The Re-Dragoning

Real quick before bed, here’s my problem with Skyrim’s default autosave leading to regularly redoing chunks of the game: while fun at times, the combat isn’t particularly skillful or strategic, which means that if I die fighting (pretty much the only way to die as long as you don’t slip off of a ledge or into a trap), things aren’t going to be much different the next time around. I’ll simply get back to where I was, and do things slightly more conservatively and heal a bit more often. You essentially (almost) always have the choice to survive if you’re adamant on doing so, especially if you’re willing to run. Going into a fight, it’s easy to tell whether I can probably beat an enemy or whether I probably can’t (and have to come back later) – dying most often comes from carelessness.

To me, progress in Skyrim is measured in exploration, finding/seeing/doing/gathering new things, and advancing my character’s “story”. So when I’ve lost 20 minutes of exploring and accomplishing even minor things because I died, it’s entirely discouraging and in no way additive to the experience. I don’t really take anything away from dying (except to be slightly more careful when/if I get back to where I died), and I have nothing to show for it – either experientially, since my experiences within that time and my effect on the world are wiped from history (and so tied to the enjoyment of the game), or more tangibly, in loot/XP/quest progress. For me, it feels like wasted time, pulls me out of the experience, and is especially frustrating in a game where you’re otherwise constantly making progress of one sort of another just by existing in the world.

I had a similar problem with Deus Ex: Human Revolution when I tried playing it a few months ago. I would spend my time carefully sneaking through a level until I was seen by an enemy, try to shoot my way out, and inevitably die. As soon as I respawned, what lay before me was doing the exact same thing I had just done up until the point at which I made the mistake, and trying to do it better. I can handle trial-and-error, but when I have to go through the motions just to have another shot at the trial, count me out. If anything, it will make me even more careless, rushed and disconnected the second time through.

I put 140+ hours into Oblivion, and I’m quite enjoying Skyrim, but I just can’t understand that lingering punitive element in modern design. What’s the downside to – at the very least – letting me keep my XP when I die? Or only kicking me back to right before I initiated the fatal encounter? Or – and this is a very subjective suggestion since it would be right up my alley and few others’ – why not kick you back to the sickbed of the closest town you were in before you died? It may take longer to get back to where you were for another shot at success, but your actions in the world would always be wonderfully permanent. (And yes, I realize that some quests would have to be redesigned around this.)

Or hey, why not borrow the brilliant narrative conceit of dying/retrying in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, where the Prince/narrator would simply say “No, it didn’t happen like that” and let you reset to right before where you died? The storybook nature of Skyrim’s adventure seems like the next best fit for it. I just feel like there has to be a better way; I want to be immersed, and I want to be challenged, but I want my progress in such an impressionable, personal world to be permanent, rather than always only having the potential to be.

Published in: on November 22, 2011 at 2:05 am  Comments (9)  

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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Kudos to Dark Souls, which could get ridiculously awful to play if it didn’t have a good system for that. Instead, it diminishes the frustration by letting you keep all the weapons and items found along the way, and it actually encourages you to care about doing it all over again by giving the possibility to recover the souls.

    (Nonetheless, I can’t wait to play Skyrim. But I just HAVE to finish Dark Souls first. Can’t handle both.)

  2. I thought of Dark Souls as I read this post as well. Unlike Guilherme, though, I don’t feel that game does enough to diminish my frustration. I can only speak for myself, but there were too many instances where I didn’t find any new weapons or items before dying, and getting my souls back (if I could) didn’t help that much, because I could never keep them long enough to get to a bonfire and use them.

    I don’t know if you’re exclusively relying on autosave, Nick (forgive me if you mentioned that on Twitter or something and I missed it), but I find myself saving manually all the time, so I never lose very much progress upon death. I suppose that’s not a very immersive way to play, though.

    Anyway, I love the hell out of your “return to nearest town” idea. Let me keep my skill progress and gear and try again, or explore somewhere else. Or even fail a quest and deal with the consequences.

  3. I don’t understand? The game allows you to save at ANYTIME. Why aren’t you utilizing it? – Confused

  4. I’m halfway through Deus Ex: Human Revolution right now, and I’m really digging it partly because the trial-and-error nuisances you mentioned are somewhat mitigated by its fantastic save system. It lets you save essentially anywhere, and save games retain the exact conditions from the moment at which you saved, just like quicksaving in PC games. I’m a compulsive saver anyway, so the only thing the game could’ve done better would have been to include a quicksave shortcut like the PS3 version of The Orange Box (in which holding Start served that function). As it stands, I don’t so much mind having to pause, go down to “Save Game,” then go down three times (past the two most recent autosaves) and overwrite one of 20 different available save slots — even if, as Mr. Shumway points out above, it completely breaks immersion. I’m willing to do it if it means that I can play through the game exactly the way I want to: without losing any progress as long as I quicksave every few minutes.

    Does Skyrim not offer that functionality?

  5. On top of what Jimmy said, you can also change the interval of time between auto-saves…

  6. I for one tend to lose progress when a pickpocket goes wrong, a decision I make doesn’t play out the way I intended, or I’m trapped by a bug. I hardly ever die in the game and treat death as if it were permanent. What I would feel help the game is a hardcore mode permadeath option. I prefer to play at lower difficulties and treat death as a game ender. This is also how I played Torchlight. Currently I have the difficulty at Apprentice but now that I am more levelled better equipped I’ll be switching it up to Adept. I agree that a loss of progress due to death is antiquated, and the return to the Inn function sounds nice- but it honestly doesnt sound punitive enough for a game in which it’s so easy to become superpowered. I for one can’t wait to bump the difficulty to Master once I am bounding invisibly from rooftop to rooftop one-shotting enemies in slo-mo with fire arrows- but I won’t feel like I’ve earned it unless I have a hell of a time getting there.

  7. …and to be clear, I lose progress because I choose to reload a previous save- a save I manually created out of habit every few minutes.

  8. @jimmy – That’s a very old school solution to the problem. It requires you to save every few minutes because you can’t always predict what you’re going to run into. Thinking about saving takes you out of the experience.

    I was actually thinking about Black & White while reading this. That game autosaved every few minutes which was really handy when the game would crash. If Skyrim had two different autosave slots, one for entering/leaving an area, and the other just every 3-5 minutes it would be something much closer to acceptable.

    That being said, I haven’t played Skyrim yet, but I’ve heard several complaints now about the save system.

  9. I’ve chosen the setting on PS3 Skyrim to autosave when I access my character screen (Circle?) — though that happens only when 5 minutes has passed since the last save. This seems like a partial solution to your problem. Maybe I didn’t read closely enough, but have you tried this?

    Personally, I don’t mind the “lead up” repetition of a few minutes of dungeon-crawl — there is a certain tension and anticipation that sets in as you think about different tactics or approaches.

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