Anchored to the world: Saving the game – Part 1

This post will detail my design thought process of taking an abstract problem, such as a save system and describe the practical considerations involved in how this specific thing will work within the game. Its inspired by Liz England “The Door Problem” and also as a tool to reflect on my own creative process. The game I’m going to use for this is The Corridor: On Behalf Of The Dead which I was the lead designer.

Once the team had decided that we required a save system, I began to ask myself some questions and define the problem:

  1. What is the goal / goals of this system? 
  2. What variables, elements and states within the game need to be saved?
  3. What player feedback is needed?

Goals of the system

Let us begin with the first question, what is the goal / goals of this system? How does this specific game intend to handle saving? One of the design pillars of The Corridor: On Behalf Of The Dead was world building and from the beginning, we wanted to create a strong coherent world which immersed the player. An ambiguous story would be told through environmental storytelling, pickups and audio clips and from the players perspective, everything in the game world had to make narrative sense. We wanted the player to be drawn in and feel like they existed within the games world. 

A brief synopsis of the game to give us some context: Players take on the role of a custodian who has been tasked with entering the mind of a suspected murderer to retrieve memories of their guilt. This is achieved using a chemical compound called cohesion and the use of Multi-Connected Mind Environment. 

I wanted to pull this idea through into the games systems and mechanics and rather than have a save button or hotkey, make saving the game a physical action that was grounded in the game world and made sense. I was inspired by games such as 4A’s Metro 2033 which tie the game systems and mechanics into the world to keep players immersed. As the player is inhabiting someone else’s mind and memories, I began thinking about the player being in this dark, grimy and uncharted realm and thought it would be interesting to explore saving as a way of anchoring the player here without taking them out of the game world to for example, open a menu and hit a save button.

Metro 2033’s lighter & notepad

I’d always remembered how the original Resident Evil had taken a unique approach with the use of physical game objects, typewriters and ink ribbons. Ink ribbons had to be collected and were a limited resource, players would need to consume them to save. This was a great way of entwining the survival themes into the act of saving. Researching how other games in the genre had handled saving, I was reminded of Dead Space which required players to find save stations. Further, Alien: Isolation incorporated an interesting method which required players to locate a terminal in the world and insert an access card. While the terminal warmed up, players had to wait as three lights blinked off. The act of waiting creates tension and anxiety as players can still be killed during this process. In a similar way to resident evil, the act of saving was tied into the games horror theme.

Resident evil’s typewriter, Dead space’s save station and Alien: Isolation’s save terminal

Resident Evil and Alien: Isolation in particular shows how the act of saving can be tied to aspects of the games design such as survival and evoke an emotional response within the player. However, from the players perspective, these methods can lead to frustrating experiences as players can loose progress. For example, if a player didn’t have any more ribbons in their inventory they wouldn’t be able to save. Player’s could try exploring to find a ribbon but If they had to leave the game for whatever reason at that particular time, their only option would be to quit the game and loose their progress. A similar problem occurs in Alien: Isolation, players could potentially loose progress if they are killed during the saving process, resulting in lost progress.

Removing control & player frustration

Of course the loss of progress is a subjective issue, some players may enjoy the way these systems are grounded in the game even if they lead to lost progress. But for me as a design choice, I’d prefer to maintain the players autonomy and agency as much as possible and its probably best not to facilitate player frustration as it leads to all sorts of fun things like rage quitting! To address this, I wanted the player to have the freedom to save their game wherever and whenever they wanted but still tie it to a physical object within the game. I got to thinking that to achieve this, players could carry it with them in their inventory and deploy it within the game world. Creating a portable “save station” addressed this concern for the players time and the threat of lost progress.

So to sum up:

  • Saving is a physical act in the game world and uses a game object
  • The game object can be stored in the players inventory
  • Players can drop the object to save the game and collect the object after saving

Of course this throws up more questions on top of the existing questions we already have:

  1. What variables, elements and states within the game need to be saved?
  2. What player feedback is needed?
  3. How will the player deploy the game object in the world?
  4. Where will the game object appear in the world?
  5. How will the player collect the game object?
  6. What visually happens in the world when the player deploys the game object?
  7. What visually happens in the world when the player collects the game object?
  8. How does the player load a save game?

I’ll leave this here and continue the process in the next post.

Thanks for reading.

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