Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Living with the consequences; a love affair with auto-save

Back in the days of the arcades, gaming failure carried a real world incentive; when you died, you paid up. In the transition to consoles the measure of failure remained in the form of the lives system, albeit now without the financial hit. As gaming has evolved over the last decade or so, there has been a clear shift away from this outdated system towards new ones that punish failure in more sophisticated ways.

Bankruptcy was common for gamers in the 1980's

From World of Warcraft’s degrading armour to Diablo III’s perma-death mode, there are many ways in which a game can punish you for failing, but one feature all the best punishment schemes have in common is that they are irreversible. If you die, you can’t just reload to 5 minutes earlier and make everything ok, you have to live with the consequences of disappointing the game. And here we see my favourite way of enforcing punishment on a player; forced auto-saving.

See, you didn't just waste 25 hours, your deeds will be remembered.

The main role of autosaving is taking the responsibility of remembering to save completely out of your hands, though many games will also let you create other ‘back-up’ saves; for the purposes of getting to my point let’s look at what happens when there is no back-up.

Consider Heavy Rain, Quantic Dream’s dramatic thriller, in which you only have one save file per playthrough. One thing I should mention about this game is that it is pretty darn tense, and as a result you are prone to sudden (often stupid) reactions; combine this with constant autosaving and what you have is a game where you have to deal with every mistake you make unless you want to start over.

You overlooked a key clue at a crime scene? Deal with it.
You stood on some crisps and alerted nearby threats? Deal with it.
You missed a punch and took a sledgehammer to the face? Deal with it. Also that nice detective is now dead because of you, you dick.

These will forever terrify you.

I reserve no modesty in telling you that I managed to keep all four characters alive during my first play-through  however knowing that they could (very easily) die at various points in the game added to both the tension of the game and my commitment to the characters, and I don’t believe Heavy Rain would work if you could simply undo your last move with a quick-load.

Obviously, Heavy Rain a very stylised game, but that doesn't mean this model can’t work elsewhere. Some examples of games that use auto-save successfully include X-COM’s Iron Man mode, Dark Souls and Minecraft; these games bring fear and consequence back to failure, and whilst at times this can be frustrating, I’ll never find avoiding losing a life as rewarding as avoiding losing my team-mates  my soul or my giant golden statue of Megaman.


  1. My auto-save manifests itself as quick-save that has been built into muscle memory thanks to Doom 3... Every 3 seconds - F5 F5 F5!

  2. Your level of tension and investment in a game is magnified by a sense of irreparable loss if you fail. That's part of why FTL and Isaac are so bloody good.


Enjoy the post? Got opinions? You mad? Let's hear from you!