Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The value of autosaves

The action-adventure autosave isn’t one of the more glamorous innovations of modern games, and its presence rarely even seems to warrant mention on message boards or in game reviews. However, the effect that it can have on a player’s experience can’t be discounted.

Let’s go back to the first-person shooters of yore for a second (yes, I’m lumping those into the very general action-adventure category). Doom didn’t have an autosave feature. You could make your way all the way to the end of a level and be killed by the vile red tomato that was the Cacodemon, only to find yourself all the way back at the start. Since Doom’s developers assumedly did not believe their players to be masochists, they added a quicksave feature. This became the gold standard for action-adventures. For many years, the quicksave button was my best friend. I’d hit it instinctively every 15 seconds or so. This was annoying and tedious, and my immersion in the game took a hit as a result. Granted, I probably abused the feature more than most players, but I imagine a hefty chunk of gamers were unable to resist the sexy siren call of the quicksave button for an extended period. Quicksave wasn’t optional, it was practically necessary for all but the most hardcore players. Forgetful when it comes to quicksaving? Good luck…

But just when it seemed that there was no cure for the quicksave disease, along came the autosave. To the best of my recollection, the first action-adventure to do autosaves really well was a game that needs no introduction: Halo. Autosaves took place frequently, quietly, and at very opportune times throughout the game’s relatively large levels. Of course, there were a few exceptions throughout the game in which an autosave would occur while the player was on death’s door and the Flood were busy creating new orifices in poor Master Chief’s body, but generally this wasn’t the case. The gameplay also lent itself well to this—thanks to Master Chief’s magically regenerating health (another FPS innovation from Halo), there was no way the player could get completely screwed by autosaves. This isn’t so say that games with more traditional health and armor systems in place can’t also do autosaves well, Half-Life 2 being a prime example.

No more blisters on my F5 finger, the work is now done for me and I can concentrate fully on the game at hand. Yes, autosaves are certainly convenient, but perhaps their greatest contribution is that they put the challenge back in games that was lost to the nefarious quicksave key. They’re somewhat akin to invisible versions of the checkpoints found in most action-adventures of the 8- and 16-bit era, which obviously worked really well. Though games that feature autosaves often have a quicksave button as well, I no longer feel the need to use them, because I have such a great alternative. I may get the temptation to quicksave in the middle of battle, but now it feels a lot more like cheating, kind of like saving while you’re playing an emulated video game. May as well ignore quicksave, because I know that autosave will do its thing when it’s good and ready.

So yeah, in conclusion, autosaves rule.

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