Game Saves and Checkpoints: A Brief Introduction

When you hit Escape to bring up the Options menu in a PC game and click “Save Game,” what happens? I mean, besides a dialog box asking you which slot to save in and possibly requesting an arbitrary name for that slot?

Here’s the simple version: The game program dumps the value of all relevant variables to a file on your disk or cloud or other storage venue. Depending on the complexity of the game, this variable dump may be huge or relatively small, but the process is straightforward. Any moderately experienced game programmer knows how to do it.

So why do so many games only save at specified checkpoints?

If you’re an experienced gamer, you know what I’m talking about: Those games that nag you, when you try to quit the game, pointing out that you’ll lose everything since the last save, even though you don’t have the ability to save the game on command. These games are using checkpoints. Usually a symbol appears in the corner of the screen when you hit a checkpoint — that is, when the game is saving itself — even though half the time you don’t notice it because you’re caught up in actually playing the game.

Why don’t programmers let you save the game any time you feel like it? The short answer is that I don’t know. The longer answer is that I can make an informed, and fairly lengthy, guess.

Early game consoles lacked any kind of external storage device to dump variables to. (Similarly, very early PCs used primitive external storage devices like tape drives where game saves were excruciatingly slow.) Most games from the late 1970s to the early 1980s, especially arcade-style games, had no save-game function. Why bother? The games were of limited duration and you could always start again from the beginning.

Some games for the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) came with static RAM in the game cartridge that you could use for saving your game, but those games were expensive, because memory was costly in that era. Other games would show you a string of alphanumeric symbols you could write down that represented your current variable values, but this was a pain in the ass and gamers really didn’t like having to transcribe the symbols. And, needless to say, that string of characters only held limited information, so the games couldn’t be especially complex.

During this period, game designers discovered something important: When a Save Game function was available, gamers tended to use it as a substitute for tactical thinking.  If you could save your game whenever you wanted to, why not plunge willy-nilly into the action and learn from your mistakes rather than carefully planning your movements ahead of time? Furthermore, if players could restore their characters to life magically whenever they wanted to, they would have less emotional investment in the fate of those characters. That little avatar on the screen that responded to the controls became a piece of disposable Kleenex, easily replaced by the next piece of Kleenex in the box when it fell afoul of bad strategy on the player’s part.

With the first-generation Playstation in the mid-to-late 1990s, Sony began selling memory cards that could be plugged into the console for game saves, but the first memory cards were extremely limited in their storage capacity and programmers only allowed game saves at specific moments during play to minimize the number of variables that needed to be dumped. This both reduced memory card use and maximized player investment. Before long, gamers became conditioned to the idea that game saves were a precious commodity, only parceled out by the designers when they deigned to allow the player to save.

Ah, but what if you needed to go to bed? (If you were an older gamer, your spouse might be finding your absence in the bedroom both conspicuous and annoying. I have to wonder how many marriages have been ruined by somebody calling down the hallway, “I’ll be there as soon as I’ve killed this boss, hon!”)

And what if you needed to go to dinner? Or if you were afraid of losing the contents of your dynamic RAM in a power failure? You were, forgive me, kinda shit out of luck.

There was a time when PC games tended to allow game saves at arbitrary moments — there’s that large hard drive available, after all — and console games didn’t. But, at least in the current AAA game world, PC games and console games tend to use much the same code and are largely identical between platforms. So if game-saving is restricted on the console version, it’s restricted on the PC version too. Indie game designers have, in many cases, taken their cue from AAA game designers and limited saves to checkpoints on PC games as well. If I had to guess, I’d say that the majority of games I’ve played on my PC lately only save at checkpoints and a minority allow arbitrary saves. This is starting to bother me. I like to save my game. I don’t like having to repeat huge chunks of narrative because I lost them when I knocked off for the evening.

I can remember arguments about checkpointing and limited saves taking place on the Compuserve gaming forums back in the early 1990s, so this problem isn’t new. But it’s one that refuses to go away. Furthermore, it’s one without an easy answer. By and large, with the large hard drives on current-generation game consoles, there are no technological limitations preventing players from saving games whenever they want to. Yet checkpointing persists.

Is this just a matter of habit or is it because game designers want players to have the deep character investment that only comes from knowing that your death will require you to replay a large portion of the game?

I don’t know. I’m not sure that game designers know why they do this anymore, though I’d like to think they’ve at least thought the problem out.

But checkpointing in games remains ubiquitous and I’m starting to get tired of it. Maybe it’s time that gamers who resent being forced to wait for a checkpoint start protesting this. Or maybe we’re so used to it we don’t notice it anymore. And I have to admit that there’s something liberating about having the game do Autosaves for you. But, on balance, I think there’s something even more liberating about being able to save the game anytime I feel like it just by pressing the Quick Save key.

Oh, excuse me. My girlfriend is wondering where I am. I’m pretty sure that WordPress has done an autosave on this post, so I’ll just




Author: Christopher Lampton

Chris Lampton, a cofounder of the e-book design firm Illuminated Pages (see link in my Blogroll), is a writer, an editor, an occasional computer programmer, a voracious reader, and a fanatic video game player. In the course of his distinguished if haphazard career he has written more than 90 books, including the 1993 computer book bestseller Flights of Fantasy (Waite Group Press). He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend Amy and two cats, and now spends much of his available time editing and rewriting novels for self-published authors.

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