Open-world games generally have a very specific save system in that you can save anywhere and anytime. On PC, they usually facilitate this with quicksave and quickload keys so that you can you don’t even have to go through a menu to use and abuse these two functions. In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, for instance, you just have to press F5 to save and then press F9 whenever you want to return to that point in time.
The purpose of this for developers is to offer players with so many extra keys the ability to utilize them and not be burdened by unnecessary menu navigation (ostensibly, anyways). For players, it works on a different level: experimentation. When I come across a situation that looks to be game-changing or know I’m headed for a conversation in which I’ll have to make a heady decision, I quicksave before I proceed. This way, I can tinker around with the game and see how I can immediately affect the world and my progress. And, sorry to say, I kind of use it as a cheat in Bethesda games like Skyrim and Fallout 3 so that I can get by locks and conversations that are way beyond my skills.
But that’s kind of the point: to cheat the system a little. I remember my first abuse of quicksave/quickload was Max Payne 2 on PC. After every encounter, I would quicksave just in case another one would surprise me and leave me wanting for ammo and health. On a certain level, it’s expected and opens games to a completely different type of gameplay, one where the player treats the world as a sandbox ripe for poking and prodding. Just look at Dishonored of this year. With its quicksave and quickload capabilities, it invites quick and rapid iterative testing. You can easily test the limits of guard patrols and sight distances and reload with no consequence. While the saves and loads may be quick, it slows down the game to a very deliberate pace and greatly expands the experimentation theme of the game without directly affecting how the game plays
It’s different, though, when those reload points land out of your control. When the game operates on checkpoints instead of offering the user the ability to choose when he or she wants to roll back to, it kind of homogenizes the experience. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it just makes for a different kind of game. In Hitman: Absolution, for instance, every person playing the game will always start out from a predefined set of locations and circumstances. There is absolutely zero variability here (especially since everything and everyone respawns upon reloading a checkpoint, but that’s a gripe for another time).
That’s what makes Halo games so special. It kind of mixes the two into a dynamic auto-checkpointing system. People have hypothesized and pondered how it works, attempting to divine what qualifies as a good time to checkpoint in Halo games, but it all seems rather moot. The game chooses and you live and die—sometimes repeatedly—by that autonomous decision. Sometimes it very overtly is based on when you kill enough enemies while other times it’s obviously checkpointing at certain locations on the map, but almost as frequently, Halo saves a checkpoint just because. It might be in the middle of a firefight, you in the middle of retreating behind cover, or it might be as you flip a Warthog over a barrier. Much like life, Halo checkpoints just sort of happen.
More than previous games, Halo 4 made me conscious of this. Maybe it was sheer happenstance or maybe it was a tweaked checkpoint system from past games, but it seemed like Halo 4 would save at the most inopportune moments. A second away from death, out of ammo, or after walking in the completely wrong direction for what feels like far too many minutes, I would see that checkpoint hit and just kind of wonder why. Other times, I would scream aloud WWWHYYYYYYYY, but my point remains: it was all nigh inscrutable.
Until it kind of landed on me—heavy in the chest with a thick and solid thud—that it was opening up the game to a similar sensation to the Skyrims and Fallouts and Dishonoreds of the gaming world; it was opening me up to rapid experimentation. However, my mental model worked in a fundamentally different way. In the discrete save/loading methodology, it was easy to empty my mind of each past and future and just focus on my present (likely dire) situation. I would usually refamiliarize myself with the current state of the world just to make sure nothing had miraculously changed in a world I’d thought static all Pleasantville-like.
In Halo 4, though, I began to notice that I was doing a mental quicksave myself whenever I saw that checkpoint hit. I would quickly internalize the state of the world for future reference. It was more than remembering; it was like a pure data set, an infallible visual representation of the entire world of the game, was stored in my brain. I could see and recall in an instant the exact location of the three Grunts to my left by that pillar. I instinctively know there is a firing Needler coming in from my 5 o’clock. It might as well be a fact of everyday life that an Elite has position (x,y,z) and current vector of (u,v,w). The entire quicksave function had relocated to my brain.
This opens the game up to an entirely different method of experimentation that plays into the puzzle-like mechanics of Halo so well. Since the control of the checkpoints is completely out of my hands, progress soon becomes the only worthwhile milestone of the game, but the necessary elegance soon becomes all encompassing. As I’m sure is the same with most of you, when you begin any encounter, you have some idea of what an optimal flow would be. Head left, throw grenade right, clear out hallway, cut across the center, and choke up on the middle as the Covenant try to overwhelm you.
But that fails. Luckily, you hit a checkpoint right after you threw the grenade and the world at that moment is imprinted on your brain. That frag is flying out over two barriers and a mildly empty expanse. A Jackal is over there, unfortunately pushing you towards the hallway you just died in. More importantly, you know that every part of your plan before that grenade worked. Everything after that? Not so much.
So now, instead, you push forward. Bad idea. There’s a Hunter, and he’s going to need to be taken care of one-on-one. Your mental imprint is updated. You fire right and push the Jackal into your grenade (silly Jackal). You retreat backwards that way and dump into the hallway, clearing it out, so now you can take care of the Hunter, the same one that just smashed the ground not two inches in front of you.
All of this happens in an instant. This all happens without thought so much as instinct because that checkpoint is internalized and made to be a very specific part of you. Emotive associations begin to form with good and bad parts of the surround area, where there will be trouble and where there will be aid. Rather than sit and ruminate on your predicament, you act. The dynamism of Halo 4‘s checkpoint system forces you to not think as much as you do simply react. Saves happen in the moment, so your actions happen accordingly. You don’t have time to stop and think so you don’t. You adapt and the game changes with you.
I’m not entirely sure it started out purposeful or not with Halo: Combat Evolved, but this in-the-moment, mystical checkpoint system that Halo 4 still uses absolutely works. More than that, it’s elegant. Deliberate or not, it a relatively small, front-facing change from the usual checkpoint systems that manages to fundamentally changes how the game works. Later Call of Duty games worked similarly, though it was more a matter of where you were and what you were doing at the time an objective completed, so you could be anywhere doing just about anything when you kill the last guy. It makes for trudging through on Veteran a unique experience, but I digress. Neither Call of Duty nor any other game makes the same instant flash imprint on my brain like Halo 4 does. An entire digital world is stored and recreated and analyzed within a single moment and recalled just as quickly.
There’s still a little part of my brain that remembers where I left off two weeks ago. And I still know there’s an Elite hiding behind that rock.