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High Horse: Save yourself by not saving your game

High Horse is a rotating opinion column in which GamesRadar editors and guest writers are invited to express their personal thoughts on games, the people who play them and the industry at large.

You’re ruining your Skyrim game. No, really. You’re playing it wrong. Trust me.

I can see it now. You load up your character, set off into this vast new world. You spot someone that you’re going to have a conversation with. So you save your game. When the conversation doesn’t go the way you wanted it to, you reload that save and give it another shot. This time, you succeed in getting what you want. Satisfied, you move on.

You spot a dragon. Before it burns you to a crisp, you flip open the options menu and save your game. It burns you to a crisp. You reload and try again. This time, you survive for a couple minutes before you’re burned you to a crisp. You reload again. Finally, after a marathon fight, you’re able to take him down. Feeling like you’ve accomplished something, you head back to town to lick your wounds.

Here’s the problem with these scenarios: None of what you just did means anything. Your decisions hold no weight. Every time you time-travel, you’re undermining your own experience. If these open-world games allow for each player to experience his or her own story, his or her own world, then that means that player has to be willing to let the game do that. What that means is that players have to allow for failure. 

This is why open-world games with branching choices tend to lose me. The very possibility of going back and changing the result of some huge decision makes that decision feel trivial and unimportant. 

Let’s think about the traditional hero’s journey (or monomyth, if you’re feeling fancy) for a moment. In Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he argues that each character, in order to truly become heroic, must proceed through a series of trials. Often, these figures fail at least one of the tasks. It adds drama, creates imperfect and believable characters, and generally improves the reader’s (or viewer’s, or player’s) connection with the character.

So what if, say, Peter Parker had stopped the thief that ended up killing Uncle Ben? Or what if Luke Skywalker had succeeded in suppressing his desire for revenge in The Empire Strikes Back? Slight geek pandering aside, these characters would not have been nearly as interesting had they acted perfectly throughout their road to heroism. Nor would they have been terribly believable.

Why don’t we want to go through the same transformation? Is our obsession with seeing all the content in our game worth sacrificing what could be a powerful narrative with a compelling lead character? 

Creating multiple save files is equally undermining. There’s no value in the outcome of a difficult situation if you’re able to see all possible results. As soon as a player realizes that the result of their actions is the only one they’re going to get, then all of a sudden their actions mean something. They carry serious weight. 

One of the biggest criticisms of L.A. Noire is that, upon failing an interrogation, players often missed large chunks of the story. Critics condemned the practice as unfair to the player and a huge problem with the way that the game told its story. Personally, I’d love to see that concept expanded upon. If you fail to attain the proper information to apprehend the truly guilty criminal, there should be consequences. Granted, L.A. Noire’s method of levying those consequences was fairly haphazard, but if the concept had been allowed to flourish, it could have resulted in enormously intense situations. Let’s embrace the idea of games punishing players for failure, not run from it.

Above: You reloaded these saves more than a few times, didn’t you? Yeah, that’s what I thought

Recently, Dark Souls got it right. Sure, you can create multiple save files, but there’s no chance to have those files branch. Any time anything is attained or lost, the game automatically overwrites the current save file. So if you screw up and lose those 30,000 souls you were carrying around, tough luck. Sure, it may make you want to throw your controller through the nearest window, but you’ll certainly do your best to make sure it doesn’t happen again, won’t you?

The best solution I can come up with to fix this little problem is for developers to stop allowing multiple save files and quick saves. The very presence of these options cheapens the experiences that they’re working so hard to create. It doesn’t matter that one could simply ignore the ability to erase decisions made and change their ultimate results. Only when players are forced to live with their choices will their stories begin to matter.

Taylor Cocke is a freelance games critic who resides in Oakland, CA. He's written for Official Xbox Magazine, Joystiq, Playstation: The Official Magazine, 1UP, and a slew of others. He drinks way too much coffee. Follow him on Twitter @taylorcocke. He promises not to quote Kids in the Hall too much.

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65 comments

  • Shinard - November 25, 2011 1:18 p.m.

    Fair point, but multiple saves are important. I like having a bunch of Oblivion characters, none overlapping but each following their own paths. And reloading saves before a fight? You think if we die we should just quit playing that save file? Maybe set save points, like in Shadow Of The Colossus would be an alternative. See how many people rely on quick save to get them out of mistakes then.
  • FlyinMachine - November 14, 2011 10:19 a.m.

    I half agree with it, only. Saving before fights makes absolute sense. I hate having to replay certain parts--Everyone does... I usually don't reload any failed conversations or events, though... Like Lydia, for example. When she died, I left her dead. I didn't reload my save or anything. Regardless, I don't think developers really plan for the whole "dynamic and interesting character" sorta thing all that much... If your companion dies, you can't exactly bury them and mourn their grave. You just go on and forget about 'em. People want the most out of their games so I don't think it TOO wrong to ask for that... Even in wide and open ended games, there usually is just one very right thing to do. So, I don't think punishing players is the right of the way, so much as encouraging players to live with their choices, but allowing them to fix mistakes and flourish from their errors.
  • mothbanquet - November 14, 2011 10:15 a.m.

    I agree with you to a point, Taylor, but already I've fallen victim to many hazards Skyrim has thrown my way and learned through hard experience to save relatively often. This isn't because I wish to have a 'perfect run', it's simply because I don't have the time to redo hours of work in some cases, just to be undone by one single fight. I do understand the beauty of such a thing, however. I do see that part of being immersed in a character and world is knowing your limits - which is why the game gives you a sprint button. My squishy rogue is good at knowing which fights he can and can't win and you have to lever every sneaky advantage you can get to assure victory - this is part of the awesomeness and I recognise that. The bottom line though, is that I've played many horribly difficult and unforgiving games in my life but I don't want Skyrim to be one of them. I want to learn from my mistakes but at the same time I'd like to save as much of my precious free time as I can doing it. And let's face it, with a game as dauntingly huge as Skyrim, if you went back to the title screen every time you died you'd never get through it.
  • webomaryhoptoe - November 13, 2011 8:04 p.m.

    Every time I sit down to play a game, I don't want it to have anything to do with reality. If that means I want to see things in a certain way and I create many saves, then so be it. Developers will be shooting themselves in the face if they take choice out of games. If gamers don't have choice, then what's the point of gaming? Hardcore gamers who want that kind of experience can do what they want, the glitch exploiters can do what the want, and the multiple save creaters can do what they want. It's a game.
  • talleyXIV - November 13, 2011 1:42 p.m.

    I get mad when I die at a Zelda boss and have to walk through the whole dungeon back to it. So this is probably the worst idea I have ever heard. Article sounded like this "Derp derp derp, don't save. Games journalist don't know anything about video games, don't save. Derp."
  • Syncmaster - November 13, 2011 10:53 a.m.

    my opinion: there should be no punishing just for the sake of punishing. only branching. If you choose the answer A over B, both are correct, only the way things happen will be different. there should be no fail option in a conversation. one game series that does this masterfully is The Witcher. every choice is morally gray and leads to different outcomes, some right after the conversation, some many hours later, preventing any type of save file reload. more developers should do like this. and whats even more awesome is that the consequences of your actions go far beyond what you expected when the choice was given, bitchslaping you in the face every time.
  • ColaFlavourChewits - November 13, 2011 12:03 a.m.

    I certainly agree with the concept put forward in the article; when I was younger I had an obsession with seeing absolutely everything a game had to offer on the first playthrough and managed to damage the narrative impact in the process; finishing it felt like completing a day at work rather than a satisfying conclusion to the story. Now, especially where RPGs are concerned, I like to come up with an idea for a character and then act as I imagine they would, consequences and all. For example, I am playing through Skyrim as a Nord who has similar beliefs to the Stormcloaks (Skyrim should be ruled by the Nords and all that). This leads to me using agressive dialogue in some situations that is counter to my own personality, but it helps to reinforce the narrative by having a flawed character (not to imply that I'm not flawed, just that fortunately most games don't allow for the kind of character flaws I teem with!). However, I don't agree that saving should be restricted in any manner; quite the opposite in fact. Many gamers are getting on a bit, like myself, and will likely have a family. Thus, being able to save instantly wherever you are is pretty important when you could be interrupted at any time. I would prefer that all games have a quick save so I can just save and quit at a moment's notice without having to get to the next checkpoint. Still, for me at least the base idea presented in the article is a sound one, though I imagine for those that prefer a completionist approach the narrative is not all that important; the developer needs to make the game enjoyable for as many personalities as possible if they are going to get the sales.
  • quincytheodore - November 12, 2011 10:57 p.m.

    I understand what you mean, but it won't be happening soon, especially in the current gen. There is always mindset that lack of saves = more needless time consuming gameplay. After all if you die, than have to re-track your path for 10 minutes and doing the same thing, that would make the experience redundant. And that's what game developers are trying to avoid. I agree about L.A. Noire though, having consequence does improve the gamplay, but not everyone can enjoy it. So maybe some compromises have to be make to ensure the balance between experience and accessibility. It can be done though. 1. Few savepoints. For the thrill, especially in games like Dead Space or Resident Evil, less save is definitely more thrilling. Disperse the savepoints few and quite far, but not necessarily annoyingly far. Or limit the chance of saving, like ink ribbons, but provided them as many as it can without being abused. 2. One save file. Every time I play a game, I usually only have one save file, occasionally two just for back-up in case the first is broken(mostly for RPG0. If you have multiple save files, it'll deter the risk factor, you'll overthink your decision and the game become too constructed as if you're trying to overcome the mechanism or even abuse it to reduce the difficulty. 3. Reward and punishment. Granted it might be more suitable for more story oriented games. Something like Heavy Rain, everything you do affects the outcome. Suck it up if you mess up and don't go crying and retry. If it's too demanding, something like AC : Brotherhood full synchro condition will do. Specifically, no damage for a mission objective. If you fail that, all is not lost, but you can't 100% complete it, it does a fine job of tracking your progress even if you retry. It all comes down to how you want to play it, some of gamers enjoy playing it more casually, some don't have time or patience to redo most of the scenes. And it's okay. There's no 'playing it wrong' as long as it's still in the boundary of the game, just 'playing it differently'.
  • FOZ - November 12, 2011 9:47 p.m.

    1. Not allowing multiple saves is a stucking TERRIBLE, TERRIBLE, TERRIBLE IDEA. We are not all single childs or self-centered pricks who don't let anyone else play our games. Second, you need to back your game up in case of a disaster. Or you want save at a particularly interesting section in a game that doesn't have a level select. Awful idea, completely out of touch with the people who play games. 2. No quick saves. Not gonna happen. No. This doesn't even make sense. The games that want to punish you for failure, guess what? THEY DON'T HAVE QUICK SAVES. How the hell can you bring up Dark Souls, a game that would NEVER have quick saves, as an example of "getting it right?" What games are you playing? I want to see things multiple times. I do not want to play through 10+ hours of Skyrim or New Vegas just to change ONE decision, I want to see what different branches of the quest offer. This is asinine. If you want to live with your options, YOU CHOOSE TO. Developers give players choice. That's how it should be. If they don't want to, they make Dark Souls, or Monster Hunter, or a save system like Zelda, where you can save your status but return to the start of the dungeon.
  • mothbanquet - November 14, 2011 10:19 a.m.

    Chill dude.
  • EBAX1 - November 12, 2011 9:36 p.m.

    This is a good point. Although I don't agree that you shouldn't save before battles, because if you die your going to just do the fight again. I do agree that players shouldn't reload if they make a choice they regret, because it ruins the whole point of having to make choices. Very well written article
  • vekrote - November 12, 2011 3:54 p.m.

    As I have learned the hard way multiple times, having only a single save makes the ever-present fear of data corruption infinitely worse. I'd rather have a few saves along the line of the story as a safety net instead of oh, lets say, losing over 90 hours worth of progress in Borderlands due to a random-a$$ power outage.
  • casXey - November 12, 2011 3:34 p.m.

    Great Article. I only did this once so far for a misc quest with really no bad outcome.
  • KishouTenpi - November 12, 2011 10:02 a.m.

    I understand completely! Whilst I do save before big battles / key moments, the more I have to replay them, the less I feel excited or elated, quite often I just berate myself for having to reload, only when I make it through a boss battle or a swarm first time do I think "Wow, that was great". But essentially, I believe saving is important in todays branched pathways and Achievement run society
  • ParanoidAndroid - November 12, 2011 9:40 a.m.

    So instead of respawning 10 seconds before a big battle, we should respawn 2 minutes beforehand? Super...
  • number1hitjam - November 12, 2011 8:34 p.m.

    seriously. And believe me I've gone for a long time without saving and when I die it makes it even more immersion breaking because I have to repeat a ton of stuff over again. Dark Souls is different because you keep all your items and can recover experience when you die, but Skyrim doesn't really have room for this kind of play style. Also this article begins by critiquing player style and ends by critiquing game mechanics as though it's one single thing. Sloppy work GR, I expect better from you.
  • RonnyLive19881 - November 12, 2011 6:48 a.m.

    I'm sorry but I had the time to play LA Noir all the way through how ever many time it would take me to get the conversations right I'd probably be a game reviewer too. Making games inaccessible like that makes playing really unfair to people that have little time to play them and they don't get the full story. I had to look up an FAQ for some of LA Noir just to make sure I got everything done the first time through because I didn't have time(I had to stay away from dark sould as much as I wanted to play it Lol). Luckily my job bogs down during the fall and winter Lol, I'll have time to play Skyward Sword and Skyrim "right" I guess.
  • RonnyLive19881 - November 12, 2011 6:49 a.m.

    *Souls
  • ivanho163 - November 12, 2011 6:21 a.m.

    I believe it is crucial for games to have the ABILITY to save anytime with as many saves as you want, but I agree it's not ideal for the personal story. But here's an idea: Add a "hardcore" mode that follows the convention stated in the article, and give some kind of reward to players who use it.
  • Mnemosis - December 4, 2011 12:51 a.m.

    As I worked my way through the comments, this was all I could think of. Brilliant! Taking out saves/multiple saves/quick saves for everyone, all the time, would be kind of ridiculous. But, to create an option of a hardcore mode? That would make perfect sense. The first Deus Ex did SOMETHING along these lines with "Realistic" difficulty where you could get taken out with a single well placed shot. Not the same, no, but the same sort of experience-altering difficulty level.

Showing 1-20 of 65 comments

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