Imagine for a moment that you have mystically acquired the ability to mark a spot in time and jump back to it at any moment when you feel like the current situation isn’t to your liking. Now go ahead and blatantly lie by saying you wouldn’t go completely mad with power. At first, you might rewind a little whenever you say something stupid, or spill your drink, or so on, using it as a convenient undo button. Give it a day tops though, and we would all be exercising our most devious and borderline sociopathic whims until all the world bows to their new all-knowing god-king.
While the consequences aren’t quite so severe as turning you into a cackling villain, games that are too generous about when you can save are similarly problematic. Being able to permanently keep even the slightest amount of positive progress, or to repeat the same sequences over and over until they are absolutely perfect can potentially suck the fun and immersion completely out of a game. No longer are their risks, no longer do you fear that nasty enemy, no longer are you nervous while navigating a dangerous area. If something goes wrong, you can just shrug your shoulders, tap a button, and channel your inner five-year-old. Nu-uh! Missed me!
Whatever a game is trying to accomplish, it can only be hurt by a player who saves too much. Going for a hardcore dungeon-crawl sort of feel? Good luck making the player afraid of your traps when they can just quicksave every five steps and load when they get impaled. Trying to create a high-stakes strategy game? Don’t expect the player to just roll with it when a bad move causes their most important unit to die for good. Aiming to tell a story where the players decisions have consequences? You just know those noncommittal assholes are going to roll back to a previous save when their choice doesn’t turn out how they like.
An unlimited instant save system undermines almost every aspect of a game’s design, from difficulty to player involvement to experimentation and discovery, and yet the alternative is often worse. Those games which arbitrarily limit when and how often the player can save usually just lead to frustration. Some games, like all the Resident Evils before 4 had the atrocious requirement of a one-use item to save at any of the designated save points scattered around. In theory, it meant the player had to find a way to get through tough situations when they were injured or low on supplies and live with their mistakes, making them genuinely fear the next enemy encounter. That works, assuming the player never dies, but only frequently comes close. As soon as the player is kicked back to their last save and realizes they have to run through that nasty part they just barely survived all over again, all sense of dread and stakes melts away in favour of controller-tossing rage. The monsters are no longer a threat, they’re just an obstacle between you and where you were, and you get sick of killing those same damn three zombies every time you want to try and fail to take down the hulking doom-beast.
Some games revel in this masochism, usually those labelled as roguelikes and marketed towards a more hardcore, self-flagellating audience. Some modern successes include The Binding of Isaac or FTL: Faster Than Light, two games in which victory is not even remotely expected on your first try, loading a previous save is never possible, and death is permanent and requires you to start again from nothing. These games work because while harsh and unforgiving, they only last an hour at most per life, so dying just means you make another attempt rather than you redo hours of tedious progress. Other games, like Diablo and its relentless parade of imitators, include the option for a ‘hardcore’ mode which deletes your save if you die. In theory it sounds like an awesome, tense way of playing the game, but is absolutely going to mean you’ll get instantly killed by some stupid, poorly designed enemy you could never have defended against after dozens of hours of careful play.
There are those games which are simply so loosely designed that they require constant saving to make sure you don’t mess anything up. Hugely open-world games need to let you save whenever, because stumbling into a nest of overpowered baddies and getting knocked back to a save point is just going to discourage the player from exploring. Games that really sell themselves on their open-ended world usually aren’t really about challenge in truth, they’re about making your own adventures, so in this case quicksaving is necessary. A sense of danger and consequence evaporates along with it, but it ensures the player actually wants to wander instead of zipping straight towards the objective as fast as possible. Having a challenging, dangerous open world where death comes suddenly, such as in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games, can make for a harrowing experience but also becomes almost unbearably frustrating without frequent saving.
Abandoning quicksaves for autosaves can be a valid strategy, but only if it’s well-implemented. At its best, it means that the player can keep their mind in the moment and not worry about saving, trying not to die but not worrying too much if they do. It can be treated as a checkpoint system, which is both frustrating when not frequent enough and runs the risk of saving the player in an impossible situation as they barely scrape by with no health left from the last section. Or it can just keep track of your character file and most recent checkpoint, as is the case in the Borderlands and Dark Souls series. Death shoots you back to the most recent checkpoint with your health refilled but your inventory not restocked, as does quitting the game. An effective method for forcing the player to tackle chunks of the game all in one go, but it can easily be mishandled if it’s not directly incorporated into the level design.
One of the most clever ways around all this, at least in a storytelling aspect, is the way The Witcher series refuses to reveal the consequences of your choices until somewhere down the road, often hours later. Players can’t simply reload to see how things could have gone differently, unless they’re willing to replay hours of game. It also refuses to let you save during combat, which is a valid restriction in any game but sometimes pretty annoying, especially when you’re not even looking to get into combat. It prevents tapping the quicksave button every time you land a good hit, but also forces repetition of harder battles from the very start.
In rare cases, games actually design difficulty levels around the ability to save. The only games that do this off the top of my head are the first two Max Payne games as well as the earlier Hitman titles. While this does make the game more difficult, and really makes the player think about whether it’s a good time to save or not, more than likely they’ll just end too afraid to save and end up dying and replaying huge chunks they shouldn’t have to. Good in theory, but it creates a weird difficulty curve and overall paranoia that maybe you’ll need those saves later, similar to how so many players refuse to use their best items just in case they need them.
Really, all of this comes from the fact that, given the ability to infinitely save and load at any moment, players will abuse the shit out of that ability no matter how it ruins their experience. Any sort of system imposed to limit saves is simply born from that irresponsibility. Sure, you can try to avoid saving all the time. You can tell yourself you’ll only do it when you really need it. You can control this habit, man. But ugh, that snake-spider thing hits so hard, you just need one quicksave in the middle of the fight. Oh, nice, you manage to hit it three times and dodge away. You’re never going to do that well against it ever again. Just one more quicksave. Only God can judge, the great final boss in the sky that he is.
Soon, before we know it, we ponder uppercutting our bosses just to see what happens, or mentally grope for the quickload button every time our suave flirting comes out as a whimpering sputter. We spiral towards a disturbing, dark world in which all sense of consequence is eradicated. Violent crime runs rampant, committed at random by those merely curious to see it. Wars break out as militaries go rogue, testing their weapons on whoever’s nearby, just to see. The bombs fall, dropped at the whims of bored leaders. Among the ashes, the survivors cry to their gods. “Save us!” they say. But there’s only one save file for humanity. And it has been overwritten.
Or maybe this is just something to keep in mind more closely, in a gaming era of weird, erratic difficulty curves and artificial challenges. My money’s still on the nuclear holocaust.