I was playing through Aliens vs. Predator the other night when I saw my good friend and gaming insider Matt Sakey (a.k.a. Steerpike) on Steam. Ah, Steam. You allow me to intrude on my friends at my whim. I sent Sakey a one-sentence review of Metro 2033:
“I’m punishing Metro 2033 for being a stupid, stupid game. STOOPID.”
To his credit, Matt did not immediately log off and instead responded: “Is that stoopid as in ‘awesomely cool’ or stoopid as in ‘lame?'”
Me: “Whoever thought of checkpoint save systems should be rounded up, shot, and urinated on.”
Matt: “Will urination occur before or after death?”
Me: “While they are dying, I think. They should bathe in the stink of their ideas as they perish.”
Matt: “You should stop being so grumpy.”
Matt’s advice, while sound, only fueled my expletive-infused rage at both AvP and Metro. These two games wade in the same pile of frothy filth that is…
The Automatic Checkpoint Save System
(or Why I Will Soon Be Serving Multiple Life Sentences)
Checkpoint save systems were once a beautiful thing. Back when we were playing Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario Bros. and the like, there was no saving. If you lost your third life or ninety-ninth life, then you quit and restarted tomorrow. It was fun at the time–could you make it farther on your finite lives? Soon, of course, games evolved.
Evolution: an improvement over the original that enhances survivability. Legs, for example, or lungs. These came to be because they were needed, much as the save-anytime system that should and must be included on all games of all genres in all time zones in all countries, even Canada. And though almost any gamer, if given a choice, would choose this system over the checkpoints, they are made to suffer countless iterations. What if I don’t want to drive all the way back to my apartment, Grand Theft Auto IV? What if my dog chokes on a chicken bone and I need to leave immediately, Alpha Protocol?
But AvP and Metro weren’t content simply to punish me with a manual checkpoint system, oh no–they upped the ante with a purely automatic one. The player has no direct control over when the game saves progress. This crime alone doesn’t earn summary execution, however; their choice to include only one saved game slot does. This might not be an issue if Metro 2033 didn’t use its single slot to save my game as I’m eating hollow point ammunition.
I was enjoying Metro 2033 as an atmospheric survival horror shooter until I needed to sneak through the “Red” (Communist) camp in the subway. Metro suffers from delusions of wanting to be a stealth game. It’s like the toddler who desperately wants to “help” cook dinner. She’ll try so damn hard, looking nice and cute in the process but ultimately spilling the pancake mix all over the floor and burning herself.
Like the toddler, Metro tries earnestly but trainwrecks utterly. NOTE TO DEVELOPERS: If you want to have “stealth mechanics,” one of those mechanics must include a way to reliably hide again once I’ve been spotted by some guy 100 feet away even though I’m hiding in near-complete darkness. Instead, when a villian spots me, he knows where I am until one of us dies. So I spend over an hour sneaking through this doldrum of a stealth sequence without any way to save my game–the kind of trial-and-error repetition that makes games feel more like work than entertainment. Then I finally made some real progress, making it to the end of camp. Of course, because the area’s totally new to me and because the stealth mechanic is busy putting pancake syrup in its hair, I stick to the shadows and am spotted immediately. I am promptly shredded by gunfire, but not before this…this…rotting prostate of a game AUTOSAVES DURING MY DEATH THROES. Worse, it saved over my one and only save slot from earlier in the camp, thus eradicating all of my progression through the level. I clenched my hands white. I wanted to smash the keyboard oh so very, very much. I wanted to punch the computer screen. I wanted to run outside and kill the first living thing I saw.
But I didn’t. Like the geek I am, I vomited expletives at fellow geek Steerpike over the GeekNet otherwise known as Steam. I wasn’t swearing at him, exactly, at least not until he told me I should stop “being so grumpy.”
Let It Flow, Let It Flow, Let It Flow!
As I’ve said many, many times before, horror needs solid writing to succeed. It needs story, atmosphere, and above all, compelling characters. Now pretend you’re Aliens vs. Predator‘s developer. You realize the aliens’ and predators’ potential to terrify has diminished through overexposure in a litany of terrible, terrible movies. Your story is shit and relies on so many cliches that it seems more like a bad parody of those films. Evil corporation trying to develop the aliens as bioweapons, check. Predators hunting aliens in a temple, check. Villian taunting the player from afar, check. The level design isn’t particularly inspired, and the elite voice-acting skills of Lance Henriksen (Playing an android! Neat!) aren’t as awe-inspiring as you’d hoped.
The game just doesn’t seem tense enough. But you have one last weapon in your arsenal: the automatic checkpoint save system! Be stingy with the saves, and when the players are so worried about dying and having to replay portions of your shitty game over and over, they might confuse that tension with horror! And, just like that, you’ve churned out your sweaty turd of a game and can go back to sticking forks in electrical sockets.
Never mind that AvP‘s developer, Rebellion Developments, botched their save system in 1999’s AvP and was subsequently berated into patching one in. History is dumb.
If any good is to come from this rant, it will infect others with its hatred for archaic and arbitrary save systems. We have the technology. Let me save mid-period in NHL ’11 or mid-course in Gran Turismo 5. Don’t make me ride my horse to some hovel to save my game in Red Dead Redemption. Let me save mid-battle in Dragon Age. Allow me to decide if, when, and how to abuse the save system.
And if anyone wants to find and buy that mug for me, it would douse the fires of my hating heart.
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