A (very) Brief Poetics of Saves

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November 17, 2012 by rcthames

For the earliest video games, each playthrough was made to be played in a single session (though of course there were multiple iterations and attempts at this playthrough).  Later, various methods for saving a player’s progress were incorporated, allowing for much longer games. Very few scholars focus on the save feature as an important part of gameplay, yet it helps make many games what they are. One might view the saving process as the video game version of a bookmark, nothing more, nothing less. Yet, unlike a bookmark, saves are implemented by the designers of games to function in particular ways. Far from an auxiliary function in games, the implementation of this feature can have a large impact on the experience of play. The type of save system in place is integral to the flow and pace of gameplay, as well as to the player’s experience of the gameworld.

For modern games, not having a save system is in itself a choice. The most well-known example to demonstrate the consequences of having no save capability, however, would be the classic Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo. While the game gives the player a number of lives (as many such games do) players may not turn the game off and later come back at a particular point, nor will they start from the point that they died once they lose all of their lives. The result of this no-save system is a continuous flow that increases tension the longer play runs towards the game’s ending. There might be some playful experimentation early on, as players take multiple attempted playthroughs to get accustomed to the gameplay, but a player’s outlook on the game is likely to grow more serious as play advances because there is more to lose. After a failure the player will have to go through that much more the next time just to get to where he or she is at the moment. It is an economy of time and effort weighed against the experience of play.

In addition to letting players walk away from a game and then pick it back up at a later time, the implementation of a save system alleviates some of the burden of failure. However, save systems are not uniform in how they do this, and the differences are what are most useful to my argument. Many games implement some kind of a checkpoint or save point system, where the game either automatically saves as the player reaches certain points, or allows the player to save at certain points in the progression, but not anywhere in between. In between the checkpoints, the flow of the game may be very similar to games without save systems, with miniature climaxes of anxiety the further one has gone from the last checkpoint (though the practice of putting checkpoints directly before the most difficult segments in many games may lessen this anxiety). In a game like Assassin’s Creed III, while certain player achievements such as items and collectibles gained are automatically saved, each mission follows the checkpoint structure. Because it is not the whole game but only a small segment of the game that may be lost, this structure allows a more playful approach. As the player, I might take Connor (my character) across the map in various different ways in an attempt to find the best way to achieve the objectives. However, there is still some investment of time that will be lost if I fail, character and gameworld reverting back to the last checkpoint. Because of this, my approach to the gameworld remains somewhat serious. The game’s diegesis is consistent with itself, but in stasis until I take appropriate action to move things forward. Typically in such games, there is an almost fated way that the story must progress, although my method of making things that way may be slightly different from other players’ methods.

Seemingly the opposite of having no saves, another common system allows the player to save anywhere, as often as he or she likes. This save anywhere system is especially common in large, open-world RPGs such as Skyrim. Such a system allows for both a playful and serious engagement with the gameworld. The serious engagement in this case stems not from anxiety of loss, but rather from the ability to explore and immerse oneself in the gameworld without worrying about getting to the next save point. With other systems, too much exploration might be a risk, but in a game like Skyrim, one may simply save before taking that risk. This same feature allows for a degree of playfulness with the gameworld as well, as one may, for instance, attack all of a town’s guards and citizens in various ways secure in the knowledge that the game can be reloaded. The difficulty of progressing in the game for long after certain actions, as well as the possibilities of accidentally saving over the wrong game or losing track of which save is which may mitigate prolonged episodes of such playfulness, however. Beyond that, the character and the gameworld revert to their previous states when a save is reloaded, so while the player might have experienced those actions, it is as if they diegetically never occurred. The character’s slate is clean (I have heard player’s describe such episodes as their character’s violent fantasies).

Another system, which I will term the resurrection system, does something quite different. This is the system found in the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) games, as well as in the Borderlands games. It saves a number of advancements in the game (e.g. areas unlocked, missions completed) though the player usually loses something small as well (weapons and vehicles in GTA, an amount of money in Borderlands). The interesting thing about this system is that there is no indication time has reversed to a previous point—the actions just taken by the player still happened in the diegesis of the game, and in games with temporal day/night cycles, time will have even passed. The character is still “on the hook,” in a sense, for the actions just committed (and/or the failure experienced), but rather than evoking the full weight of such atrocities or failures, the absurdity of the relative lack of consequences foregrounds the game as game and invites playfulness over serious reflection.

As I have shown, these various save systems that might be implemented in a game each have a very different effect on how the game will be played and experienced. The type of save system (or lack thereof) impacts the flow of action in the game and the risks of exploration/playful action. It may also alter how the player experiences and reflects upon the game’s diegesis.


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