Defending the Exclusion of Auto-Save

Auto-save functionality is something we’ve come to take for granted in videogames these days. It’s right up there with moving the analog stick to run rather than holding a button, or being able to move and shoot. But in the right circumstances, a lack of auto-save can ramp up the tension and make the game that much more exciting.

I’ve been playing ‘Persona 3 Portable’ for review. Not that I can give any kind of final judgment at the three-hour mark, but it’s very cool so far. Of course, I say the three-hour mark, because that’s what my save says. In reality, I’ve got about four and a half hours invested into the game.

That’s right. I forgot to save, and in a JRPG no less. In most games, this would really upset me. Having to repeat the same content is a pain in the ass to say the least. But in this case, and a few others, it can really help the experience.

The dungeon exploration in ‘Persona 3’ is very much a balance of risk and reward for the player. There’s a huge tower to explore, and you can keep going up as far as you want. Some floors have exits and some don’t. Every time you reach an exit, you’ve got to stop and think about whether it’d be smarter to leave or stay.

Needless to say, you can’t save in the dungeon. Unless you’re on one of the easier difficulties, death is the end, and means going back to your last save. That means that you gambled and you lost.

In the context of most games, the auto-save feature is a necessity. They proceed linearly, they’re heavy with cut-scenes, and they don’t exploit the same risk/reward mechanic. Games like that need an auto-save.

Even ‘Final Fantasy XIII’ and ‘Fallout 3’ have basic auto-save or similar features that take the threat out of death. It’s less painful to die, since you’ll only have to go back a few minutes, or to the start of the last battle.

That’s fine for those titles, but relying too heavily on the auto-save mechanic can really take the thrill out of a game. This is especially true if the whole point of the game is essentially a dare. “See how long you can go before you have to give up and come back.”

Despite my dislike of the original ‘Resident Evil’, it’s one of the best and most popular examples of how this mechanic plays out. You can only save at designated points. Even then, you can only save if you’ve got a certain item in your inventory.

Determining when to save was a challenge, and there was never a time more frantic than the feeling of advancing in the game without a save to back you up. It made the threat of death that much more frightening.

Not all games can force players to go without the parachute, but adding some real risk into the equation can make for a much more thoughtful and interesting experience. Even if it’s absolutely maddening at times.

1 comment

  1. JoeRo

    Oh man I hate it when contemporary games don’t auto-save. I can understand it 20 years ago, but today? Honestly it’s just plain lazy. I’ve heard your argument before, and I’ve never cared for that rationale. Tension? Really? That’s like saying severing my break line makes driving more exciting.(although in a specific sense it definitely does)

    I’ve also had the experience of playing through long sections of game only to have my power go out (infrequent), or have sudden company stop by (frequent), or a significant other hit their pain threshold for waiting for me to find that next save point (sadly frequent).

    Don’t get me wrong, though, different strokes for different strokes. I simply prefer my games with auto-save features. Because you know life happens, and sometimes it interrupts my game time.

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