Early on in the pandemic, it became mandatory to wear a mask indoors outside of my apartment when walking through my apartment complex. Because COVID spreads more readily indoors, it is prudent to mask up even when merely walking through the hall. I also got used to habitually avoiding elevators and other confined spaces where I might encounter people.
Virtually overnight, a strange new bifurcation between my apartment and the outside world emerged.
Inside my apartment is a bed for sleeping, a computer to access for various tasks, and assorted supplies/items. The moment I step outside of it, I am exposed in some way to vague and indeterminate danger. Inside, the state of my room does not change much. It is a place of safety and rest, coexisting uneasily with a suddenly unfamiliar external world.
I had never experienced anything like this before. That is, outside of video games. Because for all intents and purposes my apartment had become a save room.
The pandemic has motivated me to think about save rooms, and I’ve come to the odd conclusion that their distinguishing feature really is not so much the save function at all. They are, in short, static pocket universes that are nonetheless contiguous with a dynamic external world.
This post is therefore broken into several parts – I cut most of the post after it became clear it was too unwieldy to hold together.
In this post, I will discuss my own idiosyncratic interpretation of video game save rooms. You will notice that my definition of the save room owes a lot to the survival horror genre. More discussion of that genre – and what about it resonated for me during 2020 – is reserved for the next post. In the last post, I will talk more broadly about why we use ambient features of games to make sense of life experiences, and whether or not this is in fact a good thing.
So what are save rooms?
Save rooms are, naively, places in which you save your game. The save function allows you to keep different restorable saved game states isolated from each other, and the save room is often where that function is realized.
Save rooms usually contain a discrete device, such as a computer, typewriter, or journal, that saves the state of the game to memory. Sometimes the device is a particular non-player character that the player must interact with to save the game state. Once the player saves the game in a particular save room, the player can return to this location in the following – but not exclusive – set of circumstances:
The player “dies” for some particular reason once they leave the save room.
The player voluntarily or involuntarily powers down the game and then restarts the game session from the saved location.
The player voluntarily launches the game from the saved file corresponding to the location using the main menu.
Supposing the player recorded a save inside every possible save room within a game upon their time of arrival to that particular save room, the save rooms could form a network of waypoints allowing the player to hop over large swathes of space and time within the game.
Save rooms overlap with checkpoints but are not interchangeable with them. A checkpoint is a particular location within a level in which the game state is either voluntarily or involuntarily saved. However, in some circumstances progress saved at a checkpoint will disappear if the game session ends. In this case, when the player returns they will need to play the level over from the beginning.
Progress recorded in save rooms will usually remain persistent unless they are purposefully erased by the player or some hardware or software problem wipes the recorded game state. Computer-savvy readers thus may analogize the checkpoint to volatile and temporary primary storage and the save room to non-volatile and long-term secondary storage. That being said, that particular cognitive shortcut would not be general enough to be reliable. Sometimes checkpoints really do save persistently.
Save rooms similarly overlap with hubs, self-contained environments that you can hang out in between missions. But a hub is not necessarily a save room, even if a hub sometimes can be a save room or a save room may be located within a hub. Hubs are, in fact, extremely different from save rooms in many important ways.
Hubs are big places like:
Flagships traveling through the game universe.
Military/police/intelligence headquarters of the particular faction the player belongs to.
The hub is often spacious, expandable and customizable via player action over time, explorable/discoverable for the player, and populated by a bevvy of non-player characters to interact with. There is usually only one hub per game, or at least one hub at a time. And the purpose of the hub is usually to connect the player to all of the game locations available to them at any particular point in play.
Save rooms – if they are not just a single room to begin with – are small and compact places comparable to dormitories, apartments, lounges, offices, or suites. Much of the time the player is the only inhabitant, and if this is not the case there are at least not that many inhabitants. Lastly, the save room usually does not allow the player to directly travel anywhere except through the door leading out of the save room.
Most importantly, the save room is a cousin of the kind of abstract “nonspace” that Marc Auge describes in his 2009 book. For Auge, a nonspace is not really meant for long-term dwelling or common gathering – it is intended to be purely functional, interchangeable, and terminal. Hubs are places NPCs often live and gather. Save rooms are empty and spartan.
It should be said without any further ado, of course, that save rooms are not inherently coupled to the save function. They appear only in a subset of games, whereas some kind of persistent save storage function is present in many more games. Readers, if interested, should consult Samuel Tobin’s chapter on game saves in Henry Lowood and Raiford Guins’ edited compilation Debugging Game History: A Critical Lexicon.
To, well, save time I will just mention one very simple reason why saving need not be tied to a room or pretty much anything in particular. Suppose you take an old game you enjoyed on a console and emulate it on your personal computer. The game originally required you to save in a discrete place. But with the emulator as the platform instead of the console, you can now take a snapshot of the game state at any arbitrary place and then reload the game at that place.
This is true not just for this particular game. It holds for any game compatible with the emulator, unless there is some special circumstance blocking the emulator from saving the snapshot. There goes the save room! Having the player save their game at a particular type of enclosed space is – like anything else in the game – a design choice governed by the creator’s larger objectives and subject to hard and soft limitations and constraints the creator copes with.
For this reason, I have a significant amount of ambivalence about even calling them save rooms, as saving is perhaps the least salient of the associations that emerge when I think about them. So if saving isn’t the main point of the save room, what is?
What follows is a partial answer, peculiar to my own framing of the question.
Save rooms are members of a larger larger family of self-contained interstitial and frequently immutable spaces separable from the external game world. These locations can be tucked within dungeons and other hostile environments but nonetheless are (mostly) secure from external danger.
For example, the Ghost Shop in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time contains a strange figure sitting on a bed in the corner of the room that buys ghosts you collect. The shop is in what was a guard house at the gates of Hyrule Castle Town. The town is abandoned at the time the Ghost Shop is available – except for zombie enemies, that is.
Don’t worry. The zombie enemies are not going to come inside the shop. Why? Don’t ask.
The merchant at the Ghost Shop is sitting on the bed, which implies that the room is minimally habitable. But most people would not want to live there. It is tolerable and even relaxing but not really all that cozy. It’s clearly not meant for long-term habitation.
Enemies (mostly) cannot enter these places. The normal flow of game play stops as you soon as you enter. Inside, the player can rest up both figuratively (due to the absence of action) and literally (restore health, restock items, etc). But once the player leaves the room, game mechanics suspended by the room immediately resume.
If enemies are immediately outside of the room, the player will be immediately in danger. In theory, the player could stay indefinitely inside such a room but at the cost of never making any further progress. Nothing will change as long as the player stays inside, for better or worse. Completing the game requires venturing outside.
But what makes the save room distinctive as a member of this class of places? After all, the Ghost Shop is not a save room. Since I have already dismissed the save function, something more is required. Here I will set up the discussion in the next post by arguing that the aesthetic features of the save room are best exemplified by survival horror games.
In survival horror games, you carefully and nervously maneuver through previously inhabited spaces crawling with creepy monsters. Ammunition is scarce, weapons are weak, and running is as common as fighting. Monsters are out of sight, vaguely suspected to be in the distance until they suddenly jump out to terrify the player. You are mostly alone, in the sense that you are one of the few humans present or one of the few humans left alive.
But you are not alone, in fact. Because there are horrifying creatures lurking somewhere out there and you need to survive.
The save room in the survival horror game is a welcome but uncertain safe space, simultaneously sanctuary and purgatory. You run from the monsters and find yourself in a small room where you can record your progress. The monsters cannot come in, unless specified otherwise by the game logic. But your sense of relief is tempered by the implicit anticipation of unknown and dangerous things just beyond the room.
This contradiction accentuates the status of the save room as an intermediary state in your journey through the game. Time has stopped. You have entered somehow into a pocket universe where the rules do not apply – here, at least – but you cannot stay here forever. Take your time, rest up, and then leave.
Even outside the survival horror genre, any save room by definition has to transmit – without being totally explicit – the message “you are safe here but you should not stay here indefinitely.” Because if the player did stay in the room forever, they would never complete the game. Therefore, save rooms have to walk a tightrope between setting you at ease and unsettling you.
This is accomplished partly by their sparse features and their incongruity relative to the game environments immediately juxtaposed next to them. But it is mainly accomplished by a distinctive looped musical theme that plays whenever the player enters the save room. Save room music is so coherent of a sub-genre that you can load up an entire Spotify playlist solely with examples of them.
As Thomas Quillfeldt notes in an essay about save room themes in Resident Evil, Dino Crisis, and similar survival horror games, save room themes convey “anxious calm” and are “anxiety-inducing [but] strangely soothing.” The classic example of a save room theme is a track with “two or three chords under a looping, simple melody” and “layers of long synth notes making up minor chords.”
In the first Resident Evil, Quillfeldt observes that looped music “features synthesised acousto-electric guitar playing shifting arpeggios over a held keyboard chord….accompanied by a distant whistling sound whose tuning woozily slides around.” In the sequel, the save room theme is “a held synthesiser pad [that] underpins moving synth string chords, whilst a simple piano melody plays (with a hint of delay).” However, when “the pattern loops the first time round, commanding piano bass octaves punctuate the return to the minor root chord.”
The return to the minor is the inevitable reminder of the temporary comforts of the save room. Accordingly, save room themes in survival games of the kind discussed in the essay often have sentimental, light-hearted, serene, soothing, and/or hopeful aspects coupled with some kind of moody, contemplative, unsettling, haunting, disturbing, depressive, or discordant ambiance. The clash between these two modes is part of what makes save room themes popular as background music; they are peaceful enough to background but are not intended as makeshift insomnia cures.
I found myself listening to many of these songs on repeat during the pandemic, and through repeated listens I gradually came to understand why my association of the pandemic’s spatial dynamics with save rooms was not arbitrary or accidental.
In the next post in this series, I will discuss the survival horror genre in more detail. You will get more of a clue as to why I interpreted my room as a save room, and what that interpretive choice may mean. For now, perhaps listen to this one-hour loop of the save room theme from Dino Crisis and relax-without-actually-relaxing.