What will save you?

Having talked about combat for a few weeks I will now move onto something else: Save systems in horror games. I will briefly discuss the various save systems available and how they affect the scare factor. But before doing that I would like to give a quick overview of goals of a save system.

Save systems come in many varieties and basically fill two functions:

  1. Record progress when the player chooses to turn off the game.
  2. To give the player some a starting point after “dying” (or what ever constitutes failure).

Note that in almost all new games the two are connected. But in many older games, the “death save” happened at the start of the level, but the progress was never saved when the game was turned off. Instead, turning off the game meant restarting. The reason for having this system is to increase difficulty in games and the place of the “save” is as such a measure of the penalty for failure. It is this penalty save (type no 2) that I will focus on in this post, and not saving as a progress recorder (type no 1) .

Now for a quick overview on the different types:

Save Anywhere

This type of save is pretty much self-explanatory – players can save whenever they want. Ever since PC’s had large enough hard drives (at least Wolfenstein 3D days), this have been the de facto save system for PC gamers, and games not using it have often gotten harsh reviews because of it. One of those games is Penumbra, but I think that we did right thing to not use this save system, on the grounds that saving anywhere severely lowers the fear factor.

Our reasons for not using the save anywhere system are several. The two top reasons are:

  1. The saving becomes a part of the gameplay and breaks the mood. Unless you can work the save system seamlessly into the game world, then the immersion is broken every time the game has to be saved and less immersion will mean less fear.
  2. The fear of death becomes virtually non-existing since it is so easy to undo mistakes. Instead we want players to think before acting and not be able to save right before entering a unexplored room.

One might argue that the save anywhere feature can be combined with some other system, but the problem here is that once one start using the simpler anywhere-system it is hard to go back. Perhaps players only have themselves to blame if they turn to the other system? The problem with that is when players get really afraid, they might feel urged to use the save anywhere feature, even though they know it will break the mood. We therefore felt that it would best to force the player into playing the game like we intended it to be.

Auto Saves

Games that save without the player having to do anything are all in this category. This means that the autosave system might only save after the completion of every level or every 5 minutes.

The best thing about an auto save system is that it is completely transparent and never interfere with gameplay (at least until the player dies). This means that it is very good at keeping up the immersion. Auto saves has problems though. One major is that unless you only save after very specific events (like completing a level) it is very hard to know when to save. For example, the game should not save when the player has 1 health point left and is about to get hit by an enemy. Also, if only one save slot is used, this can lead to the player getting stuck in an unwinnable state and needs to restart the game.

To compensate for its problems, auto save is usually combined with some other kind of save system.

Save spots

What began as a storage limit on consoles, has become one an important mechanic in many horror games. Some games, like Resident Evil, even put limits on saving and further make it a part of the atmosphere. Usually save spots are accomplished by some kind of object interaction. When using something fitting for the environment (like computer terminals, typewriters, etc) this can make save spots less intruding on the immersion, but unfortunately most games insist on using some cumbersome file systems, taking the player out of the game world.

Save spots overcomes the second save anywhere problem described above and lessens the first a bit (but does not remove it). Some other problems arise though, especially if limits are imposed or spots are badly placed. The main problem is that if one dies without saving for a while there might be several frustrating of minutes of gameplay that needs to be redone. This problem exists for autosaves too, but to a lesser degree since autsaves are easier to place (but comes with other problems, as explained above).

Another problem is that even though save spot are a part of the game world and hence should lessen the immersion breaking, it might encourage the player to run to a save spot whenever some goal is achieved. This not only breaks immersion but also add a unneeded backtracking to the game and makes it a more frustrating experience than it needs to be.

Now that I have gone over the three different “death penalty” save systems used in game I would like to reflect on these by briefly discussing the saving in Penumbra.

We decided early on that we wanted to have some kind of save spot system, because we believed it would maximize the scare factors. However, we felt that we did not want to break the immersion the way most (if not all) other horror games do by adding a file system whenever the game is saved. Instead we chose to just have some kind effect upon interaction and then use a certain amount of slots that where cycled whenever the player saved. This way there would still be older (than the most recent) saves to choose from and immersion would be kept. I think this worked great and am quite surprised that I have not seen a single other game use it.

Early on we also determined that save spots would not be enough, especially if we wanted to lower the frustration of redoing and backtracking that came with the save spot system. For this reason we added auto saves and tried to save whenever something dangerous was about to happen. At first we thought about not giving any hints when the game was saved, but later on added a bright flash so that players knew they could breath out at some moments. We are still not sure if this was a good decision though and by keeping it more transparent we might have made players feel more unsafe and scared in some situations. On the other hand, some players never understood what the bright flash was about, thus being scared when entering a new area even though the game just saved.

Finally, we have been internally discussing the possibilities of skipping a save system altogether and what this would mean for the horror and immersion. A discussion about that will be for a later blog post though.

Until next time: What is your favorite save system for horror games? How did you like the system in Penumbra?