Friday, May 13, 2011

Off On A Tangent: Saving

This is a different type of article for this site, and I don't know if it's a good idea or if I'll do more like this, but here it is. I don't like to sound like I'm ranting, so this is more of a post about saving where I get off on various tangents and rant about those, which I admit is a pretty fine distinction. I just hope this doesn't end up making me feel like a lunatic. The evolution of saving in video games is interesting to me. I don't know what has made me think about it recently, but thinking back about how things have been, I am glad things are the way they are now. We've definitely come a long way since long passwords. There have been a lot of third party solutions to preserve a record of all the time wasted on video games, and some have been more successful than others. Lately it seems that the method of saving hasn't changed as much as people's attitudes towards it.

People don't care as much about the save files as much as they care about being able to say they've finished something. I know too many people that only play a game until they've beat it or got some achievement. I don't think people savor games as much anymore, and they are seen as either a throwaway blockbuster movie or a time sink that requires little thought even if they spend a lot of time with it. Oddly enough, the Call of Duty series has exemplified both of these extremes, and can be either depending on the player.

Here's a brief review of the history of saving in games, or at least console games. At first there was nothing to save, as games were just emulating the style of arcade games and the idea of putting a game down and starting where you left off was hard to imagine. As games got more complicated there was actually a need to save progress because not all games were so simple that you could finish them in one sitting anymore. This caused problems when the technology of cartridges weren't up to the task of saving, so they generally used a password system that would be increasingly annoying as the passwords got longer. In Japan they had the Famicom Disk System, which allowed them to save, but elsewhere we had to wait until there were cartridges that could save with the help of internal batteries.

This method of saving was pretty much standard for cartridges from then on, and it worked pretty well. Sometimes you'd hear horror stories of batteries dying, but it's usually pretty reliable. My complaints about this method are that there is no reasonably simple way to back up your saves, and that the saves are tied directly to a cart. See, this was an era when I rented games, and since saving was handled like this, it was just sort of a waste to rent some games. Renting an RPG was either like demoing it as a way of deciding to purchase it, or you were planning to marathon it in hopes of completing it before it had to be returned. As someone with, let's say, archival tendencies, it bothers me to bothers me to put time into a game and not be able to go back to it.

With the advent of optical media, and external source for saving was necessary, and that's where memory cards came in. For renting games this was convenient because you had no real tie to a specific copy of a game. The disadvantage to having a centralized unit with all of your save data for multiple games was when something went wrong. If your cartridge to a game messed up, you were out your saves to one game, but if your memory card dies, you can potentially lose everything. It could be slightly mitigated by having multiple memory cards, and with the memory capacity of memory cards, this was often the case. I'm pretty happy with saving being handled by the consoles these days, though I sometimes miss the easy portability of pure memory card based systems.

Anyway, on to the poverty. As someone decidedly from the middle-class, my family could often afford luxury items like video games, but if they could they would cut corners. One look at my collection of Playstation memory cards proves this. My brother and I had one official Sony card and the other five were off brand. I had a translucent red memory card that came with a matching controller and my brother had the same but in blue. I don't recall the company that made them, but they have been just as reliable as the Sony one.

My brother and I also had matching Performance Mega Memory Cards. In theory these things were amazing, and for a while they lived up to it because they had massive amounts of storage capacity by allowing the user to switch between a large number of “blocks” which the Playstation saw as separate cards. The problems started a couple of years after we got them when mine completely wiped itself. Eighty-something hours of Final Fantasy VII, gone. Not to mention every other thing I had on there, which was a lot. After that point I didn't use it to store anything particularly important, which was good because it wiped a few times after. My brother's card ended up doing the same thing a few years later. It's a bit late for a PSA, but seriously, don't use these things.

A savior for my Playstation saves arrived later in the consoles lifespan when we found a DexDrive on clearance at Meijer. Backing up saves on the PC was very convenient at the time, and I still use it today. It took some work and a few conversions, but I ended up finding a way to give my old saves new life on my hacked PSP thanks to that magical little device. Another convenient backup was the V-Mem feature in later model Gamesharks. Even when I was able to exchange PS2 saves between a memory card and a USB drive thanks to a Pro Action Replay, I never felt quite so comfortable messing around with saves as I was on the original Playstation.

Even so, I've had a better track record with the current generation of consoles, having never lost a save. I think more than anything I miss the shenanigans you could get away with on older consoles. Between cheat devices and various memory card devices, there was a lot of fun to be had. Sadly, in today's world of firmware updates, it's all just sort of gone away. I can only imagine the shitstorm that would arise if people could get achievements and trophies illegitimately, because god forbid something completely trivial be revealed as such. But I suppose that is a rant for another day. I'll just say that if I want to feel like I've achieved something, I'll load up my save of an IGA Castlevania game where I've got maxed out stats and a full inventory, or my save for Assassin's Creed II where I've killed more people than there are people living in the fully renovated Monteriggioni, because I like to look back at the things I consider an accomplishment. Just looking at a checklist on an Xbox Live profile just feels empty compared to loading a save file that is a complete record of everything I have done.

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