I’m not ashamed to admit, I often struggle to play through mechanically difficult games without frequent or forgiving saves. I have a coordination disability called Dyspraxia which impacts my broad and fine motor skills, which can make certain dexterity based tasks in video games more difficult for me to play through.
I still play difficult and challenging video games, because I personally enjoy getting past something I find difficult with practice. However, when I do manage to get past a challenging part of a game, I personally want to know I am past it. If it takes me 20 minutes to get past a series of complex jumps, I don’t want to fail a task a few minutes later and get thrown back to the part of the game I was struggling to complete.
So, today on Access-Ability, we’re going to talk about checkpoints, save states, and save availability. We’re going to talk about how these features can make games more accessible to disabled players, how they can open up more challenging games to a wider set of people, and how they can be implemented in ways that don’t impact the experience of the wider playerbase.
If you’ve played a lot of retro platformers, you’re most likely aware of checkpoints as a progression saving feature. These might take the form of little flagpoles in 2D Mario games; you pass a discrete point in a level, and your progress is marked so you can restart from there. Checkpoints are often not traditional save points, as their existence, or ability to be used, is often temporary and predicated on you not running out of a finite number of in-game lives. If you run out of lives, you’re sent back to the start of a given level instead, or in some cases the entire start of the game.
Frequent checkpoints do help make games more accessible, but their helpfulness is often limited. With a life based checkpoint system you can still find yourself as a player thrown backwards in progression, made to replay the sticking point of your experience that you have already completed before, which can be a barrier to forward progression.
Checkpoints are most helpful to disabled players when they are frequent, and can be divorced from a lives system. See a game like Celeste, which treats every cleared screen as a checkpoint reached, but does not feature a lives system. Celeste is a really tough platformer, but it never forces the player to be placed further back than their current checkpoint, no matter how many times they die going forward. The player is empowered to keep trying at sections they find difficult, without needing to worry they will be punished for trying.
Going back to the design of classic retro titles, let’s talk about save states. When playing a retro game on an emulator, such as the one used to run NES games on the Nintendo Switch, players are often given the ability to create a save point literally any time while playing. Save States capture the exact moment a player has reached in game, and allow them to restart from there easily. Save states exist independently from any checkpoint system the game already features, and don’t rely on discreet checkpoint locations to function.
The benefits of Save states compared to a classic checkpoint system are quite clear. Traditional checkpoints rely on game developers and players seeing eye to eye on what the difficulty chokepoints in a game will be, whereas save states allow a player to decide for themselves where they are struggling, and where they would benefit from restarting from. Emulator rewind features fulfill a similar purpose, allowing a player at their discretion to rewind gameplay and try again from a point of their choice.
Some more modern games have attempted to create systems that straddle the line between checkpoints and save states, such as Ori and the Blind Forest which allows players to create their own checkpoints within levels at positions of their choice. However, Ori makes use of a form of in-game energy to create checkpoints, meaning players are limited in how frequently they can deploy them. If you don’t know what’s coming, it can be tough to know when to ration checkpoints out. A great concept, but it would have been a lot more useful without those limitations.
From here, we move onto traditional saves, and the role they play in maintaining player progression. In many modern games, the functionality of checkpoints has been replaced by static save locations. At certain fixed points in a game you can save your progress, and upon death players will be returned to their most recent save. These avoid the issue of running out of lives seen in classic checkpoint based games, but they lack the freedom of save states.
Additionally, these save locations need to be offered close enough together that they don’t cause frustration. Nier Automata is a fantastic game, but it features zero checkpoints and no static save locations until you’ve completed a lengthy introductory level and a challenging first boss fight. Dying at any point in that lengthy sequence requires starting the game over from the beginning, which can really impact a player’s ability or willingness to progress.
In other titles, saving is available anywhere, at any time, which in effect emulates the functionality of save states. You can allow players to set their own points of safety and progression, and not need to fear losing progress.
Some games combine fixed saves with a limited form of checkpoint functionality, such as Persona 5 Strikers. In that game, if the player dies in a boss fight, they’re given the option to either return to their last save, or to restart their current fight. This isn’t a true checkpoint, it’s only available if you die inside that boss fight, but it’s a little additional functionality on top of saves.
Lastly, let’s talk about autosaves. Autosaves are exactly what they sound like; some games will automatically save a player’s progression every so often, and allow the player to restart from their last save point as frequently as they like. The value of autosaves as accessibility largely depends on how frequent and prominently visible to the player those autosaves are. Will the game autosave after the section you were stuck on and finally defeated? Does the player know an autosave has occurred so they can relax, safe in the knowledge their progression is locked in? These factors make a big difference to autosaves as accessibility.
I recognise that not every gamer wants every game they play to have expanded save or checkpoint functionality, I know that’s a sticking point for many gamers who pride themselves on completing difficult games. But, I do believe that increased save and checkpoint availability is an accessibility issue, and one that we need to discuss properly. It’s one that impacts my ability to play some games, and I know I am not alone.
I’m not saying every game needs to implement all of the above options as mandatory types of saving, but I know that if more games implemented a greater number of progression saving options, I would have a greater ability to persevere and play through tough games.
Have options to automatically save progression, have options to manually save, let players turn off lives systems so your checkpoints persist until a player is able to progress, and let players retry specific short segments of the game rather than big huge chunks. Don’t treat failure from your players as a punishment, enable them to keep trying from where they get stuck.
I completed Celeste when it released, but I most likely wouldn’t have ever done so if it wasn’t for that game’s frequent and forgiving saves. Never making me replay more than the one room I was currently stuck on allowed me to actually make progress, and I wish more games would offer that as an option.