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Mount&Blade is a game that simulates medieval warfare in the fictional but magic-free land of Calradia. In an open world, the player character can recruit huge armies, trade goods, and engage in battles with up to 100 combatants on the field at once. The game has detailed mounted combat and a deep combat and character advancement system. The world would not be as immersive, though, if not for the game's save system.
When the player creates a new character, she has an option of two save systems. One is called "Realistic! No Quit Without Saving!" In this mode, the game is automatically saved after most events and when the player quits. Upon returning to a character, the saved game is loaded. It's impossible (or at least difficult) to load a save to reverse a mistake or choice.
This approach isn't unique, of course. The Wizardry series, many Rogue-like games, and recent indie game Depths of Peril offer similar options, among other works. However, Mount&Blade is special because it allows major player failure while not erasing the player's progress when failure occurs.
In Mount&Blade, failure is common. If the player character falls in battle, entire armies can be lost, and towns can be razed by bandits. Failing to complete a quest can lower the PC's reputation or alienate team members, and characters remember and comment on failures in battle. Death, however, never occurs. When the PC's entire army is defeated, the PC is captured, and must escape or bribe her captors to be set free.
This means that the player must think carefully about her strategy and her decisions, because they will have lasting consequences. The player will never lose hours of game time, though, because the player character never dies. She may lose money, followers, and reputation, but those can eventually be recovered, and earned experience and learned skills persist.
Victory is Yours
This is where the balance of Mount&Blade is struck. The player can fail, placing the PC in a very unpleasant position, and can greatly affect the game world with her choices. However, the player can never fail badly enough to earn a final "GAME OVER" with no way to recover.
In Depths of Peril, failure is no big deal. If the PC dies, she's resurrected in her covenant base with only a small cost of experience and power. This means that death holds little weight in the game. There is an overarching game of covenant rivalry, but it is very long-term compared to typical gameplay. Therefore, the "no quit without saving" technique doesn't help with the issue of making player choice more significant.
On the other end of the spectrum, Wizardry 8's Ironman mode emulates the saving system of Rogue-like games, which is fiendishly cruel. Not only are these games difficult to begin with, and not only can you not save, but character death results in the deletion of the saved game. Yes, this makes the player care about her choices, but at the cost of high difficulty and frustration. Some players enjoy the challenge, but most would find it unforgivably harsh.
Mount&Blade's approach results in a game which challenges the player and punishes failure, but doesn't ever erase hours of progress by deleting saved games. This helps with making the game world seem more real; just as in real life, mistakes can happen, and choices are irreversible. Each decision the game offers feels important, even with the game's lack of a set storyline and open world.
This technique can be applied to any game which provides a wide degree of player choice. Saving periodically and prohibiting reloading in the middle of a play session means that the player's actions and decisions can't be undone. However, to avoid alienating players who aren't seeking a cruel difficulty level, the negative consequences of failure can't be game-ending. A game could put "dead" characters in the hospital for a length of in-game time, or have the characters captured like Mount&Blade does. Games without combat will have an easier time of this, as character death can likely be eliminated entirely. However, players' actions should still have meaning, and mistakes can be punished in other ways.
Mount&Blade's approach to saving and failure would be appropriate in any game which aims to make players carefully consider their decisions, and where the gameplay is not so much a skill challenge as an experience in crafting a unique story. It focuses the freedom of an open-world game so that each action feels important and permanent.
[Gregory Weir is a writer, amateur game developer, and software programmer. He maintains Ludus Novus, a podcast and accompanying blog dedicated to the art of interaction. He can be reached at [email protected]]