Saturday, April 7, 2012

saved games

Do the rules of a game include reloading? Or is failure permanent?

A saved game is a bookmark. You save when you’re done playing, and when you come back everything is just as you left it.

A saved game can also be a backup, e.g. before confronting a boss because if you lose you’re going right back to that point. Some people save before making a big decision in case they don’t like the outcome. Obsidian games autosave when you enter a new “area” (maybe a dungeon or a house) because the developers half-expect the game to crash while taking one area out of memory and putting in another one.

Saved games are also memories. When you finish a book, you don’t leave a bookmark in it permanently as an act of conquest, yet I can’t bear to delete save files from games I’ve finished long ago and never intend to revisit.

Saved games are not always so static.

Back before cartridges had allocated space for saving progress, we had to copy down passwords and re-enter them to get back to where we were. These passwords were saved and shared. We fiddled around with the passwords, trying to break their code and give us an extra Energy Tank.

And before achievements, save files weren’t encrypted. Therefore, they were often susceptible to alteration through a hex editor. Take the value of a variable you care about, like score or number of lives. Then do something in the game such that the value changes, like raising your score or losing a life. Save again. Comparing the two saves, watch for the one location in the file where value X becomes value Y, and the secret of the save file is revealed.

In fact, as we go further and further into the past, save games become less of a bookmark or checkpoint, and more of a conversation. In tabletop games, there is no “save” procedure in the rules, even though many games can span several hours going into days. A “save” is a social agreement--we leave the pieces where they are, and it’s your turn when we get back. Don’t screw around with the board, please.

Anna Anthropy makes the point in this Another Castle podcast that we seem to spend an awful lot of effort into making games that act like humans. We’ve replaced dungeon masters with scripting, playmates with AI bots. Save games are another example of social agreement morphing into technological mandate.

There’s a practice called “save scrumming”, most often applicable to Roguelikes. Roguelikes are a genre of dungeon crawler where each save overwrites the last, and when you die, your save is overwritten. This effectively creates “permadeath”, since you can’t reload after making a bad decision. “Save scrumming” is the practice of illicitly preserving save files through some method, usually copying the save file so the game can’t delete it, and copying it back after that potion you drank turned you into stone. “Save scrumming” has a special name since it’s considered cheating. You’re circumventing the rules in order to alter the outcome.

I used to play Settlers of Catan quite often and one of my friends had a house rule where if one die landed anything other than perfectly flat on one face, she would shout “COCKED DIE”, scoop up both dice, and re-roll before anyone saw the outcome.

Now we play Arkham Horror quite regularly. The game structure is very complicated, with each turn having several phases, and tons of abilities that can only be used during a specific phase in a specific order. It’s not uncommon to hear at our table: “I forgot to adjust my stats. Is it okay if I bump up speed now in order to make it to the Black Caves this turn?”

Why is save scrumming different? In a tabletop game, you are only held to the rules by the people at your table. If you beg and cajole and threaten and cry, yeah, we’ll probably let you re-roll a “cocked die” or change your stats outside of phase order. Some players might be more resentful than others, but that’s a social problem resolved with social skills.

In Nethack, the rules are enforced by something else entirely. You can’t yell at the Nethack random number generator when that egg you picked up turned out to be a Cockatrice egg. There is no begging for mercy from your fellow players with implicit threats of social catastrophe. You can’t contest that you totally hit RT in time to trigger that Renegade Action and the game just didn’t see it. The computer has decided. There is no leniency. You either fail or succeed, a strict binary. Your only recourse is what the game allows.