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Resident Evil

I've heard that a lot of players are complaining about the save system of Capcom's new Resident Evil 6. I haven't played the game yet because RE5 sucked, and the demo for RE6 sucked, so I can't comment on that game. What I can do, though, is take a moment to reflect on the genius of the classic Resident Evil save system.

Resident Evil boxart

Most of my readers know me as a Silent Hill fan [boy], so it's uncommon for me to heap praise upon Resident Evil. But I actually am a big fan of the original game (it was one of my favorite PlayStation games). Maybe some day, I'll get around to writing about how Resident Evil 4 killed my interest in the franchise...

Industry norms

Resident Evil took a unique path in terms of it's save-game system. I'm not sure if it was the first to use this particular style of system, but it was definitely one of the best implementations that I played!

During the PSX era of the late 90's, game saves generally took one of 3 forms:

  • Level saves: games like Devil May Cry and many level / mission-based action games and arcade fighters required the player to complete a whole level or mission before being allowed to save. This broke the game up into distinct segments and create natural stopping points.
  • Pause menu saves: games like Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy VII (in the Overworld), and most sports games gave players the ability to save in the pause screen (or other menu). Sometimes there would be restrictions, such as not being able to save when enemies are present, but this is generally the easiest save system from a player's standpoint. Unless you forget to save...
  • Ico - saving on a couch
    Ico allows players to save by making the characters rest on these magic couches. Both Ico and Yorda must sit in order for a save to be permitted.

  • Save points: many RPGs and action/adventure games such as Ico or Silent Hill required the player to activate a specific item located in the game world in order to save. This had the advantage of giving the player a visual reminder to save, but limited the ability to save and forced the player to backtrack if you wanted to save before reaching a new save point.

Resident Evil falls firmly in that last category, but with one significant (and game-changing) caveat: in addition to only being able to save at pre-defined locations, the ability to save was also tied to a consumable inventory item!

Making saving part of the game

In order to save your game in Resident Evil, you first needed to find one of the many typewriters scattered throughout the mansion, and then you needed to consume an inventory item called an "ink ribbon" in order to actually perform the save. Tying the ability to save to a consumable inventory item that was in limited supply was absolutely genius in the context of game in the "survival horror" genre.

Resource management in survival horror

Survival horror games traditionally required the player to carefully manage their resources and be very judicious with their use of supplies. In addition to being put in frightening circumstances and being challenged by scary creatures, the player had to deal with the stress of wondering when and where they'd find that next box of handgun bullets, or that next first aid kit so the character can stop limping around.

Resident Evil 2 - ink ribbon
Ink Ribbons were scattered throughout the game world and consumed whenever the player saved at a typewriter.

Resident Evil took this one step further by making game saving a consumable resource that needed to be managed just like ammunition and healing supplies. You didn't know how many ink ribbons the game would provide, and you had to weight the benefit of keeping some in your inventory versus the cost of possibly not being able to pick up that extra box of shotgun shells if your inventory filled up.

The cost of dying

Older survival horror games were also less forgiving when it comes to checkpointing the player. If you died, you had to go all the way back to the last save point (usually being kicked back out to the main menu to load from the memory card). There was an actual consequence for dying. The game didn't just respawn you right where you left off. If you hadn't saved in over two hours, and then you died, then you just lost that whole two hours of gameplay! it was pretty damned annoying and inconvenient, but if you lost two hours of progress because you didn't save, you wouldn't make that mistake again! So you may have to replay an hour or two of gameplay once, but then you're done with it and you move on.

Nowadays, gamers are stuck replaying the same five-minute segment of a game over and over again for half an hour or more before you finally memorize where every enemy is and the optimal order and technique for killing them. The games are designed to force the player to progress via application of rote memorization. Didn't game design move beyond the conventions of trial-and-error platforming back in the 90's? It's even more annoying and tedious because you're stuck doing the same short tasks over and over again instead of just replaying a large chunk of the game. Modern games practically force the player to play recklessly - because it's more "exciting". There's very little tension or anxiety because you're just not afraid of dying. And all those exciting action set pieces just get boring and dull because you have to keep replaying them over and over again until you "solve" them the exact way that the designers wanted you to.

Resident Evil 3 - troll boss
Does this guy look intimidating?
Yeah, sure.
Is he actually scary?
Not really, because you know that if you die, you'll just respawn right here to fight him again.
No loss. No fear.

You also don't learn from your mistakes or gain any real skill in the game. You may become a master at completing that one little room full of bad guys, but that rote memorization of a specific room or hallway doesn't necessarily transfer to the rest of the game. All you did was waste your time.

If you have to go back and replay an hour or two, that at least gives you an opportunity to learn from your mistake and change your strategy. You can take a different route, try to better optimize your supplies, or more fully explore the preceding areas to look for an advantageous weapon or trick to beating your enemy. Bosses could even be treated as long, complicated puzzles in which your earlier activities contribute to the ease with which you defeat the boss.

Nowadays you can't do any of that stuff. You just start where you died with the same equipment, under the same circumstances, with no opportunity approach the situation differently or change your preparation. And if there is a trick to beating the boss, it has to be located right there in that same room because you don't have an opportunity to go back and find it in that room you passed 20 minutes ago.

In the older games, much of the challenge came from the greater sense of attrition as the enemies slowly drain your resources and the player must carefully decide what to take with you and what to leave behind. Not even knowing where your next objective is makes every bullet fired and every health kit used feel that much more significant.

Resident Evil 2 - limping
Much of the challenge came from attrition, and you had to judiciously use your resources.

The fear of the unknown

Being checkpointed automatically takes the power of saving away from the player, and puts the onus on the game's designers to ensure that the player can continue to progress. It's comforting to know that after any given encounter, you are going to be checkpointed and probably restocked with supplies and ammunition. You have to be, because the game doesn't let you go back and hunt for supplies that you missed or improve your strategy to conserve the supplies that you have.

Not being checkpointed at every door, on the other hand, creates a passive fear of the unknown. It's the player's responsibility to chose when to save and ensure that they remain in a good enough condition to warrant overwriting the old file. There's real risk associated with moving forward with the game because there could be a ferocious monster or deadly trap behind every door or around every corner. And there was a small chance that you could back yourself into an unwinnable situation. Sure it's inconvenient, but it adds realistic challenge to the game.

But if you know that every door acts as a checkpoint, then there's no fear of the unknown. You can power through the game at whatever pace you want and not have to worry too much about the risks. If you fail, just keep doing it over and over again until you get it right - or get lucky. It can create a sense of nihilism in the player, since your actions may feel completely meaningless.

This is one of the reasons that I love Demon's Souls (and its successor Dark Souls) so much! You know that imminent death is beyond every corner, and if you're not careful, you're going to have to go all the way back to the start of the level and lose your precious experience. By not checkpointing the player ever ten steps, the character starts to feel much more like a person whose life you value, rather than just a disposable automaton that you can throw at zombies until the zombies are gone.

The pressure to save your game, and the genius of Resident Evil

Resident Evil - snake boss
This cheesy-looking snake in the first game is much more frightening than the troll pictured above because:
a.) There's a buildup of anticipation,
b.) You may not have saved in hours.

Since there's real consequences to death in the older survival horror games, there is a constant pressure to save your progress. Many people - myself included - fall into the habit of saving at every save point we come to. It deflates a lot of the tension.

That's where the true genius of Resident Evil's system comes into play. You feel pressured to conserve your valuable ink ribbons. They are in limited supply, and if you don't use them wisely, you may run out long before the game is over. Then you'll be screwed. So when you come across a typewriter, you might have the angel on your right shoulder saying "save now! What if you die?", while the supply-managing devil on your left shoulder is screaming "... but do I really need to spend that ink ribbon right now?"

Of course, you're not actually going to run out of ink ribbons. There's more than enough of them for any reasonable amount of use. I save every time I walked past a room containing a typewriter, and I never came close to running out. If I remember correctly, you could also stack 3 ribbons into one inventory slot, so it didn't take up that much room. Besides, most typewriters were right next to the "magic item box" that stores your excess gear, so you could always just retrieve your ink ribbons from that box just before you save, then dump them again.

Resident Evil - saving
Haven't done this for a while?
You'd better!

But the actual availability of ink ribbons is irrelevant to the sense of anxiety and internal conflict that it creates. The bottom line is that it's a limited resource, so you feel compelled to manage it as such. This adds an element of strategy - and fear - to the simple act of saving. It incorporates saving into both the "survival" and "horror" elements of the game. Early in the game, it can be especially tense, because you have no idea how many ink ribbons will be available, and you probably only have a handful of them on you at any given time.

Bring the "survival" and the "horror" back into "survival horror" games!

Survival horror games are practically dead. The first Dead Space is the last mainstream game that I feel really qualifies. Its sequel barely even tried to be survival horror. The Silent Hill games have also completely lost their way, and Downpour is a culmination of how far survival horror has strayed. Nobody makes true survival horror any more. They're all dumb, simplistic action games and shooters. At least indie developers are still trying. I'm currently playing through Amnesia: The Dark Descent (full review here), and it's pretty damned good!

The death of survival horror, ironically, began with Resident Evil 4. Less than 2 years after Silent Hill 3 set a new standard for how frightening a game could be, Resident Evil 4 gave up entirely and decided to just be an action shooter.

Since then, survival horror games have been few and far between. Their controls, mechanics, challenges, and slow, methodical, cerebral gameplay have fallen out of favor with Call of Duty-chugging frat boys and casual gamers who can't go 20 seconds without entering a "kill streak". The lack of popularity for traditional survival horror isn't because they are bad games; rather, it's because they just don't sell as well as over-the-top spectacle shooters like Uncharted and Gears of War. It's a niche market, but publishers expect them to be massive mainstream blockbusters. So when a game like Dead Space is critically acclaimed, but doesn't meet the sales goals that EA had set for it, the entire genre is seen as "failing" by major publishers.

Modern design philosophies, however, just don't give the same experience as those classic survival horror masterpieces. Auto saves and frequent checkpoints diffuse all tension and fear in a game by removing all consequences from failure. It is almost impossible to maintain a horror atmosphere when your progress is saved every time you open a door!

Resident Evil made saving the game a genuine gameplay mechanic by pressuring the players to manage their fear of death and be judicious with their use of save games. It was brilliant!

Resident Evil - typewriter
Would you like to save your progress?

Comments (11) -

05/21/2013 01:57:41 #

Seriously, I'm going to bookmark this blog... This seems like an awesome place to check a few articles out. Spent half an hour reading them, and I'm not finished!

Wonder if I come across an MGS one... (Biggest MGS fan alive)

05/21/2013 12:17:02 #

Thanks for the feedback, Dem!

I'm also an MGS fan. Snake Eater is my favorite game in the series and one of my top 3 or 5 PS2 games (right up there with Shadow of the Colossus and Silent Hill 2). I haven't really written much about MGS yet though... Frown

Perhaps that will change once I have a chance to take a closer look at the trailers for Phantom Pain.

10/06/2013 07:31:50 #

Congratulations, the article is so accurate and brilliant!
I agree: the old ink ribbon save system added to the game.
Saving was an issue and having to manage the ink ribbons as well as other supplies (like weapons and first aid sprays) made you think twice before carelessly using a typewriter... besides, going back to a saving room might sometimes be dangerous or at least a waste of time. But on the other hand, you did not know how long until you'd find a new one (unless you had a guide)... tension would build up when you realized you hadn't been saving in a while and oh the relief when you entered a new room and heard that typical saving room theme!!!
Being a very nervous player (to say the least) I used to be obsessed about saving as often as possible. I would look for a saving room in my nightmares. My friend still makes fun of me about that.
With the new games, I say "thank god it saves on its own", but actually feel like something is missing.

10/06/2013 09:30:38 #

I forgot!
One more problem with the "save by interacting with an object" was, you never knew if your game was worth saving. Especially when you were forced, for a reason or another, to save only a game at a time (overwriting the previous save), you would often be going, "is it ok to save now, or am I too low on health/ ammo/ have left some important item behind?" because if you made a mistake (espacially in managing resources) and then saved, the mistake would become impossible to undo.
I would use two block at a time and always overwrite the older one, so I'd keep the chance to reload from last save OR the previous, but that wasn't always possible.
Saving used to be kind of stressful back then... but in a good way!

10/22/2014 00:37:58 #

While I agree with the Ink Ribbon argument, I at the same time must also disagree. Casual gamers like it when things aren't as hard to the point of frustration, which is certainly there if you have to replay a huge section of the game over and over again. A horror game succeeds when the player stops playing out of fear, not when he stops out of frustration because he keeps dying. Many players also don't have the time to replay the game section until they can save their progress. Otherwise they'll just drop the game. That's why I think Ink Ribbons should be optional, so you can please both sides. In terms of autosaves, it's the best if they don't happen too soon, so that there is a fair amount of distance between two savepoints.

Terminal Creature
Terminal Creature
10/22/2014 06:21:07 #

@ Nexus
I gotta disagree. The first time I fought G1 (first phase of the main boss) in Resident Evil 2, I died (didn't know he had an instant kill attack!). It was a WHILE since I saved. Yes, I was bummed. However, it was a good lesson; I dropped the extra crap in my inventory (don't know what but I remember not needing any of it) and replaced it with grenade rounds I was saving and herbs. It's safe to say that I put a restraining order on his improvised club! If there was an autosave feature, there's no doubt I would've died a few more times (even if it was possible to backtrack).

Staying on the topic with G1: if there was as autosave, he would not be as terrifying as he was. There's no sense of desperation. If you are dying, it's been a while since you saved and you're running out of resources, your heart's going to be punching your ribs! "I don't want to die! That's so much progress lost! Oh God, I'm seeing the white screen!"
And this is essentially perpetual throughout the game (if you're reckless). When your reckless, you pay for it. Then you realize that you're playing like an ass and start playing  smarter (or stop playing after calling the game stupid).

I also acknowledge that you said to have the autosaves long distances between each other. However, there are two problems that I see:
1) I can't think of an autosave system that doesn't occur after a new room is loaded or an event is completed. Therefore, I don't know any way that the saves can be dispersed.
2) The very sense of acknowledging that there is an autosave takes a lot of the connecting away from the character. A big example I can think of is The Last of Us. In this game, you have characters that are fleshed out. Unlike Murphy Pendelton, you feel like you could know what Troy's email address is. Throughout the game, there is a persistent sense of Death around every corner and you have limited resources. However, there is an autosave. Therefore, I have much less to worry. Therefore, I'm not feeling what Kanji's feeling! "Why are you scared, Booker? You're Jesus!"
3) Having an autosave also creates complacency. Sure, it could be one less thing on your mind. But the discipline of remembering to save is the cornerstone of being a more efficient gamer.

One of the first games I played on the PS3 was Bioshock. The concept of autosaves was new to me (outside of GTA, though that game had pretty substantial  consequences). However, when I died and came back to life, all I could think was "I'm alive? What did I lose? Got my weapons. Ammo. Health kits. Money... Oh, I'm short a few bucks! ..."

There is one other early game that had autosaves in it. And in this game you're subjected to consequences that gradually get worse the more you did it. I give you...

...Animal Crossing! When you're done playing the game, you have to talk to the gyroid sitting outside your house so you can save and quit. Every time. If you don't do this, the next time you play, you'll meet a mole known as "Mr. Resetti". The first time he'll give you a slap on the wrist. Continue to do this and he'll begin to yell at you, requiring you to skip through his dialogue, get to an answer prompt where he asks you "if you understand", you click "no" because it's the default answer, and you sit through until you learn to listen and click "yes" when it pops up! If you do it enough times, his rants will becomes sermons! There was one time when he made the screen go black after he said he'd erase your file as if resetting the system (this was a bluff, but effective none the less). His words weren't nice either (even considering that it was rated "E"), there were many reports from angry parents to Nintendo complaining that Mr. Resetti made their kids cry from his outlash! He was NOT someone you wanted to see!

However, there are some times that autosaves do work. In Portal, you have to solve puzzles. Autosaves begin at the beginning of the puzzle and you aren't at risk of dying if you take the time in knowing what the risky areas are. There are some other examples but this has gone on long enough!

Anyways, that's about it. If the casual players playing these games and not liking it because there isn't an autosave is a concern, then I say screw them. I want the challenge. I want the rush! I want to have the choice to save (and get a gatling gun when I don't)!

10/22/2014 21:26:28 #

@Terminal Creature

I'm not even disagreeing. But I don't think you fully understood what I was going to. Also saying to just screw the casual gamers and potential new comers is kind of a dick thing to say and very egoistic. My main point was to have the Inc Ribbons optional, like the setting for difficulty levels or in SH also the riddle difficulty. Look at games like Silent Hill. You can save your progress via check point, which you can simply use if desired. This is the kind of saving I appreciate the most. Not too easy and not too hard. In Bioshock you have the option to deactivate the Vita Chambers, which would always bring you back to live with little consequences.

Terminal Creature
Terminal Creature
10/22/2014 22:21:44 #

@Hivemind Hammerhead

To be fair, saying "screw casual gamers" WAS a dick thing to say (I am a dick. I'm sure you know). However, the reason I said this is because there are (A LOT of) casual games out there for  casual gamers. Games shouldn't have to compromise its difficulty or even its gameplay for people that aren't good at these games (and probably won't play).

Also (and I'm sure you notice this in my other posts) when I make a response to someone, I like to make it a very long post filled with a wide array of facts (as I call them). This is to make sure that my argument is air tight; So there isn't anything that is mistaken (or minimal misunderstandings). However, I may bring up (many) things that the person with a different argument may agree with. It isn't that I think your argument and mine are black and white. It's that I want to set a stage for my argument. Hell, we may agree 98% with each other (we usually do). The only things I can think of that we disagree with is that you say the autosave feature is salvageable (in a few cases I agree) and possibly bringing a new audience to a game (I think it can be a large detriment in most cases).

10/26/2014 13:15:40 #


I understand the point about autosaves, and I understand that it was a common complaint with older games (not just horror games).

But remember that the older games weren't designed to be as difficult as newer games. The challenge came mostly from the sense of attrition, and not from the individual encounters. Modern action and horror games have a lot of all-or-nothing trial-and-error: you encounter enemies, they kill you, you learn their patterns, you retry, you defeat them, optionally repeat, you move on. Your health auto-regenerates, your supplies get restocked, and there's generally very little - if any - long-term consequences or effects of the encounter. Instead of replaying a single, one-hour chunk of gameplay once (and having the opportunity to explore a different area altogether), you replay the same five-minute chunk of gameplay ten times, which is just as time-consuming but far more tedious and frustrating. That is, unless you set the game to "easy", but then you just go through the motions and the whole game becomes tedious.

Older games were designed so that individual encounters weren't so overwhelming. There were very few (if any) instant deaths, and the few bosses or traps that did cause insta-deaths were usually completely avoidable if you were careful and observant (the refrigerator monster in the first Silent Hill, or the mutated fish in the first Resident Evil, for example), or they provided plenty of opportunity to save prior to the encounter so that you wouldn't have to backtrack too far. If you weren't equipped to handle a given situation, it was usually your fault for not bringing powerful enough weapons with you, or for not exploring for more supplies (which Terminal Creature pointed out). And if you did die without saving for a while, that was usually a mistake that you would not repeat! As I point out in this blog, Resident Evil provided plenty of ink ribbons. Unless you were running back and saving every few minutes, you were in no danger of running out completely. The biggest danger was not leaving enough room in your inventory to pick up the next Ink Ribbon.

I just finished playing "Alien Isolation"*, and that game is a perfect example of what I'm talking about. It has save points and a health bar much like old-school survival horror, but the alien is a one-hit kill if it gets you, and the levels are very linear. Thus, the save points are ridiculously close together (every five rooms or so) because a single screw up or random screw over will send you back to a checkpoint. After a few retries, I'm not afraid of the alien, and I'm sick to death of sitting in lockers. Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Alone In the Dark, etc rarely (if ever) had insta-kills, and a single screw up would rarely (if ever) immediately send you back to a checkpoint. You could usually retreat from combat by escaping into another room to live and fight another day, and there were usually other areas that you could explore instead. It shouldn't require the player to [always] die in order to learn a lesson, because in real life, you don't get to die and retry either.

*"Alien Isolation" game review at :

10/26/2014 13:19:17 #

@Terminal Creature

I agree that Portal is an excellent example of autosaving done right!!! Smile

Since the game is broken up into distinct puzzles, it makes sense to autosave between puzzles, especially since the game has no inventory or health bars or anything. That game very much exists "in the moment", so autosaving after a milestone is acceptable and preferred.

10/26/2014 13:24:30 #

BTW: I have updated the "Cost of Dying" and "Fear of the Unknown" sections of this blog article to better reflect some of the conversation that we've been having. I further explained how the old games create a sense of attrition.

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