I used to leave my ZX Spectrum on overnight, just so I wouldn’t lose my progress in Magicland Dizzy. Listening in the darkness to the ominous hum of the power-pack and wondering if it was about to spark an electrical fire probably cost me a few nights of decent sleep. But without a save function, retaining my progress seemed worth the risk.

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The concept of save states certainly existed at the time. Gigantic space-trading game Elite, released in 1984, allowed players to record their progress onto a separate cassette tape, perhaps recognizing that it was asking a little much for people to leave their computers on for months on end. In shorter games, though (even though “shorter” could still mean a period in excess of 10 hours), save functions were an afterthought. Players could pretty much forget about finishing a title like Jet Set Willy without devoting an entire half-term holiday to the task, and leaving it in your machine meant you couldn’t play anything else in the meantime. It was a sort of self-imposed Jet Set Willy-based purgatory.

Gradually, though, developers began to unshackle players from these marathon, eye-destroying play sessions. Once a novelty, save functions have grown to become a gaming staple. Suddenly, we all began to notice that developers put absolutely zero effort into their congratulatory screens. (“You win! Play again y/n?”) Much more importantly, though, our gaming progress could be housed on cassette, disc or cartridge, ready to be recalled at a later date of our choosing.

Right Click, Save As

That’s the theory, anyway. But innovation often comes at a price, and in this instance it’s the possibility that hours, days or even months of hard gaming can evaporate in a moment of madness. Sure, we can point our fingers at the devil-may-care attitude of those players who save their games to a single slot and say they deserve to endure the indignities of file corruption. But who among us has not suffered a similar fate? A combination of carelessness and poor interface design can draw our cursors to the “delete all” button when we only mean to clear a slot or two for a new save. And let’s not forget the potential for a passing scoundrel to wave magnets near our hard-drive, or for an inept younger sibling with no hand-eye coordination to somehow figure out how to erase data.

Quicksave abusers are perhaps the most susceptible to these fatal mistakes. It seems so simple, doesn’t it, to waltz through the game jabbing that quicksave key before every moment of danger. Some even say it takes all the excitement out of gaming. But the quicksavers don’t care. They just want to finish the damn thing – that is, until one day muscle memory takes over and they inadvertently reach for the button at the precise instant of their characters’ death. From that moment forward, they’re condemned to a terrible cycle where every reload brings immediate death. The “restart mission” option glares at them without pity.

Losing a save file from a lengthy RPG – or really any game to which you’ve committed multiple hours of your life – can be a traumatic experience. I may never be able to completely forgive Justice League Heroes for crashing seconds after my defeat of the final boss, Darkseid, and somehow corrupting my Xbox save file at precisely that moment. For a long time afterward, I wondered whether it was all part of an elaborate next-generation plot twist wherein Darkseid’s in-game superpowers allowed him to wipe out all external evidence of his own defeat. It was total madness, of course, the paranoid thoughts of a man driven to the very edge of sanity by the untimely loss of a save-slot, but you might feel the same if your sense of completion was wrenched away from you at what should have been your moment of triumph. Those lost hours still haunt me today.

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Time – it’s always about time. When you lose your progress in a game, those moments are gone forever, almost as if they never existed. It’s like an author watching his manuscript go up in flames, or an artist accidentally elbowing a tin of white paint over his perfect landscape – so much time and effort lavished on something so fragile. Perhaps these episodes hurt so much because they remind us of our own mortality, of the inevitable moment when (for all but a few) our works and deeds will fade from memory and disappear for good.

The Persistence of Memory

These incidents are traumatic enough when they occur in single-player games, but how much more tragic might the loss of a save state be in cases where the bond between player and avatar is even stronger? In the world of MMOGs, where players invest so much time and energy into a single character, the potential negative effects of data loss are far greater.

Single-player games usually measure progress purely by how far a person is through the narrative – the more of the story you have experienced, the closer you are to 100-percent completion. But in an MMOG, your character is the main focus of your progression. While narrative content certainly exists, it tends to be a conduit for reaching higher character levels. To tackle the hardest quests, players must be of sufficiently high level. Once they have completed those quests, they require new, tougher challenges to match their higher-level characters. In addition to adding quests and activities, MMOG developers are able to expand the maximum level it is possible for characters to reach. Theoretically, this means progress is infinite. Higher-level quests and character improvements can continue forever, resulting in a time-sink that potentially outstrips any single-player title by many hundreds of hours.

Wedded to this is a feeling of attachment to a character that single-player games rarely produce. If you don’t like playing as Gordon Freeman in the Half-Life series, there’s really not much you can do about it. In contrast, the more successful MMOGs have tended to allow players a great deal of character-customization, resulting in avatars that specifically suit all manner of visual tastes and play-styles. This process inevitably brings players closer to their creations. It even allows them to create an approximation of who they wish they were in real life. No surprise then, that MMOG players often get pretty attached to their in-game personas.

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For example, it’s not unheard of for World of Warcraft players to have dedicated the equivalent of hundreds of full days to the game. As these virtual timecards continue to fill up, it leaves players in a risky situation regarding their character data. If the impact of losing several hours of gaming is frustrating, what consequence would the possible loss of months have on a person’s mental health – especially when the character lost is one to which the player has a strong emotional attachment?

We’ve already seen at least one attempted lawsuit brought against a developer for, among other things, the deletion of an MMOG character. Although this incident involved the character being deleted after an extended player hiatus (and is therefore unlikely to have the same impact as a sudden deletion), it highlights how conflict can occur when players believe they have ownership over data that is being held on external servers. In fact, despite feeling closer to their characters and putting in vastly more hours than in any single-player game, MMOG players ultimately own absolutely nothing. Indeed, developers have protected themselves thus far by making it clear that any money paid to them is purely for access to a service and does not extend to the ownership of items or characters. Blizzard, for example, has a specific policy document relating to the retrieval of lost characters and items. The document takes pains to explain precisely what can and can’t be restored, and the circumstances under which it may be possible to do so – they store all the data, and they call all the shots.

From its basic beginnings, save functionality has expanded to the point where it now encompasses thousands upon thousands of hours invested in on-screen avatars. As games increase in sophistication and the emotional bonds between players and characters grow ever stronger, so too does the possibility of catastrophic loss. What many have experienced as annoyance and frustration could soon have the potential to cause serious mental health issues. If affected players begin to seek recompense for this suffering, it may even spell trouble for developers. It’s a far cry from the days when I just wanted to see Dizzy safely through the dangers of Magicland.

Peter Parrish is a freelance wr@#!?1% file corrupted, abort/retry/fail?

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