This week I was inspired by a tweet by YouTuber Mark Brown, who posted an image plucked straight from the Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall’s manual. While by no means the first Bethesda title, it was one of its earliest, and the manual for the game carried a pretty straightforward message - please don’t save scum.
Save scumming, for the uninitiated, is the process of constantly saving and reloading in order to achieve the best possible scenario. So if, for example, one of your characters died in XCOM, the process of reloading a turn to try it again and save the character would be ‘save scumming’.
Anyway, in the Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall manual, Bethesda lays out its intentions like this:
“Most computer gamers use the save game to maximise their playing ability. Anytime something goes wrong, they return to a saved game and replay it until they get it right. The final history of their game looks like an endless streak of lucky breaks and perfect choices.
“Role-playing is not about playing the perfect game. It is about building a character and creating a story. Bethesda Softworks has worked very hard to make The Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall a game that does not require players to replay their mistakes. All adversity can be overcome, excepting only the character’s actual death. In fact, you will never see some of the most interesting aspects of the game unless you play through your mistakes.
If your character dies, gets locked in a dungeon, or some other truly catastrophic event takes place, by all means return to your last saved game and replay it. However, if you character is caught pickpocketing, if a quest goes wrong, or some other mundane mishap occurs, let it play out. You may be surprised by what happens next.”
The idea is pretty simple but the ramifications are potentially huge. I should imagine the vast majority of gamers usually save and reload their games. In fact, plenty of games are developed now, even RPGs, so that failure outside of death pretty much isn’t even an option. Look at The Witcher 3, where you will be the all-powerful hero of the tale regardless of what happens. Sure, you may make a murky moral choice along the way, but it matters for naught in a gameplay sense.
But the very essence of role-playing, in particular, is living with your choices. Making a bad decision and trying to climb your way out of it. That first paragraph has stuck with me though, particularly when thinking of modern Bethesda games like Skyrim, where I made use of a procession of saves and reloads to emerge as the champion of the world, master magician, ace assassin, and unparalleled thief. Wouldn’t it have been interesting if I’d live with the consequences of my actions? To be caught thieving and thrown into jail. Or losing all my precious potions in a battle that got out of hand.
So I thought I’d open this up to everyone and see what your thoughts are. Do you use save scumming to create “an endless streak of perfect choices”, or do you prefer to live with decisions and see where the adventure takes you? Which games handle choice and consequence the best? Get voting and share why below!