Wednesday, 8 July 2009

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?


  1. Wow! As the other posts about horror games mechanics, this one is very interesting. I was a bit surprised with the analisis you used to choose the save system for Penumbra. And I think it worked great!
    I don't have any favorite save system. But I have one thning that I'm waiting in all horror games: play with the players mind using save spots. That has a name and it is: The salvation wall in Silent Hill 2, the one with the 9 red papers. I think the players starts to seek for save spots with the same interest as they seek for their actual target (reach X room, find X key, rescue X character...), and in some way, starts to "fall in love" with the save spots. So, using that "fetish" for the save-spot objects, you can evocate some horror or madness feelings in the player.

  2. If I remeber correctly, in one of the Resident Evil games (probably the wonderful GC remake) one of the save spots are used as a horror moment in itself. Usually when you entered a room with a save spot it would be bright, cozy and warm, full of ammo and supplies making you feel really safe in there. Whenever you got too scared you could always go back to a save room for a breather.

    However... after a certain event had been triggered one of the save rooms (where you had previously been several times) suddenly became less safe. You'd go in, expecting a safe place to rest for a moment when all of a sudden a zombie would leap out of the closet, obliterating the safe feeling and scaring the living crap out of you.

    I think this is a great way to turn a players expectations on themselves and using all parts of the game mechanics to fulfill the goal of scaring the player.

  3. Personally I like rare checkpoint style autosaves, combined with a single temporary save that lets you quit at any time/location without losing progress but is deleted when you load it. I think the system used in Penumbra was better than most, but I would have liked to see it have some other sort of impact on gameplay, too. Some sort of consequence for Philip leaving more and more of himself in them. I also definitely would have gotten read of the flash when autosaving; it was sort of distracting, and there were a couple places where it happened much too frequently.

    Really I think that whatever solution you take here is best served by solving the same problem chase sequences faced; you need a better way than death to hurt the player because all death does is remind us we're immortal but might have to repeat ourselves now and then. If you solve that, then you don't have to worry about the player being frustrated by repeating a section of gameplay and you can move to a much more transparent save system. Ideally players will never notice or think about how you're saving progress; they'll know you have it taken care of and move on.

    The only significant alternative is the one mentioned above; look at some of the ways games like Silent Hill or Eternal Darkness have played with save points, and take the ideas you used in Penumbra a few steps farther. Make sure the save system is immersed not only in the game's setting and story, but also in other aspects of gameplay. Have saving take a toll on the character's sanity, let monsters disguise themselves as save points, rearrange objects/rooms/the inventory when you save, introduce some sort of story-based cost to it all. Maybe you've got a story where the protagonist can take over other peoples' bodies or some such, so that when you want to save you need to do something unpleasant to an NPC, and you've got a limited stock of characters you've been interacting with to draw on. That sort of thing.

    Critically, of course, there still needs to be a distinct and cost-free save when a player's exiting the game.

  4. You're missing at least one save type, "Save & Quit", where you can only save when you quit the game. This only serves the first function; recording progress between sessions and is pretty rare in modern games. It's used in roguelikes and MUDs (well, most online games), and their descendants such as Diablo and modern MMOs.

    This is often combined with a game mechanic that provides the second function of the save systems. I call them "Regeneration Stations". These serve the second function of saving; a restart point after death. They're somewhat similar to save points, except that the things you did before dying do not get "erased". This system is the most immersive (provided that the regenerating can be handwaved in the story) as you very rarely need to leave the game world. An added benefit is that you usually don't need to look at a loading screen after you die.

    An interesting combination was in Project Eden, which had Save Anywhere and (literal) Regeneration Stations. I ended up only saving when quitting, as the stations were all I needed otherwise. Oh, and the game still managed to be scary at times, even though there was no way to die permanently. On the other hand, saves in general make "dying permanently" practically impossible.

    I was happy with the saving in Penumbra, the autosaves were usually in the right places and the savepoints (the artifacts) were integrated into the story. Not being able to save anywhere heightened the tension, and encouraged thinking before acting. I think it could've been interesting if over- or underusing the savepoints had an effect on the story.

  5. The save system worked well in Penumbra, in my opinion. It was nice how there was no file system interaction when saving, though I think manual saving was pretty useless anyway. I would almost always rely on the autosaves.

    I think a good system for your next game would be only autosaves and the "Save & Quit" option the above poster mentioned. Do a check after the player loads an autosave for his health; is it low, give him a small boost.

  6. Regarding using save spots for horror:
    Never actually played a game that used this, thanks for the tip! It borders on breaking the 4th wall (like Eternal Darkness does quite a bit), but I am sure it could be used quite nicely for effect. Especially in games like RE where one is quite used to having typewriter locations as safe havens (as pointed out).

    Regarding Save & Quit:
    I thought of this as kind of "no save" system as the save is only used for progress recording. Will bring it up in later post.

  7. Well, if you have save spots at all you're breaking the 4th wall. Even when it's tastefully done, interacting with some object to leave a spot in time you can come back to at will/when you die is hard to ignore. So you might as well get whatever extra value you can out of it.

    Although, interestingly, I found the autosaves in Penumbra more immersion breaking than the artefacts for the most part; I can only think of one or two times throughout both games that I specifically sought one of them out before doing something I thought would be dangerous, which makes me think you guys were onto something good there even if I wish it had gone a bit farther.

  8. Karl:
    Yes, you are correct about the 4th wall thing, but I think that common non-game-world mechanics (like saving) can become not noticeable to players if they are transparent enough and used in the right way. Emphasizing on such a mechanic might then bring back the player to the real world. This does not have to be a bad thing though.

    I earlier said "breaking the 4th wall" like it was a bad thing, which is does not have to be at all. The Resident Evil trick sounds very nice for example.

  9. Let me give you an example: S.T.A.L.K.E.R Shadow of Chernobyl.
    In that game there are quick saves... Mechanics that are know to break the flow more than a 10 month pregnant woman. However, when I played the game, the atmosphere had me so caught up that I forgot to save many many times... I lived off auto saves during quite a long time in that game. With this, I'm saying that, even though you do place a "save wherever you want to" mechanic, as long as it's discreet and the atmopshere eclispes it, you could be all set!
    That said, I hate quick saves... And seeing one in a horror game would make me cry! But the atmosphere and the game itself were so good that I completely forgot about how much I hated it and I got sucked up in all the wonders the game had to offer...

    Even so, my recomendation is that you use a similar system to the Penumbra series (Yes, yes... Penumbra is pretty much my favourite game series yet). The fact that the save spots also gave you small hints about the plot was also a big thumbs up in my book... If you can use a similar system to Penumbra and even link the save spots a bit more to the plot, you'll be making a pretty good step... In my agenda, anyway xD

  10. Very interesting post. Personally, I thought the save system in Penumbra was well done. I don't think I ever lost that feeling of dread, I just felt safe for the moment...

    I do have an idea though...
    Let's say you're running through a complex of dark passages, like the kennel/research area in Penumbra BP. You notice that one of the corridors is a bit more lit up than most. Running into it, there is a bright flash, such as the one in Penumbra during an autosave. After that, the corridor is just a corridor, and the player cannot use it to save again.

    I'm sorry if that didn't make much sense. What I'm suggesting, though, is a one-time save spot--a spot as ordinary as a doorway or a cooridor, as my example suggested. This could clear up a lot of problems with traditional save techniques. The player could be at least be reassured they're going in the right direction, easing a lot of frustration, even in a chase sequence, without the game losing atmosphere. This method would also be less out of the way than the "artefacts" in Penumbra. Although this could be used as a single save method, I think a game would be more complete with a completely unobtrusive autosave system, not alerting the player at all that the game has been saved.

    Anyone else have any thoughts on this idea?

  11. KjK:
    I assume you are suggesting some variation on the save spot system, but where the save spot is a certain location and can only be used once?

    This is actually pretty close to the auto save that we have in Penumbra (but that we also added saves after picking up items, etc) and it comes with the problems addressed in the post. Another problem if only relying on this method is that it is really hard to control when to save when levels are not linear. If one allowed only one save at a place the player might go back and spend plenty of time searching some rooms, go back to the room where the save happened and then get killed by an enemy. This would undo all of that searching work and even if no significant items was found, the player would still feel that he/she would have to redo the whole thing, leading to frustration. This even though the save was intended to happen before the enemy encounter.

  12. Yeah, the method of saving is always an issue since its the main thing that separates games from real life (the fact that you can revive).

    I like the save spot better for horror games.

    But I hate the fact that there just happens to be a typewriter (or something else) every now and then. Why not change it up a bit? Every save spot will be different. That way the player is not taken out of the game mood, it encourages exploring and makes the game more challenging since most people will miss some save spots.

    Maybe even making the save items be in the story (meaning, you read a book and the book is part of the story and the book also happens to be a save item. Next time it will be a globe or a PC).

  13. About STALKER; Yea you really are 100 in game when you play that game sometimes and forgets to save. But If you want to show the game to someone else you have too keep nagging on them about "Save goddammit..."
    What I wanted to say is that STALKERs system works quite good, the first time you play the game. On Clear Sky I now feel immortal because I can always save and load...

    Penumbras current save system is the absolutley best for these games, no menues in game or anything. I love it. On Resident Evil you kind of loose the feeling everytime you have to start using a menu in game.
    SO! Keep the Penumbra-way of saving, it´s the best.

  14. First I would just like to thank you from the bottom of my heart for Penumbra. It was the only real horror game released in years and was a great treat to a jaded fan like me.

    As for the save system; how about a System Shock 2 style system. In that game every death simply meant that would transported back to a checkpoint upon death, there was only one checkpoint per level so deaths could potentially mean backtracking, but any rooms searched would not have to be re-searched. System Shock 2 also featured a (rather small) penalty for death, I think if this system were to be used in Unknown, the penalty should be increased to discourage the death abuse seen in games like Bioshock and Prey.
    Also it would have to have some way to fit into the story and not end up seeming like you are just being resurected for absolutely no reason. Then combine that with a "save and exit" system

    Still I found the Penumbra system of saving to be more than adequate. Keep up the good work, Looking forward to buying Unknown day 1!!

  15. I haven't read through all the comments, but save methods could vary depending on the difficulty setting the user chooses before starting a new game.

    Easy: save anywhere, anytime.
    Medium: save only after certain objectives are met
    Difficult: save only at the beginning of a level

    Also, if the game is nonlinear, to keep players interested in replaying, eliminate certain paths/decisions on easy mode (thus making the game more linear).

  16. Just an idea I had:

    AutoSave before an incident.
    If player dies -> Scene changes so he won't be able to die of the same effect again.
    Player plays the scene -> Dies again - making a different scene.

    So the saving process would actually be interactive and actually changing something.

    I'm not talking about making 100 new enviroments -> just new scenario's out of a singular incident - changing frustration into a new adventure.

    But that's just a thought I had.


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