In Design Lesson, Uncategorized

I had an odd experience last night: I stayed up very late playing Fallout 3 (very fun) and as usual in such games I died an awful lot. Of course I kept reloading my save game, sometimes kicking myself for not quicksaving more regularly. At a suitable point in my game, in the wee hours of the morning, I saved everything and headed to bed, pausing only to gulp down the glass of wine that had been untouched for hours.

Now I don’t know about you but if I drink alcohol before going to sleep, especially on an empty stomach, I generally sleep for about two hours and am then wide awake staring at the ceiling for the next three or four. It’s one of those things I’ve learnt to avoid doing but there are times, like last night, that I forget. So as I drifted into alcohol-aided slumber, I caught myself regretting the merlot slowly seeping into my veins.

And then a thought occured to me… I had saved just before drinking the wine. If I just restored to that save point I could go back and make a different choice.

Sadly life doesn’t have a quicksave button and I couldn’t put my idea into action. The event, however, made me consider the interesting topic of game saving.

At first blush, the ability to save and load games would seem to belong in the ‘shell’ of the game: a utility only (along with, say, keyboard control settings) and not part of the gameplay itself. If they are implemented poorly they can be a nuiscance, but otherwise we don’t think too much about them.

However the more I think about it, the more it seems that saving and reloading play a fundamental aesthetic role in many games. They allow us to do what is impossible in real life: to go back in time and try again. In life we often ask ourselves “What would have happened if I had approached this in a different way?”. In a game, we can find out the answer.

Some gamers regard this as “cheating”. ‘Old skool’ games, which were often unrelentingly hard, rarely allowed saving. When you died, you started again from the beginning. To this day, Nethack only reluctantly implements saving — as an admission that the game is too long to win in one sitting. When you reload the game, the old save file is deleted. This is to prevent you from “save-scumming” — that is, from restarting from the same position several times to get a better outcome — and it is defended passionately by its players. If you want to be flamed, drop by and suggest that this feature should be changed.

TimBraid on the other had, takes the opposite extreme. Every action (almost) can be immediately undone with a single button press. Mistime a jump? Press ‘X’ to rewind. After playing for a while, it’s hard to return to other games without the feature.

I can see the case against: there is a value in accepting the hand that fate deals you and plowing ahead. Sometimes I am tempted to spoil my own fun by going back and replaying a scene to get the best outcome, but is this the game designer’s fault? To what degree do I need the game to police my play? This is a non-trivial question. Without constraints, there is no challenge. Without meaningful consequences, choice is irrelevant.

Still, there is something to be said for the pleasure of going back and trying it a different way. Historians, novelists and film-makers have often considered these kinds of counterfactuals (with varying degrees of seriousness). They give us insight into the cause-and-effect processes of life. Games give us an extraordinary power to make these counterfactuals real, a power we’re only just beginning to explore. I’m keen to see where it takes us.

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  • Malcolm

    Postscript: JFK Reloaded is a game entirely designed around the idea of “what-if”, whereas Execution takes the opposite extreme.

  • Mark Reid

    Another game to add to this list is the IF game shrapnel. Not so much for its use of the “save game” feature but more for its take on what it means to replay a game.

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