In 2012, Jenn Frank wrote about how she rediscovered some floppy disks carrying some of her Norn creations from the artificial life simulation Creatures (Millennium Interactive, 1996). She saw them as coffins. She sent her Norns into stasis on floppy disks but they never woke up; she had murdered her brood.
Save games. A thorny subject for sure. In 1981, we might have asked whether a man was not entitled to the control of his own leisure time. ‘No!’ said the developer from his office cubicle. But we are not in 1981 any more. In 2014, I should be able to do anything I want, whenever I want, with whomever I want, multiple times. Not only can I do whatever I want but I can also shout at people on the internet for doing whatever they want. This is liberty.
The save game is one of the most important innovations in game design. It’s also a promise to the developer that we’re coming back.
But why do we sometimes break that promise?
Let’s talk about glitch. Glitch is chic right now. Glitch is a cooler word for bugs, which means bugs are cool, provided you call them glitches. Over the last few years, we have seen games that appropriate bugs, I mean glitches, as a component of game design. Many of these are glitches by design so according to a, well, precise definition, a glitch programmed on purpose cannot be a glitch at all. So being glitchy is a style, a fashion.
Fjords (Kyle Reimergartin, 2013) is glitchy. It’s also part of the Sharecart 1001, a package of games that all share the same save file. I never even heard of the Sharecart idea before I played Fjords. What happened is that I read some words boasting that Fjords was marvellous and then I saw a trailer and then I thought I really want to see this crazy de jour.
Fjords resembles explorer-platformers from the 80s and is complete with all sorts of “bugs”. If you fall off the bottom of the screen, you might end up somewhere unexpected. Every time the player uses the warp ability, small pieces of lethal, twisted reality will remain and clog up the screen. It’s similar to games like You Say Jump I Say How High (Pippin Barr, 2012) where the player can only make progress by controlling the parameters of the game: in Fjords, the player is expected to “reconfigure” the game reality to get about. Fjords is also a bit Inception as there are worlds within worlds within worlds.
I found Fjords hard work – coming up with the right reality configuration to go from A to B was not always straightforward. I decided I had to scribble down a map to keep track of progress. The glitchy theme meant there could be secrets hidden everywhere. I saved my progress and quit so I could work on a “formal” play session later.
Weeks went by.
Corrypt (Michael Brough, 2012) played out a similar way. It starts off like a claustrophobic Sokoban clone with some entertaining puzzles and then the world glitches. I’m going to have to spoil something for you, here. A single block of the world is distorted, glitched permanently, even if you move from room to room. That’s certainly interesting but what freaked me out was the game’s next move: it gave me the power to glitch what I wanted.
It felt like I needed to solve all of the puzzles at the same time. It blew me away. Fuck me, this is the next level, I thought. I exclaimed on Twitter “Oh my God, @smestorp #corrypt”.
I couldn’t just potter around any more, I had to take it seriously. I quit the game, intending to return to my saved game later, when I was ready for its challenge.
It is a year on and the Corrypt shortcut in the corner of my desktop has not been clicked since.
I’ve also previously written about how I abandoned my avatar Gwaul in Mount & Blade (TaleWorlds Entertainment, 2008). The character who I’d invested many hours in had painted herself into a political corner and her story had become unplayable. The save game was her grave.
This can even happen in an FPS. I tell myself every time not to save the game before a difficult battle – save the game before an easy, exploratory section. Something with puppies and flowers. That’s a proper save point, you know. But I just can’t help myself. I keep playing through the puppies and flowers and it’s always the challenge that interferes with progress, the challenge that dictates when I stop playing. It’s dangerous because I associate the memory of a hard struggle with the game. Sometimes I can’t face opening the game again because it doesn’t sound like fun. Like when I played Zeno Clash (ACE Team, 2009) but realised I was pretty bad at the melee combat. I’ll come back to this later, I lied to myself, when I’m not so tired.
If kids demand games that take ten or more hours to play, the save game is essential. But it has another role, too. It allows us self-deceit. It allows us to quit without having to make the decision to quit.
Some of us complete every game we download. Some of us grow up. Not every game is deserving of completion. Not every game is suited for our particular personality type. If I’m grinding in a game for too long, I find it difficult to return to. That’s probably a good thing. If you’re looking for the definition of a game, you won’t find that motherfucker under “grind”.
But for every self-deception there’s also a nefarious self-deception-deception. I get depressed every time someone gives up on Cart Life (Richard Hofmeier, 2011) because they say it’s depressing. Every time someone tweets that, an angel gets their wings cleaved off with a blunt spoon smothered in chilli. “I gave up on Schindler’s List because it was a fucking downer with all those Jews getting killed. Why would I watch that?”
You’re never short of experience. Twitter is full of experience every single minute. And every day, new games are being published, many cheap and many free. There’s no excuse not to be experiencing something. The save game gives us pause and escape. But it’s also easy on us. Perhaps it takes more guts than we admit to follow through on a game. There are always choices. We all love choice, don’t we? Choice is the fuck. Infinite monkeys on infinite controllers. Someone out there is playing the perfect game and it isn’t me. I should play something else. I am playing something else.
I finished Fjords. I drew a little map and the game ended more quickly that I expected. I enjoyed working through it but the ending was tinged with relief. Fjords has so many little secrets and, as it makes you work for them, I knew I hadn’t seen everything. Just thinking about collecting every piece of pizza made me feel nauseous. I’d done enough. It was good enough. Look, it’s okay for a game to remain unknowable after completion. Shhh. Hush now. Hush.
I don’t want to educate people into believing they have to finish games. But I don’t want people to walk out on Schindler’s List or put down Atonement halfway through. No, screw that. Atonement was a tedious asshole of a book. I read a third of Atonement on the commute and put that piece of shit down for two years. Then I forced myself to finish it, expecting to realise it was all worth it. It was not all worth it and your long flowery sentences wasted my time, Ian McEwan. Never use twenty-seven words when one will do, Ian McEwan. Hush now.
In a world where designers are exploiting human psychology to make games more addictive, the save game is the only friend we have. We need friends in a world like this. It’s a war zone out there. We decided to give up paying for games so the developers took the war to our wallets. Maybe the save game is a way to save games. Obi-Wan, it’s our only hope.
I don’t know how to end this article. Are save games vital or do they take away a game’s sharp bite when it demands a little spunk? I don’t know. I need to think about it a bit more.
Think I’ll save this document and come back to it tomorrow.