Updated: Oct 9, 2020
For about ten years now, I have been a Save-Scum user. There have been times where it has been less than a minute between saves. The lettering on my PC’s F5 and F9 keys have become so worn as to be illegible - you can only tell what keys they are by looking at the keys around them. In S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Lost Alpha I am up to save 1,705.
Some people would say I have a ‘problem’ with Save-Scumming. I would disagree. I could stop at any time. I just don’t want to…
Ok, all jokes aside, I will be making the argument that all single-player games should allow players to save at any point, any number of times. I will also be making the arguments that alternative systems, such as checkpoints, are a sub-par and only partial solution. But first thing first - what is ‘Save Scumming’? TV Tropes describes it as thus;
“Old, old method of playing games. Basically, you save the game whenever you get a result you like (or before you face a risk), and restore the saved game whenever you get a result you don't like.”
That about sums it up. The fact it is called ‘Scumming’ is reflective of the disdain some gamers place upon the practice and the people (like me) who employ it. For Save-Scumming to work, the game needs to allow players total freedom as to when and where they save their games. But before that, we should perhaps look at the ‘lesser’ save systems that came before.
#1 No Save System at All
Some games, especially in the not-so-good-olden-days lacked any form of save feature. This forced players to either finish the game in one sitting or not at all. Some of these games were quite long by 90’s standards. Some, such as First Samurai and Turrican 2: The Final Fight would take upwards of two hours to complete if you explored the levels fully. This could be a problem if you could not find two uninterrupted hours to play the game, or if you were being nagged to stop hogging the living room TV. Thankfully, most emulators solve this problem by enabling Free-Saving on demand.
Continues could be thought of as the most primitive form of saving a game. A continue will allow the player to ‘continue’ their progress in a game after they have lost all their lives. These were first utilized by the coin-op arcade machines to separate children from their pocket money. (I once sank £15 into Mortal Kombat without realizing – oops!)
Ports of arcade games to consoles and home computers usually included continues as well. Thankfully, players did not have to spend any additional funds to use them, however, they were often limited - say five continues per playthrough. Extra continues could be earned in-game, whilst unlimited continues could be unlocked by completing certain in-game tasks or by entering a cheat code. Unfortunately, a far less ethical version of paid continues has appeared in the freemium gaming market.
#3 Password Systems
Password systems were arguably the first true save system. These were popular with some of the 8-bit devices of the 1980s. These devices lacked internal memory to save games, nor did they feature removable memory cards. Upon saving - which was usually restricted to saving your progress between levels – you would be presented with a long list of letters and numbers, such as 5ABT6L237SR0C2S7*. This you would need to write down somewhere - usually in the game’s instruction booklet.
When it came to playing the game again a player would have the joyous experience of having to type this in. This was worse on consoles of course due to their lack of keyboard, forcing gamers to use those terrible on-screen keyboards we all know and hate.
*NB - this isn’t a real code - I just hit random keys. You could try entering it into a game that uses password saves but results may vary 😉
#4 Saving Between Levels to a Memory Card or Internal HDD/SSD
A big improvement since it is far more convenient. No need to write anything down, no physical scraps of paper to lose, no laborious entering of text.
Some games with very distinct missions, for example, Wing Commander and FreeSpace 2 utilized this system. The problem with these is that if you die or otherwise must abandon the game near the end of a mission you will have to complete it all over again. This can be very frustrating on lengthier missions, so it is not an ideal solution. There is also the issue of damage and loss. Since the memory cards are removable, and in most cases protrude from the console's unit, they are more prone to becoming damaged or lost than internal storage solutions.
Now we are into the modern-day. For those who are unfamiliar with checkpoints, a checkpoint is a ‘point’ in a level where progress can be saved. This is usually done automatically, accompanied by a ‘Checkpoint Reached’ pop up notifying you of this.
This is a definite step up from saving between levels, and it is the most common save game system on consoles. Checkpoints work reasonably well if the developers have placed the checkpoints in the right places and at the right time. If the devs have placed the checkpoints at the wrong time and place it can lead to an extremely frustrating experience - see video 😉
Another problem with many checkpoint systems is that the game will only permit you to return to the most recent checkpoint. This can be a problem if you want to go back further, and an even bigger problem if you need to go back further - for example to before a game-breaking bug or glitch.
Bad Video Game Checkpoint
You laugh because it's funny, you laugh because it's true
#6: Checkpoints with Roll-Back
A step up from standard checkpoints in that subsequent checkpoints do not overwrite the previous ones. This allows the player to go back to an earlier checkpoint and start over from there. This avoids the problems stated above. The original Far-Cry on PC utilized this system which I found came in very handy on several occasions.
Another advantage of this save system is that it encourages experimentation. This is particularly true for games which feature multiple ways of completing an objective, and multiple routes the player can take to reach it.
For example, imagine a game has a fork in the road, which offers two directions of travel and two methods of completing an objective - in this case rescuing someone from a military base. Reaching this fork in the road creates a checkpoint, and it is time to choose. Going left encourages stealth, whilst going right encourages going in all guns blazing. You would like to experience both. This save system allows for that.
To do so, simply play the mission one way by choosing one direction, then load up the checkpoint again and play it the opposite way by choosing the other direction. In my opinion, this should be common practice for all games which use checkpoint systems.
Far Cry PC
06:55 - Taking the left beach path past the large fuel tank would be the all guns blazing 'Rambo' route. The player here wisely uses the right hand route which provides better cover, concealment and a height advantage.
#7 The Ability to Save at Any Point – AKA Free-Saving
Free-Saving is the pinnacle of save game mechanics, doubly so when combined with the ease and convenience of Quick-Saving. These appear to be rarities in consoles but is common practice on PC. With Free-Saving (which is what I am calling it now) all the cons plaguing the earlier save systems are removed, and a whole host of pros are added. These include;
The Arguments For;
1. Free-Saving is a very effective workaround for games with potentially game-breaking bugs. If you encounter one, you can simply load an earlier save and try again. With luck, the bug will not happen next time. The alternative could be losing hours of progress, or even making the game unwinnable.
2. Some games have buggy level/map transitions which may make them prone to Crashing To Desktop (CTD) when moving from one map to another. Ensuring you make a save before attempting to change maps/levels will ensure that this will be merely inconvenient, not game-breaking. Anyone who has played a game which they have perhaps modded a little too much will be quite familiar with this.
3. Some games have somewhat unfair enemy spawns, and you may get dumped into the middle of a fight you can’t win. (S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Lost Alpha - I’m looking at you). Free-Saving will not only allow you to avoid these situations the 2nd time around, but they may also allow you to fight through them. By making a save after each enemy defeated you can eventually win via trial and error, as each time you will get a little further. (Just like getting past that beach in Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow.) Saving after having completed something you found difficult is also handy, as it prevents you from having to do it again should you die later.
4. Free-Saving is also very handy for games that have decision trees, be they dialogue options, or choosing which mutually-exclusive upgrades to install. By saving before making them you can always go back and choose differently if you do not like the results.
5. Another use for Save-Scumming is ‘gaming’ the RNG drop system that many games use. Saving before looting a stash may enable you to go back and look again if its contents the first time around were not to your liking.
6. Save-Scumming can allow players to get around questionable game design choices. For example, some old school, or modern but retro-style, shoot em ups remove some, or possibly all of your hard-earned power-ups if you die. This may make the game virtually unbeatable if the game has been designed poorly. This is even more of a problem if success in the game depends on memorizing enemy patterns and the environment, since completing it the first time around will be almost impossible. Yes, most R-Type games - I AM talking about you.
Save-Scumming overcomes this, as you can always go back to an earlier point and try again. Many emulators allow players to take ‘snap-shot’ saves, thus allowing Free-Saving in games that may have lacked any form of save system at all.
7. Save-Scumming can also be very useful for less skilled gamers, as it will enable them to get through a game they may find too difficult otherwise.
8. Some players may not have time to keep restarting a level, or even from a checkpoint every time they lose, die, etc. The ability to re-start from ten seconds ago as opposed to ten minutes ago can make a huge difference for the time-poor gamer. It is also far less frustrating and boring.
9. In addition, I have found that as I have grown older, Save-Scumming has become more and more useful - for a multitude of reasons;
A: For a start, there is the uncomfortable fact that I am simply not as good at gaming as I was as a kid and teenager. My reflexes were quicker back then, plus I didn’t have many responsibilities, so I could game for hours and thus ‘git gud’ through practice. Therefore, I die far more often nowadays than I used to.
B: The second reason is that I do have a lot of responsibilities now, so finding time to game can be a challenge. What’s more, gaming sessions may have to be cut short at a moment’s notice if something more important happens. Free-Saving allows you to save your progress at the drop of a hat (or tap of the Quick-Save key), abandon your game and come back to it later, without having to start over.
5. My last argument for Free-Saving and Save-Scumming is that of liberty and individual player choice. I do not believe players should be forced to play a game a certain way.* Quite the opposite. I feel players should have total freedom to choose how they play their games, and this includes when and where to save.
*Unless its competitive and money is at stake, which is a different situation entirely.
The Arguments Against;
There are cons to free-saving and save-scumming of course. Most of these are subjective however and include claims such as;
1. "Save-Scumming is cheating!" To which I say “So what? It can only be done in single-player games anyway, so you are not cheating anyone else.”
2. "Save-Scumming breaks the ‘flow’ of the game". They may have a point about this, but mapping the Quick-Save button to something easily accessible does much to reduce this. What’s more, it is less flow-breaking than having to start a level from the beginning or last checkpoint.
3. “That isn’t how the game is supposed to be played!” To which I say again “So what? It’s my game and I will play it any way I please. This includes maximizing convenience and my enjoyment of it. I’m not asking anyone else to change how they play their game”.
(Incidentally, this is the same response I say to people who claim “You shouldn’t play games with mods because that isn’t what the devs intended.”)
4. "Careless use of quick-saving can result in you becoming stuck in a non-recoverable situation". This is a valid point as it is objectively true. Therefore, do not over-use Quick-Saves and don’t forget to Hard-Save occasionally as well!
The Consequences of Quick-Save Abuse
Remember kids, Quick-Save responsibly
Save systems are good. Free-Save systems are even better. Quick-Saves are better yet, and Save-Scumming is the best. Save-Scumming is not only useful, but it is also necessary for some circumstances. Therefore, do not be ashamed of Save-Scumming, be proud of it, and demand all single-player games support it.
What are your thoughts on in-game saves systems? Which do you like most, and which do you like the least? Do you feel Save-Scumming is cheating or justified? Do you partake of it yourself? (Be honest 😉) Please feel free to share your views in the comments section below.
Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to on-line multi-player. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17, and contacted via email at email@example.com
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