I play many more games now than I used to when I was younger. There are a bunch of reasons for that. One is money: I have much more access to cash as a working adult than I did as a kid, teenager, or student. Another is time: again, as an adult without kids I determine for myself how to allocate my leisure hours, rather than filling every moment with the demands of school, parental approval, and the rest.
But one major reason I am able to play so many more games now than I could ten or fifteen years ago is because the games themselves have changed. One little innovation at a time, they've gotten more accessible. It's not the dumbing down of gameplay that so many long-time and hardcore gamers fear. Rather, it's an emerging sense that games should fit my life, rather than making me reshape my world around their demands.
The easiest examples are in portable gaming: I can close my DS at any time, for any reason, and come back to it later. Likewise, I can flick my phone back to the home screen in the middle of any game, should I need to. But it's not just portable games that have learned to accommodate players' priorities over the years.
So what are the two best innovations in gaming? What are the functions that have made me, and millions of others, able to play more?
I can play more because I can walk away. Pause and save have made me a more avid gamer.
Pause is not a new function. We've been able to halt the action during segments of player control since Mario first strolled jauntily into our living rooms. But the "segments of player control" is the key phrase there.
I like dialogue scenes in games, when they're good. I hate when my phone rings, or something else in the house needs my attention, and I miss the dialogue entirely. If I'm playing Mass Effect and someone needs my attention while I'm shooting or wandering around, I can pause my game and shift my focus. But if it's the middle of a high-drama scene? I really hope a dialogue choice will come up soon, so at least I can let the game hang out on its own, frozen in a moment of indecision.
The ability to pause a game during a cut scene is probably my favorite of all the innovations I've seen in the games of the last few years. Sometimes, you just need to stop for a moment. It has nothing to do with skill or with control, though sometimes for sanity's sake, a break is the best thing.
But whether a non-interactive segment of a game lasts for 90 seconds or 90 minutes, sometimes you just need to stop the action right now and go deal with something else immediately. The doorbell, the phone, a crying child, a suspicious "thump" followed by a drawn-out howl from the cat's last known location... the demands of the physical world have to trump gameplay, often. That's just how it is.
And while the demands of adulthood make the need for a pause ability glaringly clear to me daily, I might actually have reaped more benefit from the ability to pause cut scenes back in my youth than I do now. I strongly doubt I was the only gaming child to have many a conversation like this in their past:
"Come set the table!"
"One second! I just need to let this scene finish!"
"Come set the table now. Dinner's ready."
"One more minute, mom! It's almost done playing I swear!"
"[First name, Middle name, Last name], you get your butt in this kitchen right now or so help me...
If I could have hit a single key at any time, and paused any game in progress no matter what was going on at the time, I could have avoided a great deal of adolescent strife. The more we can halt a game in progress, the better off all future generations of gamers will be.
Sometimes, the neighborhood loses power, or the cat steps on the switch in your power strip. Sometimes your game crashes or, worse, your system does. Sometimes, something else comes up and you need to walk away from a game not just for the next ten or twenty minutes, but for the day.
My spouse and I recently played Xenogears, an older game that uses the save points model. And some of those save points were awfully far apart. And when your system crashes between save points, you can end up repeating an entire evening's worth of gameplay.
I've walked away from more than one game in my life after losing a day's play. Some things are worth doing once, but not worth repeating.
I understand the technical limitations that led to the convention of save points, in older games. In fact, if I'm playing a title nearly as old as I am, I find myself grateful to be able to save at all. I used to leave my NES on for weeks at a time if I was working on a game I had no way to save. I'm amazed it never overheated.
But in the era since data storage space has become inexpensive and plentiful, I am glad that for the most part, saves have increased to go with. In most PC games I can create a quicksave at any point during play, then shut down and walk away. Console games I've played tend to be slightly less accommodating with player-created saves, but many have autosave features that kick in often enough to prevent me from regularly repeating areas I'd finished. At the worst, I end up repeating 30 or 40 minutes' worth of gameplay, rather than two or three hours' worth, or more.
It's one thing to backtrack and repeat an area or a boss fight (or both) because you lost. We learn from our failures: next time, take a different strategy and do it better. But having to repeat content because of circumstances beyond your control? It's enough to make a player never come back.
Being able to save any time actually makes me much more likely to take on a more challenging game. I have the time to play, but I don't have the time to devote a whole weekend to repeating myself. If I know that failure at attempting something difficult won't punish me by making me repeat hours of the less difficult content that came before, I'm more willing to take the risk.
I asked some friends and colleagues what innovations had made their gaming lives easier, more fun, or just better in some way. Most of them answered either "pause" or "save," in some form. But one or two were excited about cloud saving, as well. Our gaming future is big on mobility, and our games and their progress are tied increasingly to us, in the forms of accounts and usernames, and less to our devices and hardware. And after a recent sudden hard drive malfunction, I've learned to be grateful for all of the saved games the Steam Cloud rescued for me.
In general, though, folks I asked all mentioned developments with one thing in common: flexibility. The ability to skip cut-scenes, as well as to pause them. The ability to change difficulty settings on a game already in progress. The ability to name your saved game files (something I wish more games did). The ability to see how many hours you've put into your progress and into your game. The ability to read an achievements list, if you choose, and get ideas for what may be possible and how hard the designers think it is to do.
Not all games are for all players. Nor will they ever be. Nor should they be. But opening up the world of games—in every genre, across every platform—to be as accommodating as possible to as many players as want to make the effort doesn't make a game easier or less challenging. A game can have the hardest systems in the world, and yet still let me hit pause when I need to run to the restroom. A game can challenge me in a hundred different ways, but still let me save my progress and walk away when I need to run an urgent errand.
If I want to throw my controller across the room because I've blown the same fight a dozen times, in a dozen different ways, that's a challenging game. If I want to throw my controller across the room because a system hiccup made me lose four hours of progress, that's a hostile one.
A game that respects my time, and is willing to let me walk away whenever? That's the game I'll return to.
(Top photo: Flickr user iCena)