Stop me if this sounds familiar.
When I first played Far Cry 3, I played it on the hardest difficulty, because I was, you know, HARD CORE. But I also quick saved every ten seconds, literally after I killed any enemy, because the game was even more HARD CORE. This led to a bizarre and disjointed play experience, where I would contrast moments of high intensity with samey, grinding repetition. There was both low intensity (nothing was ever at stake, I’d lose at most ten seconds of progress) but also very irritating and grindy, because honestly the difficulty was just too high. But players will always do things that make them feel good about themselves (set difficulty to higher than ideal) and help them win (use quicksave every ten seconds like a goddamn winning coward) even if this results in a less than optimal play experience.
How do we get out of this quagmire?
Roguelikes and Dark Souls.
Roguelikes have taken the world by storm for many reasons, but I see two as being particularly potent from a design perspective. The first is randomness, which means that they are proper game systems, the system is a bit different every time, the problem the player is presented subtly remixed to keep gameplay fresh and interesting. The second is permadeath.
Permadeath is the roguelike’s answer to the lack of tension we see in AAA. You can go on infinite runs; each run will be a little different, so you don’t get bored; the systems are fair (in a well designed roguelike anyway) so you don’t get frustrated; and the results of your mistakes are permanent, so your tension remains high, and your attention focused throughout.
This has led other, non-roguelike genres to co-opt these save features into a less punishing variant I call “save and quit.” In these games, you can save whenever you want, but you can only save once, and anytime you save, you overwrite your previous save file. Many crafting games use this system.
One such game is Subnautica, wherein you can save at any point, but it will save over your previous save. In this game, there is another factor to increase the tension- the potential loss of your crafted ships.
You can craft ships in Subnautica to explore deeper and deeper into the ocean, and there are creatures down there who can damage and destroy those ships. The tension here comes from an interesting place- the real life time it takes to gather the resources to make those ships and outfit them with the modules needed to reach those depths. It actually made me much more conservative and tense about using my ships, especially my giant submarine, the Chimaera (and later, sadly, the Chimaera II after the first one was lost in the aptly named Lost River).
Strangely, even though I lost a personal sub and my Chimaera to the depths of that game, I was never tempted to save scum and go back to reclaim them. For some psychological reason, maybe even just the save and quit nature of the system, I followed the system and had a better time for it. I lost my ships but I had interesting stories of how they were damaged and destroyed, both of them. While it was annoying to have to get the resources back to craft new ones, the tension throughout my adventures and the stories I got from their destruction were to me more than worth it.
The other new save system is that pioneered by Demon and Dark Souls, and later co-opted by many indie games, such as Shovel Knight and Hollow Knight. In this system, the save points are fixed places the designers lay down (bonfires, checkpoints and benches, respectively) and players cannot save outside those locations. This also generates tension, especially in Dark Souls and Hollow Knight, as these are exploration games, and you don’t know when you will find a save point versus having to fight a boss or go through a gauntlet of enemies, far from your last save.
This also allows designers to make saving a mechanic, one they can subvert when they want to. In Shovel Knight, you can destroy checkpoints to get more loot, but this makes the game potentially harder for you as you will have more backtracking if you die. It’s a way to let the player dynamically change the difficulty. In Hollow Knight by contrast, the designers want to let you know this is a dangerous and unpredictable world, so occasionally the benches are not benches, and lead instead to boss fights, or something else…
These moments stand out, and reinforce the message that this is a cruel world that is trying to kill you if you let it. These moments of mechanical subversion are only possible because the game has this set and fixed save system.
Both these systems bring back the inherent tension and risk to playing games. We need to throw out the quick save and the auto save. They destroy tension and risk in the name of smoothness and ease of play. There is an emptiness to that, which to my mind parallels the emptiness in many AAA game campaigns and experiences. There is nothing at stake. How rewarding can these games be when the risks are so trivial?
This is one of the reasons I think Dark Souls and Hollow Knight have been so successful. They both allow us to explore a vast and ancient world with its own secrets and surprises that is largely indifferent or hostile to our presence. They allow us to be small again, to be bit players in a world greater and more tragic than we know. This makes the world feel that much bigger, and the experience that much more immersive. The way we save in these games, the rush of relief when we see that bench or bonfire, just adds another element to why these games are brilliant. Roguelikes and Soulslikes have solved this problem. The tension is back.