Connect with us


The Art of the Save Point

Creating and keeping memories.



“Anything not saved will be lost.”

– Nintendo Wii Quit Screen

In the formative years of gaming, as the arcade cabinets gave rise to home consoles, the story began to bleed in, and next came length. Unlike some of the industry’s earliest titles, these two factors initiated a need to continue progress where one left off. This gave rise to the password system of save points.

Passwords were a simple tool used to restore a game to a specific state that matches where the player left off, in both story progress and inventory. Passwords allowed progress to be “saved” without anything having to be written on the cartridge–all a player needed was pencil and paper, something easily shared but at risk of being thrown out by one of your parents, mistaken as gibberish.

Image: Faxanadu (NES)

But then 1986’s The Legend of Zelda hit the Nintendo Entertainment System, the first major title to include a menu option to select a “Save”. The Legend of Zelda introduced players to cartridges containing batteries that allowed for three save files, something perfect for a family-shared system or a group of friends passing around one copy of the game. Unknown to many at the time though, these batteries can eventually die and take your file with them, showing us that memories are, in fact, not forever–but they do last a good while and, unlike you, are replaceable.

For years, all save data would be held on cartridges until the arrival of the Sony Playstation. The PlayStation marked a change in saving with the concept of the memory card. Now saving was printed on your card and able to go with you to anyone’s system. Such a change left some buyers unaware a card was needed as they gifted their children or themselves a Playstation. Many people’s electric bills suffered as they left their consoles on all night so they could pick up Final Fantasy VII where they left off. Kids often running home from school with excitement always returned to find someone had shut the console off.

The standard PlayStation memory card came with fifteen blocks of memory. Generally, a game’s save file would take up one or two blocks–there were a few deadly outliers, such as Darkstone, that needed six blocks, and Diablo practically required a dedicated memory card, but those meatier titles were far and few between. If you were a kid during this time, memory cards acted as early economic lessons in saving and planning, especially if you had to share a card with a sibling or two. The concept of the memory card was wonderful, but its early limitations were often on display for those who quickly gathered a collection of save files.

In my childhood home, between myself my brother, and my mother, we had a bunch of memory cards. We’d write our names on the labels that came with them or write the games that were on each card. CD cases were sold that held slots for a few cards for storage, but that was not enough to help our situation. One or two cards eventually were not enough, either. I had a card for games in progress and another that was designated for the ones I had 100% completed saves on–and eventually, I even needed a second one of those. I even had one card that was for specific points in Metal Gear Solid just so I could boot up those scenes anytime I wanted to, long before YouTube solved my need to watch those cutscenes repeatedly.

I still own those cards, sitting as museums of my years of adventure and wonder. There is something tangible and fulfilling about them, in a way that the folder on my computer with digitized saves can never be.

The seventh generation of video game consoles marked a significant change in hardware. Systems were taking their first step towards being more akin to computers and with this came internal memory instead of memory cards. On top of this, there was a huge trend in gaming being more cinematic. Many games focused on a narrative roller-coaster experience, and to help minimize the interruption of this movie-like experience came easier difficulties combined with frequent auto-saves and checkpoints.

The save point started to become a rare element.

Some audiences saw the save point as an outdated mechanic that prevented them from quitting whenever they wanted without losing a minute of progress, but the save point was often a gameplay mechanic in itself; a checkpoint of progress used to aid in delivering an intended experience. Depending on the game, making it from save to save involved more planning and caution than a title that saved every few steps. Item management in long dungeons became important; wasting a resource or missing a shot in survival horror had to be dealt with, getting spotted in a stealth game meant making a daring escape, or making a difficult decision in an RPG where choices matter meant you had to commit to it. While there are those that roll with the punches, many players are prone to re-load after any mishap.

In the past two generations of consoles, especially with the wave of independent developers, saving is now commonly seen in all forms, finally dependent on the experience intended rather than what technology has to offer.

Commit To Memory

The save point comes in many forms. Sometimes it’s a person, a place, a beam of light, or some kind of… thing.

The Utility Save Points of Vagrant Story, Legend of Mana, and Grandia

Some save points are simply a utility; an icon that serves its function but is not part of the world or acknowledged by any character, outside of perhaps a tutorial. Their design is meant to be eye-catching to ensure a player does not miss them. Many are at least designed to blend in with the aesthetic of the world, others less so. We see this in the rainbow cones of Grandia, the shining blue sigils of Vagrant Story, the statues in Legend of Mana, and the tall blue beacons in Legend of Dragoon.

The rainbow cones of Grandia stand out no matter the environment. Between their height and spectrum of color, they are hard to miss, whether it’s in the dark earthy tones of the Sult Ruins or the lush greens and vibrant flora colors of the Valley of the Flying Dragon. However, visually speaking they are not the most interesting. The sigils of Vagrant Story, stand out in the often-muted city of Leá Monde, where the color blue is a rarity. Yet, unlike the save point in Grandia that exists outside the narrative and its world, the blue sigil fits as part of Leá Monde. It is a city littered with sigil magic and grimoires, abound in door locks and floor traps. Despite no plot mention, it is not a stretch to imagine this save point (that doubles as a teleporter) being a part of the magic that coats the city.

This is a more common save point. One that fits within the world even if it isn’t directly a part of the story. Phones, animals, inns, typewriters, computers, and even toilets.

save points in video games -- The Worldly Save Points of EarthBound, Silent Hill, Wild Arms
The Worldly Save Points of EarthBound, Silent Hill, Wild Arms

In EarthBound, Ness must call his father from a house phone or pay phone to save the game. Referencing the creator Shigesato Itoi’s disdain of the work-over-family culture of Japan, Ness’s father remains unseen and away from home but always offers encouragement and some money in the bank.

Save Points in early titles of the Yakuza series were payphones. As the series progressed and became more modernized in terms of setting and game mechanics, players were able to save anywhere as the characters had cell phones. The payphones slowly disappeared from the streets of Kamurocho. Alien: Isolation also uses phones as a save point, but unlike others, these are not in safe spaces at all. The animation for using one of these emergency phones is long, can’t be skipped, and can be interrupted by the alien stabbing Ripley through the chest with its tail. Choosing a moment to save must be planned and leaves the player feeling vulnerable and tense rather than relieved.

Dangerous save points can also be found in Final Fantasy XII. The Save Crystals are sometimes mimicked by Crystalbugs to lure unsuspecting prey to be fed on. Chrono Trigger’s serene and sparkling blue save points also look like an enemy encountered later in the story.

The unforgettable moment in Metal Gear Solid when Psycho Mantis reads your memory card feels like an invasion of privacy. He knows what games you’ve played and remarks on your personality based on how much you save or have been spotted by the soldiers of Shadow Moses. But nothing is more terrifying than Eternal Darkness lying about your save file being deleted and making it out to be your fault.

A save point can often be a comfort, glowing like a beacon of safety in the distance like the lanterns of Fatal Frame 2 or offering a safe space to rest like the haven of Evil Within, beckoning with the lovely notes of Clair de Lune. The typewriters of the survival horror series Resident Evil, turn saving into another resource to be managed, like ammunition and health, by requiring an ink ribbon to be used each time. What makes them truly stand out is the safe room they inhabit. These areas are free from the horrors of the outside and offer a reprieve signified by the achingly melancholic and beautiful music that always accompanies these spaces. The act of saving becomes an experience of reprieve.

Speaking of a reprieve, Travis Touchdown of No More Heroes saves by using a toilet. Taking the sit down to reflect on his memories and thoughts.

The Save Frogs of Mother 3 love sharing their thoughts and wisdom with you and can be found all over doing froggy things. Basking in a pond, on a rock, or inside of a snake. There’s even a ghost frog. The sentient fridge from Eastward has some thoughts too. There is very little to do but think as a fridge, of course. As the fridge itself says:

“You can refrigerate your memories here. But when you take them out again… will the new you be really you?”

In Nier: Automata, saving can only be done near an access point. These allow the androids to upload their data and memories to the orbiting station. If they are destroyed, the memories can be uploaded to an identical android.

This dips into the best kind of save-point, one that works into the story on top of everything else.

save points in video games -- The Story Saves of Chrono Cross, Xenogears, and Silent Hill 2
The Story Saves of Chrono Cross, Xenogears, and Silent Hill 2

The Records of Fate in Chrono Cross are utilized by an entity known as FATE. They are used to control the actions of the inhabitants of the archipelago, El Nido. Their culture has them visit a Record of Fate regularly, like a religious ritual, something they do not question. With this, FATE ensures that no one reaches the outside world.

The Memory Cubes of Xenogears seem of no importance until the story moves to a factory where they are being made. It’s genuinely jarring to see a mechanic taken for granted being mass-produced within Krelian’s Lab, strolling by in an assembly line. It is revealed that they are passing on information to the enemy.

In Silent Hill 2–a title where everything drips with symbolism–the save points are small red squares. Glowing red, they stand out in the fog-covered and muted town where the game takes place, but more importantly, they are the same size and shape as Mary’s Letter, the one addressed to James Sutherland from his dead wife. When James utilizes one of these he is seen in visible pain as his repressed memories move to the surface. The final save point in the story is nine of these squares arranged three by three creating one large square representing his memories being whole and no longer being repressed.

One of the greatest save points of all time though is the Moogles of Final Fantasy IX. Eye-catching yet naturally blending in with the world (sometimes actively hiding), Moogles bring a lot of life to the act of saving and are a part of the story. While iconic to Final Fantasy as a whole with their cute and fluffy appearance complete with a pom-pom on their head, they are made all the more special in IX. Each of these Moogles has a name, personality, and an area they inhabit. The Mognet sidequest tasks you with delivering letters from Moogle to Moogle on your journey giving a look into their lives and culture. Some are found in cozy nooks at village inns, while others are hiding in a tree stump of the Evil Forest or a barrel on an enemy airship, only seen by their pom-pom sticking out. Some are on a journey, others are explorers, and two are even found on honeymoon. Each one lets you save, rest, and check mail but some even have a little shop. Saving makes them whip out a giant book with a loud thump and take their quill pen to it. While journeying on the world map, you can use a flute to summon one Moogle in particular. Calling and canceling repeatedly begins to tick him off…

save points in video games -- Final Fantasy series
Final Fantasy IX

Memories are fragile things. If we are lucky, our brains won’t fail us, and we will hold the best of them for life. And as we hold our gaming memories on pieces of paper filled with passwords, on memory cards, on hard drives, and on the cloud, we almost fool ourselves into thinking they are indestructible–eternal–but they will one day too, will fade.

In the end, what truly makes these memories eternal is sharing our stories. Someone making a video essay on the game of their soul, a journalist writing some piece on a game’s anniversary, a nostalgic fan on a message board reminiscing, or two friends in a bar trading war stories. That’s the real save point. In the words of a Mother 3 save frog:

“A story is a series of memories. Memories are remembered with other memories, and in turn become memories themselves. If you don’t take care to preserve your memories, you’ll forget them. So, please tell us frogs your memories of everything so far… That is what people refer to as “saving”.

Now, then… Save your game?”

Geordi fell in love with storytelling when he was just four years old. Watching movies that kids maybe shouldn’t, reading books with too many big words, and exploring new worlds on his NES and SNES, he found his passion. Left with a deep empathy for countless worlds and all who inhabited them, he pursued not only media, but firefighting, much to the confusion of his teachers. When he is not consuming every film, book, and game he can get his eyes on, he’s writing about them… and perhaps making his own.