Free Saving Under Scrutiny

Free saving is being prosecuted for crimes against playerhood. The prosecution is pressing for a sentence of second-degree murder of the players’ enjoyment of their games.

The prosecutor’s seat will be taken by Timo Naskali, while Sami Pesola will be standing for the defense. Both shall have their say.

We will start with the prosecution, who will offer their evidence against the defendant, piece by piece, and the defense will have a chance to counter after each point.

Let us begin.

#1. Ludonarrative Dissonance

Timo: Replaying sections of a game increases ludonarrative dissonance (one of my pet peeves with games). For example, the player can experience hundreds of deaths while playing but the player-character reaches the end of the narrative alive.

Sami: Games are meant to be replayed. Savegames only decrease the time to repeat an earlier section to get back to the part you want to play again. Ludonarrative dissonance may be annoying, but it’s not nearly as mood-breaking as having to replay the entire game because of a minor slip-up!

Timo: But replaying sections of a game upon failure is not a necessity. It is possible to design games so that the story keeps moving forward even if the player fails in a challenge. If that is not an option, a well-designed checkpoint system that saves often can minimize the need for replaying without having as many downsides as free saving.

Sami: But why remove that option from the player? Having checkpoints determined automatically by the game and leaving it to the player to decide essentially amount to the same thing, the latter just has greater application than that determined by the designer alone.

#2. Greatly Diminishes Tension

Timo: It can decrease tension immensely, when losing is not an option. It is not a question of if the PC will win, but when (discounting scripted failures).

Sami: Should games not attempt to offer the player a heroic experience? Doesn’t the hero always win in most adventures, be it books, movies, or games? While it’s true that you can only feel like a hero if you’ve conquered a terrible threat, and that implies some possibility of failure, players still need the occasional leg-up to overcome the hurdles thrown at them since they are not, in actual fact, infallible heroes in real life.

Timo: Heroes usually do prevail at the end of most stories, but they also usually go through some setbacks before that. If there’s basically zero possibility of failure for the hero at any point in the story, I think that tends to lower the tension of the story.

Sami: Perhaps, but it does at least avoid the frustration that a player might not see the end of the story they are invested in, or at least not achieve the ending they were hoping for.

#3. Undermines Importance of Consequences of Player’s Actions

Timo: It decreases the importance of planning ahead and considering the consequences of your actions, when you can just wait and see what the future holds, rewind time, and adjust accordingly. E.g. there’s no reason to be wary of traps in Fallout: New Vegas; it’s a waste of time given of your ability to undo consequences so easily. So being smart, careful or perceptive usually isn’t as rewarding as it could be in games with free loading.

Sami: This seems more like a problem of overall game design, rather than saving mechanisms alone. Being able to save does not necessarily make a game easier, it just gives the player a chance to retry without resorting to needless tedium (such as replaying an entire game to get back to the same point.) Moreover, it gives the player an opportunity to learn how to get good at the game in the first place: quick repetition of a familiar scenario is one of the best ways to experiment and develop the best possible strategy.

#4. Turns the Player Into a Fortune Teller

Timo: Reloading allows the player to have knowledge which the player-character (PC) should not yet possess, and this can lead to narratively absurd situations. E.g. the PC gets betrayed by a non-player character (NPC), but then the player reloads an earlier save and shoots the traitor before he even has a chance to betray the PC – an act that only makes sense to the player who has explored the future. It’s worth mentioning though that this problem does rear its head even without free saving, when a player is replaying the game, unless randomization of these story elements is used.

Sami: There are games which are built to accommodate this behaviour, since it’s essentially no different to playing a game through for a second time altogether. Max Payne 2, for example, has an early scene where Max is being led into a trap, but the player can choose to eliminate the traitor before the ambush is sprung, with Max then remarking that “something felt fishy” – in this sense, the players precognisance is a type of “superpower” and only serves to empower the player to feel like the hero of the story.

#5. Turns the Player-Character Into a God

Timo: It can lead to a bland experience when the player-character never fails any (surmountable) challenges. Good drama demands some setbacks, but in games with free loading the player-character usually just walks from one victory to another. Only through cutscenes and “playable” sections with predestined outcomes – i.e. not actual challenges, but illusionary ones – can the player-character be forced to go through failure. But these usually ring hollow after all the gameplay before that has established the player-character as an unstoppable force.

Sami: Here is the question: should the game narrative be determined by a player’s actions, or should the narrative twists occur independent of the player’s choices? Take a player who never fails any engagement simply because they are that good: should they win the game outright in the opening minutes of the story, based on talent or even pure luck? Obviously the game must dictate some degree of pacing, regardless of the outcomes driven by the player: if the story demands that the player is brought to a low point in a narrative arc, then that outcome must be inevitable. Of course, the player should be led down that path through gameplay where feasible, but that itself could feel restrictive. I’m all for allowing as much player freedom as possible.

#6. Breaks Some Game Mechanics

Timo: It can totally break certain types of gameplay challenges, like gambling, quizzes and riddles. Sure you can still have them in a game with free loading, but it would be incredibly easy (and oh so tempting!) for the player to use save scumming to break the challenges.

Sami: I think you need to have a little more faith in the player’s integrity! Players ought to be allowed to determine for themselves the degree of challenge (or cheating) they want in the game. These are after all single-player games, and what the player decides is for their own personal enjoyment alone. If that means “breaking” the game to get a perfect score, so be it! I don’t think it’s the developers place to put pointless barriers on what the player can and can’t do. At best, it can only stop a player from cheating himself out of some experience, and at worst it can hamstring them with a situation where freely saving would be downright useful (navigating a frustratingly difficult and/or tedious segment, for example.)

Timo: I don’t think not having free saving is a pointless barrier, because the “at best” scenario can greatly hurt players’ enjoyment of challenges, while the “at worst” scenario can be avoided through good game design (why not fix that tedious segment in your game instead of adding free saving?).

Sami: It’s not tedious because it’s poorly designed, but rather that the player is being forced to play a certain way, when they might enjoy the game more in their own way. It’s a matter of more options versus less options.

#7. Forces the Player Into the Game Designer’s Seat

Timo: As a player it can be hard to figure out the line between usage of the save system that benefits one’s game experience and usage that hurts one’s game experience. It places a lot of responsibility on the player, expecting them to use the feature just often enough (as not to lose too much progress upon death or feel unsatisfied with any consequences of their actions), but never too often (as to make the game feel too easy or start feeling like a cheater). I think it could almost be likened to giving the player an over-powered weapon that could take out any opponent in one shot, and expecting them to use it just enough to not ruin their own fun.

Sami: Perhaps… but many games have outright cheat codes (or at least a developer mode) that can allow certain players to make modifications to their game experience if they so choose. Savegames are just another tool in that regard. Removing it to “protect” the player’s experience causes more problems than it solves – it’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater! As I said previously, there’s nothing wrong with allowing a player to determine the level of challenge and gameplay experience they want. They could always choose not to abuse it.

Timo: Indeed, I think that with many games free saving would be better categorized as a cheat, so as to highlight how it’s not part of the official core-mechanics of the game, and to discourage players from using it. It is true that allowing the player to tailor the game’s challenge level to their abilities is usually desirable, but I think there are better ways to do that besides the ability to save freely. Health potions come to mind.

Sami: Why stop there, then? Should we disallow the player from changing gamma settings to better see in dark scenes, or the ability to pause the game to think or simply go to the bathroom? Maybe we should only allow a player to play a game once, never to be repeated again! (There is at least one game that attempts this, I believe…) I’m more in favor of rewarding players who play a game “true and honestly” how it’s meant to be played – that’s obviously in the spirit of the design – rather than punishing those who choose to go a different route.

Closing Remarks

Timo: I would like to see more games where I’m going to lose some battles, and it’s okay! I don’t always want to just effortlessly pick my preferred story outcomes using save scumming, I want some games to demand I earn them. I want more tough love!

Heavy Rain is a good example of an alternative: no redoing failed challenges, the story goes on whether the player succeeds or not, but failing can result in story-branching. And you feel that much prouder of your achievements as a result.

Sami: I agree, actually. Like I said, I’m all for player freedom – freedom to play as you want, and the freedom to fail as well. More games should indeed carry on even if the player “fails” in a certain segment, although accommodating so many branching storylines without them becoming meaningless is a tall order… but that’s a debate for another time! Suffice it to say, savegames can be abused to the detriment of a player’s experience, but so can modding and using cheat codes, and the freedom they allow I think outweighs the potential for harm.


That’s it for this inquest, court is adjourned!

Feel free to voice your opinion on the matter in the comments section, and what you judge the verdict to be, whether in favor of Timo or Sami!