The Lost Art of Saving

By Kotaku on at

By Alan Wen

The modern videogame has rendered the save point a relic of the past, and many would say for good reason. We’ve all had those soul-destroying moments of forgetting to save over an hour ago in the last village, and a nasty ambush wiping out your party - and all that precious time and progress. No one’s got the patience for that anymore, and why should we.

Likewise, when immersed in a narrative-driven action set piece, it’s understandable we’d rather be saving the day while the save system does its job quietly in the background. Saving has become as much a modern convenience as contactless, one-click ordering or on-demand services. But does that make Much like how the convenience of online retail is destroying high streets in the real world, might we look back and regret what was lost?

I’m probably coming off as a romanticising nostalgist and, to be fair, there’s plenty of save systems that have earned their place in history’s dustbin. But even its basic form in Final Fantasy was always a welcoming sight after a tough slog of random battles, with some also well-placed to telegraph a major boss battle - becoming almost markers for you, a clue from the developer that was always heeded. In the right kind of setting, a save point can create anticipation as well as perform a function.

Ico

One of my favourite save points is from Ico: both characters sit down on a ethereal couch. Sure, there’s no logical reason why a forbidden castle would be littered with couches, but it’s charming because, instead of some abstract menu, this is a tactile object in the game world. Being a two-seater also reinforces the bond between the two characters, since you both have to be seated in order to save, so Ico is still required to either call Yorda over or make a path for her to reach the couch.

Resident Evil’s typewriters are probably one of the most iconic save systems, and suitably archaic along with the rest of the Spencer Mansion. The magic touch, of course, is that they also require an ink ribbon to work. What should be a given function turns out to be as much of a finite resource as your ammo and healing items, and even takes up one of your precious inventory slots.

There’s no clear-cut solution: risk leaving a ribbon behind and you may find yourself backtracking through potential danger to recover it later; over-using them can leave you without the ability to save at all for a long stretch. No doubt this was a source of frustration for some players, but that the game mechanics extends to managing this function makes it all the more meaningful, putting the choice and responsibility on you. It fits because of the kind of game this is, feeding into the tension of trying to survive the mansion’s horrors, and part of the wonderful release when you open a new door and hear that calm soothing music of safety.

It might be an obvious pun, but having your save room as a safe room away from everything else trying to kill you is classic game design, especially in Metroidvania-style games. They neatly punctuate the action with a space for you to take a breather. In more creative cases, it adds character to an otherwise rudimentary process. It doesn’t get much better than in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, which has Alucard saving progress by sleeping in a coffin because - as a half-vampire and son of Dracula - of course he would.

Monster Hunter

On the opposite end of the spectrum of class is No More Heroes’ Travis Touchdown, who takes five by dropping his trousers to take a dump. Still, you can’t say it’s lacking in personality or detail, with toilets varying from the plush to the grotty, and of course the bathroom in his own motel room naturally stocked with spare rolls. Even your save files are scrawled on toilet paper.

Is it a coincidence that the games I’ve mentioned so far are Japanese in origin? Japanese games can often seem to have more personality than their Western counterparts, but maybe this is also about Japan being a more overtly ritualistic society. I don’t just mean the solemn religious type - rituals as simple as a handshake, a work hierarchy’s behaviour, or buying something in a shop and having it neatly-wrapped. Similarly, it’s the extra details and care to attention that can give meaning to the seemingly mundane act of saving.

It may seem an obtuse requirement in Dragon Quest VIII to have to save in a church but it’s consistently grounded in the game’s reality, and there’s something inherently amusing about your actions being recorded as a confession. In Ico, you don’t just save the game, you’re both taking a brief respite from the castle’s oppression on a couch that connotes comfort (it’s also touching that when you load up a game, they’re clearly just waking up, heads drooping next to each other). And although in Monster Hunter you do have an option to save after completing a quest, for me it’s just far more satisfying to have my hunter jump up and backwards into bed after a long hard day’s hunt. In contrast, replacing these with auto-saves or menus, while perfectly serviceable, leave me a bit cold.

Earthbound

Perhaps the game with the most human touch is Earthbound. While it does follow the JRPG template of using hotels to rest when you visit a new town, saving the game actually requires you to use a phone to call your dad. Besides recording your progress followed with a few assuring words, he also adds money to your bank account and occasionally calls you with a gentle reminder to take a break, which all adds up to paint a picture of a character who, despite being absent in person, is always looking out for you like a good dad should.

That’s not to say that Western games are lacking in their own personality and artistic flourishes. Modern AAA studios do however tend to focus their resources on creating immersive detailed environments, and putting as few ‘barriers’ as possible in front of the player. It’s understandable they prioritise functionality and convenience in a save system.

There is at least one exception worth celebrating. Alien: Isolation is probably the only game in recent memory to make saving a manual-only function, yet also subverts the concept of having it as a safe space. Because on board a space station where an 8-foot xenomorph is hunting you, nowhere is safe. Instead of calm music, the only audio to provide any sort of relief are three agonisingly slow beeps that come from the terminal you’ve just punched in an access card to activate, which all happens before the save is recorded. What you really don’t want to hear is the sound of the alien right behind you, lest you find yourself essentially trapped in an instant-death loop. It may have caused a pretty divisive reaction among players, especially those accustomed to control over something so basically a given. Yet I can only applaud Creative Assembly for sticking to their vision of maintaining a terrifyingly immersive experience, making the act bound by the core mechanics. In save, no-one can hear you scream.

Alien Isolation

This remains unusual, and it’s not hard to understand why. Even modern Japanese games have more leeway and checkpointing to accompany ‘hard’ saves. Game design is far more player-centred than ever, so there’s naturally more focus on control and convenience, even if it compromises the ‘intended’ gameplay - which is the only reason I can think why a game like XCOM 2, where permadeath is so fundamental, is happy to allow save-scumming.

Unsurprisingly, the 3DS version of Dragon Quest VIII lets you quicksave instead of seeking the nearest church. Final Fantasy XV, adopting Western designs wholesale, also eschews save points for auto-saving, though ends up creating another of its thousands of inconsistencies by checkpointing certain boss fights but not saving progress in a dungeon at all. And my love for the Ico save couch meant a slight pang of disappointment that another unique approach wasn’t a part of The Last Guardian. I suppose, in practical terms, as one other thing you’d need to coax Trico into doing it may have been a big ask. When Suda 51 brings Travis Touchdown back on the Nintendo Switch, will it also be without his bathroom breaks? Even indie games that indulge in retro designs don’t want to bring back save points.

On the other hand, Resident Evil 7 brings back a physical way of saving in the form of a tape recorder, a little update to the typewriter with a gorgeous clack-and-whirr as you click to confirm. It may seem a fairly shallow nod, given how the game soft-saves every inch of your progress anyway. But upon beating the campaign you’ll unlock Madhouse mode, which introduces cassette tapes that you need in order to save, and just like the ink ribbons of old they’re limited. It’s telling that this option isn’t available from the start and only for the highest difficulty, of course, because only those pining for the ‘good old days’ need enter the madhouse.

We may have to finish with Dark Souls, for which I apologise, for a little inspiration about a future where form and function blend a little more easily. Technically the game lets you save at any time or spot when you quit the game. In fact it takes a unique approach by saving at virtually all times, though death will still send you back to the last checkpoint. The checkpoints are however one of the most iconic in modern games, the flickering embers of the bonfire, your place of refuge to heal but also restore all the threats you thought you had just defeated.

RE7

Conversely, by saving everything that happens, including any blunders, any item you wasted or NPC you’d unwittingly chosen to cross, this level of consistency allows the game to maintain its uncompromising fairness, preventing save-scumming but keeping the progress that matters, like newly acquired items or access to a shortcut. Every decision made while you’re in that world is recorded, sometimes to surprising effect, and this creates a bubble around the whole experience.

It also means that, in this harsh and unforgiving land, the significance and warmth of these bonfires never diminish. Ironically, when you can ‘save’ anywhere, you wouldn’t choose anywhere else to rest.