“Remember to Save Often”: The Meta-Game Tactics of 'Dishonored'

Saving in order to knowingly reload isn't so much prescient as it is a tactic that takes advantage of the memory of prior failures. Exploiting the elements that exist outside of the game proper is done out of a desire to play well and to execute even better.

A few years ago, the Moving Pixels podcast decided to go back and playthrough Max Payne and Max Payne 2, two well regarded shooters from the early 2000s (”Moving Pixels Podcast: The World of Max Payne, PopMatters, 12 July 2010 and (”Moving Pixels Podcast: Max Payne in Love”, PopMatters, 2 August 2010). One topic that came up while discussing both games was how the use of save games and especially the quick save feature becomes a kind of meta-game tactic in shooters of that era and the previous decade.

Playing both titles on PC, it becomes a force of habit to "Remember to Save Often” because the game is fast-paced and can be brutally unforgiving to a player who makes a bad split second decision. Max is, indeed, a one man army, who with the advantage of the possibility of popping a time slowing, bullet-time mode can generate an incredible amount of havoc when played effectively. However, as Max enters room upon room of antagonists that far outnumber him, understanding the layout and general movements of his opponents "ahead of time” is what leads to the most spectacularly efficient gun battles.

As a result, quick save is the player's best friend because Max's and the player's knowledge is not so much prescient as it is based on the memory of prior failures. One always pops a quick save before entering a new environment, just in case a bad initial move leads to a quick and less than spectacular death. Indeed, even just taking heavy damage might cause a player to instinctively want to reload to make sure to do it right the next time, rather than to suffer a grave health penalty as things get even more complicated. One might even run around a room while heavily damaged just to “scout it out” before dying, giving a better tactical sense of how to play it better the next time. One might even also quick save before entering a room, enter, pop off one guy, find cover, and quick save again, leaving options open to restart the fight from its start or to instead simply take advantage of incremental successes like this to assure that at least one foe is down if Max hasn't yet been wounded.

Essentially, Max Payne and its predecessors (games like Doom, Dark Forces, and the like) are played on PCs at least on two tactical levels -- mastering tactical play through the normal mechanics of controlling an avatar caught up in a gun fight and the meta-game tactics of using saves as a means of better controlling short term outcomes, especially via quick saves.

In some sense, Jordan Mechner seemed to have recognized the interest in this meta-game built on the faster reload speed of PCs and had already considered ways of integrating this playstyle into his own games, but without taking the player out of the game to do it. Instead, he managed to move the meta-qualities of this tactical play back into the game itself. The ability to rewind time in both The Last Express and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time as an actual part of the game encouraged the kind of stupid risk taking of remembering to save often without actually having to fritter away ones time in load screens and save screens. Players of Sands of Time, for instance, can charge into rooms, throw themselves over the sides of cliffs with the hope of making a jump, or attempt a mad dash between a score of whirling blade traps because the ability to rewind essentially gives the player the same chance to get a sense of the environment, where obstacles and enemies might exist in it, and then to capitalize on that information “the next time” rather than count on executing everything perfectly the first time.

So, in some sense, my experience of playing Dishonored has created in me a sense of the very, very retrograde.

Because Dishonored is a first person stealth game, not a shooter, it requires the kind of “no mistakes” efficiency of older titles, but even more so. Getting spotted by a guard usually results in a larger group of guards descending en masse on your position. While certainly Dishonored allows for the option of fighting them all, the spirit of the game seems to encourage a more efficient assassin than that, one that can prowl rooms and pick off the opposition one by one. To really “get it right,” I have found myself following the advice found on one of the load screens in the game, “Remember to Save Often” (and this message makes me further think that “getting it right” incrementally by using saves to my advantage really is in the spirit of the game's designers' intent).

However, often enough, I find myself spending more time in some instances saving and reloading, saving and reloading, than in playing the game proper. I may have turned a 15-hour game into a 20-hour game or even a 25-hour game just by sheer insistence on using saves to my best advantage.

It is a testament to how well the game plays in general that I am willing to continue doing so, though it also may be related to a sense of nostalgia for games that hinge on meta-game tactics that also keep me invested in the game. I don't mind entirely replaying a room a dozen times for the sake of the sense that I finally “figured out” the very best route to eliminating all three of the guards that regularly patrol that room without raising any sort of alarm at all. Despite being action-oriented games, these kind of retrograde titles because of the use of saves almost become something more like a puzzle game.

Indeed, though, really the biggest problem that I am possibly having is that I am playing dishonored on a console. The problem may not be the inclusion of the meta-game tactics at all. Admittedly, this is a game that plays perfectly well on a console, but what I really should be playing it on is a PC. The meta-game becomes so much more bearable if load times are short, rather than desperately long as they are on my Xbox.

In that sense, Dishonored evokes a sense of gaming of a bygone era that certainly still has its appeal despite its tendency to pull me out of its immersive world quite regularly. I really wouldn't mind if even more games (and certainly Dishonored isn't the only contemporary title to return to this older formula of play) returned to this concept of “remembering” how to play through error. That being said, there really does need to be a more efficacious way of doing so for the console gamer, and that is where, in my mind, some options like Mechner's more ingenuous thinking about dissolving the meta-game into the game itself may need to be followed up on by more designers.

Remembering to start again can be just as enjoyable as progressing if done right.

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