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  • Writer's pictureLannie Neely III

Save Point Design in Last Word

Save Points in Last Word


When I made Last Word (2015), a simplified pseudo-JRPG mystery game, one of my early decisions was to have Save Points. Some of the good people at my publisher, Degica (now Komodo), gave me feedback on this. They said, “why do you have to seek out the spot to save? Gamers nowadays are used to saving from the menu any time they want.”

(Save Point from Last Word)


I found this somewhat baffling. Degica is familiar with RPGs/JRPGs and their conventions. Or at least, they should be. They mostly publish RPG Maker games, and their ties to that genre—especially in the retro sensibilities—is undeniable. Chalking up my decision to use Save Points as an homage would have, at the very least, seemed like a natural inclination. Games like Chrono Trigger (1995) had sparkly little Save Points, right? Final Fantasy X (2001) still had Save Points upon entering the 3D realm of JRPG-ing. And even Undertale (2015), which would be released a few months after Last Word, took advantage of physical positions your character must relocate to in order to save.


(Save Points from Undertale, Chrono Trigger, and Final Fantasy X-2)


Some retro-style JRPGs have adapted to the times, using auto-saves or menu saves, such as the excellent Chained Echoes (2022). But Last Word uses Save Points in a couple of neat ways. Let's take a look.


Indicating Passages


Last Word isn’t a powerhouse of pixel art. What is being communicated is a very small, very simple manor in which all of the game takes place. Because of the tile-based grid, entrances to some rooms are oriented left-right, at an angle players can’t naturally see in the default RPG Maker XP (RMXP) engine’s top-down perspective.


When the player first gains control, they are in a corridor. They need to understand that sometimes doors are embedded in walls that require pressing into from the right or the left. The first indicator I use here was a little carpet, which I’ve placed in front of every door, visible or not.


(Carpeted doorways from Last Word)


The second trick I use is the Save Point.


(First moment of player control in Last Word)


The player, upon getting control for the first time, probably wants to save. By placing the Save Point in this room off to the left, I am guiding them there. They are now more willing to press against walls to see how to enter. And really, this small thing works. Most players do this almost immediately, and it becomes clear that if they see a little carpet against the wall (especially with the other context of the visible room on the right), it’s probably a door!


Indicating New Areas


The second thing I use the Save Point for is to indicate new areas.


Like I mentioned before, Last Word doesn’t have a very big play-space. It’s basically a fishbowl narrative. However, most of the eastern section of the house is locked off until you reach the second chapter.


Players, having learned about the carpeted doorways from earlier, usually try to enter this area on the right only to find it locked.


(Locked door from Last Word)


But when they gain control in the next chapter, how do I tell them that this door is now unlocked? What can I do? Should I mention it in the text? Should I make a tutorial prompt appear that tells the player a new area is accessible?


The answer, for me, is to use the same tool as before: the Save Point.


(Save Point in new location from Last Word)


I knew, like before, that the player would want to save once they regained control. Upon reaching the Save Point, they will notice it’s gone and go looking for it. In doing so, they’ll try that locked door again. Remember, the manor isn’t very large, and it’s pretty easy and quick to move across. So, upon moving eastward, the player will see the Save Point in a new area outside on the patio and go for it!


Downsides


There are reasons this isn't great. Naturally, launching a Save Point from one side of the map to the other sounds like a huge URGH moment. I don't think I would have done this if the map were bigger. As it is, the map is just small enough for a little trick like this to go by without too much frustration.


Likewise, losing the ability to save anywhere is definitely bad, and Degica was right in thinking players would better enjoy an anywhere-save system. Finding a balance of what to use and why is an important design question, and not one with easy answers.


Overall


There are some other very minor reasons I use a physical Save Point in Last Word, but I thought it would be neat to show off these less evident reasons. Using little tools like this to guide the player and inform them about space is something not everyone thinks about in an active way. I could have switched to a menu save system, and perhaps that would have had its own benefits. But look at what would have disappeared had I done so? I would have to find different ways of messaging the layout to the player, among other things. For this game, the old-school Save Point works well.


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