The F12 Lazarus: is game-saving ruining the experience?

Posted by on Saturday, 9th October, 2010

Death is final. We perish. Our consciousness is extinguished. Our already decomposing cadaver is either buried, cremated, or used to serve humanity via donation. Some of you may have different beliefs. The heretic, atheist Lizard apologises. Yet, what an experience it would be to throw myself in front of a train, or commit an act of spectacular R. Budd Dwyer suicide, and simply respawn (mind that telefrag!), exactly as I was moments before my demise. Life is less accommodating, and even human prune Barbara Cartland eventually left us. Take some solace, however. One day, there will be no Katie Price, Paris Hilton or Justin Bieber. The Reaper is an equal opportunities metaphor. Games are rather more hospitable, and resurrection is but a save point away. Is this making us apathetic, complacent and reckless? Is this binary immortality a worm in the golden core of our beloved hobby?

When I was a hatchling Lizard, I weaned myself on games played on home computers such as the mighty ZX Spectrum, and the diverse auteur, the Commodore Amiga. Consider a game like Ritman and Drummond’s masterful Head over Heels, from 1987. Yes, some of you were but an amorous thought in the mind of your fathers, but indulge me as I make my point. Head over Heels was a large game; hundreds of isometric screens, across multiple worlds. Virtually every screen was more lethal than a fast food burger cooked by an indifferent staffer on minimum wage, and doubtless dropped and kicked across the kitchen. After progressing into the game, liberating several worlds, and watching the hands of the clock chime away the hours, the loss of the final life would reset all progress, and force you to restart from the absolute beginning, and cover again all that you had previously explored. As a modern example, death in Demon’s Souls can cost you the net result of hours of careful combat and exploration. Losing all of my progress without the means to continue makes me apoplectic with rage so as to want to punch a priest squarely in the face (Disclaimer: Surface Lizard knows no prejudice, and would happily punch a nun, fakir, rabbi, imam, high priest of Satan, Jedi, or druid).

Surely some pioneering game designers have found a way for players to salvage victory from the despair of defeat. Enter stage left the game save or, in some cases, the Quick save. Quicksave. Quick-save. So much variety, but I’ll employ the noun I feel most fitting: quicksave. At almost any point, or regularly determined points, we can defy Einstein, and arrest our game at a state to which we can return at a later date, once we have dealt with those tedious concerns such as working, eating and flushing the toilet more than once a week. It could be claimed that this sense of convenience is making us idle, complacent and impetuous, and a significant portion of the dramatic and the adrenalized anxiety of death, and of consequence, is removed. Is the dilution of the casual generation going to grant us patronising and pampered experiences, lest the less-able players find themselves traumatised, in this society that seems to refuse to allow schools to educate that failure can be as valuable, if not moreso, than success? I love my Zen wisdom, and here is another gem: fall down six times, get up seven. Not with the convenience of the game save! Fall down once, reload and keep trying until sheer bloody will and luck sees you through; learning nothing by the experience.

Hardcore respawn

In some cases, the option to ‘take a mulligan’, and reload a scenario after a paranoid, precautionary save, can sully the atmosphere, and render the experience less effective. Make a mistake, reload, resurrect; imatatio dei via the joypad. We lucky gamers! Let me use Heavy Rain as an example, partly as I adore the game, and partly as immature nettling of Duke for his sincere dislike of it. Heavy Rain was supposed to be a game of consequence, where death simply detoured the narrative, and let you continue. On my first two playthroughs, I refused to reload at any time, and adhered to my decisions. I lost all characters through the two initial times. It was a richer experience, as I was unaware of when a decision, or a fumbled QTE, would summon the executioner, and I was forced to consider my options, both in character, and beyond, as a player. As I often claim (up on that fence, Lizard!), it’s your game, and your money has earned you the right to play it as you please. Personally, entering a situation, in any game, with the potential for ruin and loss, is exactly what elevates games above static media such as film. Luke will always triumph, Vader will always send the emperor down a convenient plasma shaft, and the merchandise-friendly Ewoks will never, ever go away.

A game does not always have to be a success medium. Consider the classic shooters that are revered and praised, such as R-Type or Nemesis. Death in those games would strip you of almost all weapon upgrades, and leave you with a pea-shooter against the enemy. That was once called ‘challenge’, or ‘level design’, and you had to literally pay the machine for your continues. Games, and gaming, have naturally moved on, but my point still stands. Regular saving removes the weight of actions, and the lessons of repetition. Within reason, of course. Playing the same section of, say, Halo Reach, sixteen times becomes less education and more grind. I am playing on legendary difficulty, and sixteen is a literal count from a recent session I had, and which inspired this piece.

Easy access to a save system removes all jeopardy. The BioShock games are an infamous modern offender. The Vita-Chamber: friend to the Rapture explorer, or foe to the game experience? Be honest with yourself, when you had little remaining ammunition and EVE, and a tough Big Daddy to take down, did you employ skill and tactic, creative plasmid use and cunning traps? I’ll wager, for at least some of the encounters, you did what damage you could to the wailing Daddy, died, resurrected at the nearest Vita-Chamber, and spammed that revival loop as many times as required. No skill needed, or developed. Similarly, a game such as Dead Space had the acidic tension all but ruined with the knowledge that, no matter the foe, if I died, I could merely attempt it again, penalty free. Some titles misuse the save entirely, via the heuristic ‘trial and error’ approach, where death and learning is the only way to even know that a trap or an encounter is present, so you can attempt it again after a reload forewarned and forearmed. Dead Rising 2, for example, actually encourages the player to level up, and restart with a higher level Greene, as some encounters are virtually impossible when encountered the first time.

Saving saves, save saving!

Yet, romantic aspirations aside, I exist in a deplorable realm called ‘reality’. I do not have countless hours daily to replay that Reach section sixteen times. The 8-bit and 16-bit generation got jobs, and swapped gaming time for bills, mortgages and families. Why should I have to suffer at the whim of a game designer, and have to replay stages of a game I have already mastered, just to reach the single part that was testing? Frankly, that reeks of a prolonging tactic, so the PR megaphones can tell us that the game takes twenty hours to complete. More like fifteen, with five hours of repetition. Regular game saving is as mandatory as smart design, compelling narrative and a female character whose armour is little more than a matching thong and basque (which somehow absorbs as much damage as the male character’s full plate). Developers: ff you punish me with irregular save points, and I lose an hour of gameplay per death, your game will either never be purchased, or traded within a week.

It could be argued that the very existence of a save point, or check point, is simply a convenient excuse to sever the internal consistency of the game, and allow for an overall design lacking any real vision. In many ways, the Halo universe and games is a brilliantly self-contained one, apart from the fact that, when Master Chief or Noble 6 die, they magically pop back to life, as if Paul Daniels himself were some cosmic puppeteer. No wonder Master Chief beat the Covenant, he was immortal! I appreciate that a game is a system, and modern games are designed to be finished. However, there are ways to handle the concept of the save and the reload that are subtle, and in context to the game, and which do not drag the player from the moment like a hooked fish. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time handles this with brilliance. When the Prince dies, his narrating voice informs that this is not how events transpired, and rewinds time, as if recalling his story after the events. Similarly, death in Borderlands sees your character cloned, which is smoke and mirrors for a save system, but one that has the decency to try and hide itself behind the stage curtain, like a discreet roadie. I am reminded of the classic era of the Lucasarts adventure, where the entire philosophy was based around not being able to die, and experimentation. Death, and the requisite save/load cycle, is just the pathetic sham and ersatz tension of an increasingly conceptually bankrupt psychology of game design. Marketability and profit first, mechanics second.

Modern games are wholly magnificent. Neville Chamberlain was right; we really have never had it this good. With so much detail, action and intensity, it is all too easy to become so embroiled in unloading rockets into the face of Pussface the Cat Eater that we miss the spectacle about us. Some of the set-pieces in the games of this generation deserve to be viewed several times, like any piece of silver screen cinematography. The only way to do so is to reload the section, and enjoy it once more. I replayed the train level of Uncharted 2 three times, just so I could watch the scenery, and absorb the scale of the thing. Without a solid save system, these moments would have been lost, and no game developer deserves to have their moments of brilliance seen only once. Similarly, I love emergent gameplay, and attempting the improper to see what happens. I love hurling Lara off cliffs, and blowing up my comrades and Warthogs, and I thrive on ridiculous stagecoach stunts and whore-slapping in Red Dead Redemption. All of which I can enjoy, and return to my ‘proper’ game with a simple reload.

Save some innovation in design, and the removal of the obsession with death as a ‘punishment’ condition in a game, we are the thralls of the save system for the foreseeable future. How we use it, however, will define the experience that we have. I’m just a lackwit giving my opinion, but next time you make an error, and take a game in a direction you had not intended, try working with it. Don’t just hit the Start button, and select ‘reload game’. A hard habit to break, but one with some magnificent rewards if you make the effort. Let the game guide you, and not you dictate the game progress via reloading until you get the result that you wanted.

Surface Lizard signing out. No respawns.

Surface Lizard once talked to a girl on a bus, and was slapped for making an inappropriate suggestion pertaining to a possible use for her tongue. A quicksave would have been invaluable.

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2 Comments

  1. DaveDogg says:

    i am for any game that does not allow you to save at will in a single player or co-op game a save should be made every couple of minutes with some sort of injection system back into the game should anything untoward happen (but obviously it should fit the storyline) i also think its about time that difficaulty levels were done away with and the game should tailor itself to the way your playing like left for dead

  2. DukeSkath says:

    I guess I’m at an age and crankiness level of my life that just doesn’t give much of a hoot about the intensity of the experience that is lost with Vita-Chambers or the Borderlands system (which seem pretty identical to me).

    Also: Heavy Rain sucks. (I meant to tell you — I’m totally in for that pro/con piece you suggested.)

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