As a player it’s not something you think about very often any more. It can be one of the more thoroughly discussed elements of layout and design during the actual development process, but as the genres and canon that goes with each continues to calcify, it’s becoming more and more standardized. For a while there, when games and gameplay preconceptions were still malleable, you could get anything. In fact, if you were a “core” gamer you might even go to the trouble of playing through the first level to checkout the setup, then go back and starting over once you’d familiarized yourself with the status quo. It was the kind of thing that could change the way you played, it could take an aggressive, balls-to-the-wall gamer and make them think twice before leaping into oblivion, guns blazing. It could encourage a normally methodical, careful gamer to take risks they might not otherwise have taken, to waste gems or potions or bullets rather than carefully hoarding them against a Big Bad that might never show. (Who am I kidding, the Big Bad always shows up, doesn’t he?)
I’m talking, of course, about save points.
Any First Person Shooter player worth their salt breathes a sigh of relief when those words flash across the bottom of the screen, “Checkpoint Reached”. The actual verbiage might vary, but the meaning is the same. The suck is over and you have a moment to take a breath and unkink your thumbs before the gurgling horde of laser-fodder returns for another go-round. Its particularly interesting in this case because the genre that catches the most crap for not having story lines of note is also the one that has the cleanest, least disruptive method of moving the player forward. And, like a good novel, the point of a game, ultimately, is to keep moving your player forward. No one said you had to make it an easy movement, but the checkpoint method is the most respectful, it does the best job of maintaining the immersion that is one of the most desired qualities of a good game.
In contrast, take a look at a platformer title like Super Mario Brothers for the Wii. Like most platformers, the game only saves your progress at the end of a level. If you die anywhere within the level, you have to start over. Annoying, but clear and easy to understand. In the case of many recent platformers, however, the level has been further subdivided into mini levels, and from there we have checkpoints within the mini levels. The end result is a staccato-like gameplay experience, requiring the player to maintain a more aloof presence, keeping them from the immersion, the ability to get into the “zone” is lost. While arguably the platformers tend to be more story oriented (Uncharted, Tomb Raider, Prince of Persia) the experience can lack the smoothness one gets with the FPS genre.
Counterpoint to both of these is the “save anywhere” option. These can show up anywhere, but are the mainstay of the RPG genre, which strikes me as odd because if you’re a story lover, the RPGs are where you tend to end up. The “save anywhere” option is probably one of the most often abused save styles, players can theoretically jump out of the game at will with limited penalty, even in the middle of combat. Players also have the option or running an encounter over and over again hoping for a better outcome (say finding a pair of silver bracers in the box instead of leather ones). When it comes to the MMORPGs, the designers have taken this into account, enforcing draconian penalties in some cases if a player jumps ship in the middle of a mission or a quest and leaves his or her buddies high and dry. In the single player RPGs however, this is not always the case. From a readers point of view, its nice to be able to put the book (or the game) down at any moment in time and pick up where I left off, but I think that required act of saving takes away from the immersion, it again keeps the player on a slightly more clinical level that they otherwise might be in relation to a game.
The key element we see in all of these is the expectation of the player. Despite what you might see in blogs and game commentary, players tend to gravitate towards a certain type of puzzle, a certain level of depth to their gameplay immersion. Despite their craving for a well-told story, a mother of three might opt to play platformers because they a so clearly broken up into bite-sized chunks that can be doled out between runs to soccer practice and swimming lessons. Despite the fact that story might not be as cool as wielding the latest and greatest bada** laser cannon with unlimited ammo and designer flames painted down the sides, a core player is often going to prefer the deeper immersion and longer, uninterrupted playtimes that go with the FPS genre. The real trick, as games move forward, is going to be finding ways to better match these players with the things they are looking for, and a harder look at save points might be a place to start.