As most of us get older and can no longer enjoy the marathon gaming sessions of our ill-spent youth, we often find ourselves having to increase the number of times we do something so integral to gaming: saving. These days I save games more often than I ever have. Sometimes I can only spare half an hour here and there for my neglected consoles. This recent reliance on convenient save systems reminded me of an incident I had a few years ago with a save system, which I'm sure many other gamers could relate to.
In the dark days before Mass Effect 2's release would immediately make its predecessor quite dated, I spent a good number of hours playing the original Mass Effect. At the time I was enjoying a second play-through to gain more achievement points and, much more importantly, make my Shephard into what can only be described as a total jerk. During this tedious process of red option selecting and lengthy elevator rides, I ended up being wiped out by an end planet boss one morning. Being a competent player, this was not due to any real difficulty level during the fight but rather my lack of attention on the game, being one of the many times I have attempted to eat a meal with one hand while using an Xbox controller with the other. "That's cool", I thought to myself. "I'll just load the autosave from before the battle."
Only, there wasn't one. I'd forgotten that Mass Effect did not autosave very frequently, leaving manual save as the only option the majority of the time. By this point, numerous games had trained me not to worry about saving. I was so used to the "safety net" of autosave functions that the split-second interruption of menu saving before a battle seemed like the highest of inconveniences. This was a far cry from my earliest days as a PC gamer, furiously saving before and after every action playing Sierra's Space Quest and King's Quest series, where the smallest mistake meant a restart. Upon discovering that I would have to redo the last three hours I'd spent on Mass Effect, I promptly removed the disc from my Xbox 360 and sold it that day. In retrospect, having to drive the Mako for a large portion of the section I was expected to replay might have added to my frustration levels.
Save systems are a strange lot. Sometimes they can be very limited, like most Japanese role playing games which often only allow you to save in specific areas. I have to admit, these were always great for fooling unwary parents or partners into letting you play just a little bit longer. I can't count the amount of times I've uttered the phrase "I can't stop now, I need to get to a save point!". Unfortunately, my mother eventually caught on to what the shining blue question marks were in Final Fantasy VII and the jig was up.
Other save systems seem to save almost too frequently. For example, Skyrim's autosave function can sometimes feel like it's working every time you turn your character around, although this can be a blessing given the numerous bugs it shipped with. I feel like it is the strange hybrid model adopted by BioShock 1 and 2, Mass Effect and many other games which fails to work for me. Often I won't bother to make a manual save, instead relying on the present autosave function to do the job for me. The problem arises when an autosave function only kicks in after 2-4 hour sections of the game are completed.
As with Mass Effect, during a secondary play-through of BioShock 2 I lost a rare five-hour gaming session due to a manual save attempt freezing my console, corrupting the save in the process. To top this off, BioShock 2 is again a title which autosaves only at the start of each game area. You can imagine the terror this inspired in me when not only was there an uncontrollable autosave feature, but a deranged manual save system to boot. Every time I saved the game thereafter it always seemed to take a fraction too long, inspiring that 'frozen console' panic we've all been through when a stubborn loading bar doesn't want to move.
I think the bottom line for save systems in modern games is flexibility: If there's an autosave feature, let the player select when it comes into effect. Despite its frequent saving on the default settings, at least Skyrim lets the player customise it's autosave function to a degree. Most players would agree that the old Dragon Quest/Final Fantasy style save points are a complete inconvenience to modern gamers and need to be abolished in favour of a more flexible system as well. I can understand the inability to save during combat situations in a game given the corner you can back yourself into, but not for any other point during play.
To any developers out there listening, on behalf of myself and my fellow gamers, I only ask that you let us save when we wish. And please throw in a customisable autosave feature to back us up. Also, if you want to be extra awesome, implement one of those nice one-button quick save features that PC players have been exploiting, I mean enjoying, for years.
- Stephen Foote
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