Log entry GD11: To save or not to save

Few thoughts on induced difficulty

One of my go-to rants is how a lot of games in recent years do not treat the concept of difficulty in a respectful way. Now I'm only talking about non-mobile games and most of these games are likely to be some variation of an adventure game. So what are my complaints? A heavily scripted narrative is one example but games do a lot of hand-holding in other ways too like unrealistic health mechanisms, over-abundant resource spawns and hints that can persist throughout the game.

Even things like quick travel bother me when they are not implemented well. My interest in the 'Need for Speed' franchise diminished when they started allowing a player to jump to any available race, turning it into an arcade experience. The reason I loved NFS: Underground 2 was that you had to discover every portion of the map and the secret shops by driving around. Not only did this make me more involved with the story as it unfolded in every section of the city, it also helped me use my roaming knowledge to use shortcuts during the actual races. Even today, I can still draw a rough map of the streets from that game!

I am also not a big fan of varying difficulty levels. I prefer when there is one mode where you play the game as the developers envisioned it. You are free to disagree but I feel that when a game tries to cater to more casual gamers, the gameplay gets diluted and even the 'Normal' mode of such games is a dumbed down version. This has led me to begin games on hard difficulty on my very first run through. I appreciate varying difficulty levels if they alter the gameplay in a meaningful way. And there are some good examples of such hardcore modes out there:

  1. The Last of Us / 'Grounded' mode: Supplies are next to non-existent. Listen Mode (A key feature of the game) is disabled. All enemies do triple damage. The HUD is disabled. Enemy AI is extremely sharp; Multiple mid-combat and mid-stealth checkpoints have been removed.

  2. Fallout: New Vegas / 'Hardcore' mode: Healing items work over time instead of instantly. Limbs are harder to heal. Carry capacity is reduced and ammunition has weight. Companions can die permanently. The player must stay hydrated, eat periodically, and have a regular sleep cycle.

  3. Devil May Cry / 'Heaven or Hell' mode: The player and enemies both die instantly on a single hit of damage.

Looking at these modes got me thinking about the various parameters that can be tweaked to modify the difficulty of a game. While some properties like damage, ammunition and AI are obvious, others are more subtle. The concept of a 'save' - which is basically the identity and persistence of a player - perhaps has the biggest impact on a game. The frequency and total count of saves allowed can completely change a game experience. For PC in particular, the 'quick-save' and 'quick-load' features heavily dictate the way games are played. I tried to find out the first game that implemented a quick save feature but couldn't hunt it down. If you are aware of it, let me know below!

Anyway, on to the save state discussion. The point of death or reset in a game is a crucial event within the world. The amount of progress and resources a player loses has a drastic effect on their levels of frustration. In terms of flow, it's the moment when the tension is released and depending on the engagement level of the player, they may or may not be motivated to continue. On one end of the spectrum, we have Roguelike games whose USP is perma-death and a complete absence of the save feature. This adds weight to every decision made during a run and a careful calculated approach is required to beat the game. However, this approach is not apparent in the first play through and that's fine. These games are meant to be repeated multiple times before you can figure out all possible interactions.

On the flip side, you have the quick save feature, which seems to take away any sort of long term strategy. Personally, I spam the quick save/load buttons and my objective changes to a different kind of meta-game where I'm trying to progress by taking the least amount of damage and hoarding the most resources. This works in open-ended games where I can try out different approaches and reload if I feel the route wasn't optimal. For example, in Dishonored or Max Payne, I can replay the same combat scenario in multiple ways and go with the option which was most satisfying. But in games with a linear story, this feature can make the gameplay shallow. A game like L.A. Noire has heavy focus on attention to detail during investigations and the missions are an uninterrupted sequence of gameplay and cutscenes. Having a quick save feature would break the flow and defeat the core mechanic of the game.

My earlier points about quick travel and health mechanics are also tied to this basic principle of how and when to save the state of your world and the player. There doesn't seem to be straightforward solution but it's vital to remember that choosing the appropriate save feature will play a major role in determining the game experience. Keep in mind that saving should not be confused with other quality of life features like allowing the ability to skip (un)viewed cutscenes and dialogue which should definitely be included. The 'save' structure should be used to determine the overall atmosphere of your game. This could mean incorporating several compact moments of triumph that can be replayed in multiple ways. Or it could mean that your world is presented as a seamless experience that is satisfying to complete as a whole. As a designer, it's necessary to be aware of these distinctions as it allows us to make informed decisions regarding how failure is handled within our game.