makes sure I don’t miss that choosing not to blow up the nuclear warhead is a ‘morally correct’ choice.  I save, I save and I save.  I reload, reload, and reload.  Everytime a combat doesn’t leave me with what I consider to be enough heath, ammo, or something else, I reload and try the fight again.  Everytime I see a choice closing doors, I reload and see what the other choice rewards me with before I settle.  (I have a Bioshock save file right before the first little sister so that I could take the other direction in case saving the little sisters didn’t work out.)
   It’s an exhausting, time-consuming way to play, and to be perfectly honest, it’s not a whole lot of fun. I understand that I play this way, and that not everyone does, but consider the save systems implemented in games today, specifically in ‘narratively driven’ ones.  Every reload, if by choice or by ‘death’ breaks the narrative in twain.

   The fault doesn’t rest solely with save systems.  The way that choices in narrative games are handled is also appalling – death and unsolvable situations too.  However, perhaps in the push for better technological capabilities in the systems we use for our games, and the save systems that came out of it, we lost something.  We lost some fun, some class and inadvertently shattered the narrative experience.