Dearest readers, I’m here to talk to you about something that’s close to my heart; an issue of profound meaning and importance to the video game geek.  Today I would like to talk to you about saving.

Many gamers, especially the newer generation, probably don’t realize how far saving has evolved in the past 25 years.  But, looking back, it’s come a long way.

In the early days of video games, there typically wasn’t any saving at all.  Games were just simple tasks of skill and timing that racked up points.  Eventually you’d lose all your lives and your score would be entered into the top score table or similar.  Then, around the time that the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) came around, things began to change.  Games were getting longer and more sophisticated, both at the console and on the computer and there needed to be a way to retain progress across gaming sessions.  Initially there were two ways to accomplish this:

The first way was the use of passwords.  This method was immensely popular on consoles in the early days of the NES but doesn’t really exist anymore.  Basically whenever you wanted to quit your session, you could have the game produce a password for you.  You’d write this password down, and when you were ready to play again you would put this password back into the game and you could start where you left off.  Computers never really used passwords much, but there were occasional games.  Consoles, on the other hand, had loads of password-saved games.  I still have somewhat fond memories of my stack of passwords that used to sit right next to me while I played.

Ahh, memories.

The second was memory saves.  This method has always been huge with computer games, but it took console gaming the better part of 20 years to adopt it as the primary method.  In the early days, consoles often avoided this method due to hardware constraints.  Console systems were similar to early computers in that they had no on-board stable memory space for creating saves.  Rather, any saving required had to be retained on the cartridge.  In the days before flash memory the only way to viably create a save space was to build a powered RAM bank into the card.  This created a number of problems that had to be overcome, such as providing a long-term stable power source on the cart (typically a 2032 lithium battery).  In order to implement this, you had to sacrifice some of the real-estate of the cartridge and you had to accept that the life of the save was limited to the operational life of the battery.  Once that battery went bad, no more saving*.

*That is, your saves are erased and you can’t make new ones and have them stick around after you turn the system off.  This can be alleviated by replacing the battery, which is a fun little project, but your existing saves are still wiped out when you do this.

Also, because of this hardware limitation, often you wouldn’t get many saves at all.  In the earlier games of the era, like the first Final Fantasy game, you would get only 1 save spot.  So any time you saved that was it.  You couldn’t go back to any point before the save.  This wasn’t a big deal at the time because in those days the games didn’t really have anything that a player could permanently miss.  If you missed something, you could always go back and get it; though it could be a pain in the neck to do so at times.  Also, there weren’t really any divergent paths you could take so it’s not like there were really critical saves that you needed to hold on to in case you made a bad plot choice.

A battery? Really? That's all that keeps my save from fading into oblivion? Crap.

Later, the standard for saves on consoles would become 3 slots.  Typically a savvy player would use two of these for one game, and keep the third as a sacrificial save for anyone who borrowed the game… or for a sibling who wanted to play.  By switching between the two save slots, you could keep a short 2-3 hour gap between your saves in case something happened and you needed to backtrack.  It wasn’t perfect, but we worked with what we had.  This “3 saves” is still pretty evident today in many console games, but has evolved to having 3 different “accounts” which are saved automatically.

As time passed into the later years of the cartridge era of gaming, saves only really changed in a hardware aspect.  Eventually powered RAM saving gave way to flash memory, so saving no longer required a power source and the footprint of the saving hardware shrank.  This made saving in cartridge games far more realistic, but this change occurred so late in the life of cartridge games that it was of limited impact.

Meanwhile, computers were evolving an entirely different, and better, way to save games.  Once internal disks started to get big enough for data storage, games quickly evolved to take advantage of the warehouse like file space for saving their games.  With the only limit being the size of the drive, most games would allow the creation of as many saves as one would desire.  And as the hard drives got bigger, the idea that the number of saves one had should be limited gradually began to fade from computer gaming completely.  Eventually, the only reason to limit the number of saves a person made was because having 200 saves is damn untidy.

Eventually, console gaming began to slowly catch up with computers.  With console gaming’s switch to CDs the ability to save the game on the game media vanished.  Instead memory cards were utilized as a space for games.  Unfortunately, these cards tended to be hugely limited in space.  A typical memory card only had maybe 16 or 32 save spots parsed out for use.  There were 3rd party options that had more space on them, but many of these suffered from notorious instability… if you could even get one to work.

It’s really only in the last generation of console systems that they’ve finally begun to close the gap with computers in the saving department.  Finally the idea of internal, upgradable storage has caught on.  Indeed the previous limitations on saving are all but gone in the newer generation of consoles, though some of the nicer save features from the computer are still missing, such as being able to quickly and easily name a save for easy identification or being able to quick-save/quick-load with a single keystroke.  Indeed, as the line between console gaming and computer gaming starts to blur and fade away, the differences in the way we save our games begins to vanish as well.

Anyway, I told you all that to tell you this:  Save often, and keep a decent backlog of saves spaced at most an hour apart.  Generally these days, I keep 10-20 game saves spaced an hour apart.  Once I get to a point where I feel I have enough saves, I’ll start to either overwrite the older saves, or just delete them.  It’s more of a house-cleaning thing than it is me worrying about space.  Once I’ve got more than 10 or so game saves, it starts getting to be too much effort to sort through them, and there’s really not much incentive to go back any farther than that if I missed something.

Yesterday I found that I’d lapsed on my rule.  I hit a spot in a game I’m playing where I needed to go back to a fairly specific window of opportunity in order to get something I’d missed.  This item is crucial to a plot outcome, so I wanted to go back into a past save and get it.   Unfortunately I hadn’t been saving very well and only had 2 saves ‘near’ this window.  One was directly after I’d already missed the window, and one was 4 hours before I’d gotten to it.  Ouch.  So I was left with two choices: go back to the early save and replay about 10 hours of the game to get back to where I was with the item, or suck it up and deal with the fact that the plot isn’t going to go quite the way I want.  I’ve decided upon the sub-optimal plot outcome; and really that’s more true to the “hardcore” method of gaming (not going back to fix your screw-ups).  Even so, had I been saving every hour like I usually do, I’d probably have gone back and powered through.

So remember: Save often, and keep a fair number of saves (if possible).  Even if you have no plans to go back and fix mistakes you make, glitches occur often enough that you may have to backtrack through numerous saves in order to avoid the glitch. And the more closely-spaced saves you have, the easier it will be on you when it eventually happens.

-Confusion is a state of mind, or is it?