Why ‘Save and Quit’ Might Not Be an Easy Change for ‘Returnal’

'Returnal' doesn't let people save and quit during the middle of a run, but neither does 'Spelunky.' It's a question of design and resources.
May 6, 2021, 1:00pm
A screen shot from the video game Returnal
Image courtesy of Sony

Returnal, the new sci-fi roguelike from Housemarque, is a high-profile PlayStation 5 release in a period without many games that truly feel "next-gen." The result is a lot of people taking a chance on a game that advertises itself as not only difficult, but engineered around the concept of players dying and starting "runs" over. There's going to be a learning curve.

What's a little unique about Returnal, however, is that it's a roguelike where players cannot pause their current run, even though that run can last several hours at a time. Do you want to check on your garden in Nier Replicant, or squeeze in a round of Warzone with friends? You'll have to finish that run in Returnal, or more tragically, quit and lose all that progress, because unlike Xbox, the PlayStation 5 can't juggle players in the middle of multiple games.

It's possible to put your PS5 into "rest mode," but some users avoid doing so because it's caused issues on some consoles. It's an imperfect solution to what is clearly a problem.

To Housemarque's credit, they seem to understand this is an issue, having issued a tweet recently in response to players on Reddit getting inflamed over the topic. A solution hasn't been announced yet, but it won't be a huge surprise if the game eventually—the key word being eventually, in my estimation—allows players to suspend a run and come back later.  

Leaving during a run is often called "save on exit" by rogue fans, and is commonplace enough that it's quickly a question when a game, like Returnal, doesn't have it. Just doing a Google search for "[roguelike] + save on exit" will produce someone asking about, like this fan prodding the developers of the new Adom, a sequel to one of the oldest roguelikes.

"I noticed that if you quit the game in the demo it will not perform save on exit," said a fan on the game's Steam message board. "I really hope this is just because its a demo, and save on exit will be feature? ( like in original Adom, or any other Roguelike that holds its water )"

Advertisement

The developer, in response, said it was "currently working and testing" different ideas.

"I often see players exclaim how easy it is to add something, especially if other games have it," said Spelunky designer Derek Yu, "but every team and game has different priorities and nothing is really as trivial as it seems from the outside."

Spelunky is one of the most popular roguelikes of the past decade, and it's a game where players are often dying minutes, if not seconds, into a run. It also does not let players save in the middle of that run. Mercifully, even the longest Spelunky runs are unlikely to stretch into consecutive hours, but nonetheless, Spelunky demands one's full and undivided attention.

ss_8fb56a4fb17d6c777c12952d6642652b063b5528.1920x1080.jpg

Yu said requests for to save and quit during a run "hasn't really come up much over the years," and ultimately didn't result in such a change being added to last year's Spelunky 2.

"Despite all the roguelike influence," said Yu, "the basic structure of Spelunky is more like an arcade game—runs are on average pretty short and it's relatively fast-paced even by action roguelike standards. Short, fast, intense games put you in the moment and it maybe feels a little strange to put down mid-run and pick up the next day."

The counter to this, of course, are questions of accessibility. Even if the designer has specific intentions, greater flexibility gives more players ways to engage with the experience, and even Yu admitted such a change wouldn't be "counter to [Spelunky's] design goals." 

Advertisement

But because the idea wasn't baked into Spelunky from the start, walking down that road would come with consequences, such as accounting for how players might exploit it. That's without taking into account whatever technical challenges would need to be overcome, too.

"I often see players exclaim how easy it is to add something, especially if other games have it, but every team and game has different priorities and nothing is really as trivial as it seems from the outside."

Many roguelikes deal with this using temporary saves. When the player leaves during a run, a save is created. When the player returns, it's deleted. This prevents players from trying to exploit the RNG (random number generator) and bend the invisible dice rolls to their will.

Hades, for example, has the option for players to "quit" or "give up" during a run. If you've entered a room and have not initiated combat, it's possible to "quit" and come back." Once you've taken damage, however, that option turns into "give up" to prevent save scumming.

At certain point, though, does it matter? Roguelikes are typically solo affairs. Cheating in a roguelike doesn't impact anyone but the person playing. There's no multiplayer to impact.

"The player doesn't control when or where autosaves happen in Dead Cells," said Steve Filby, CEO of Evil Empire, the studio developing new content for Dead Cells. "Some people keep the save folder open on PC and save, essentially removing the permadeath aspect of Dead Cells, which is not what we intended. But hell if it makes 'em happy, who cares."

ss_ac28000ade40cc2fe5c128f32ac98ba33c008a7a.1920x1080.jpg

(Dead Cells was originally developed at Motion Twin, before its popularity resulted in a spin-off company that'd continue development on Dead Cells. Evil Empire is that spin-off.)

Filby said the decision to add the ability to save a run was "ridiculously simple."

Advertisement

The original Binding of Isaac did not have the ability to save during the middle of a run due to limitations with Flash, the technology on which that game was built. When The Binding of Isaac was rebuilt from the ground up for Rebirth, however, that feature came along with it.

"For Rebirth one of the most requested features was save and exit," said The Binding of Isaac designer Edmund McMillen. "It wasn’t a huge deal to me in the og [original] game because a play session lasted 20-30 min. But if you are asking a player to play for over 45 min...save and continue is kinda important."

It seems unlikely spent four years developing a risky proposition like Returnal, a big budget roguelike that costs $70, and went "ha ha ha, we want to make players frustrated and unhappy." Granted, having to start over from scratch in a roguelike often results in feelings of frustration, but that's materially different. Maybe it was a creative choice, maybe it was a technical issue. The public response, however, shows that it's given Housemarque pause. 

It's not uncommon for the response from players to result in changes. A game like Hades benefited from Early Access development, allowing players and developers to have real-time communication with one another about the direction. Returnal didn't have the same chance.

But it's also possible that even if both sides agree it's a good idea, a previous decision might have unintended consequences. This is what happened with the popular turn-based open world roguelike Stoneshard, which has been in Early Access since early 2020. It's possible to save and exit in Stoneshard, but it requires reaching a tavern in the game, which is A) not always immediately possible and B) can sometimes take upwards of an hour to reach.

Advertisement

"A game where you can play 2 hour dungeon, and need 2 hour more to return to village," wrote one player on Steam not long after Stonehard first released in February 2020. "But you have to exit the game and turn of your computer. You lose all your progress and have to start again. I dont know if its incompetence of programmers of the game, or real bad game design, but since demo of the game has save on exit feature, it seems its the latter."

A Google search of "stoneshard save and exit" produces a lot of results.

The reason it doesn't exist, however, is not malice. It's like Spelunky designer Derek Yu said earlier: it's easy to ask a developer to do something that seems simple. It may not be simple.

ss_ccb1a30e7dfea854787fa9e8ed2e42a03e087705.1920x1080.jpg

"Since Stoneshard has randomised nature, it's hard to implement a save feature as simple as it's for the other games," said a developer on Reddit. "The game needs to store all the information about the world, the containers and the loot inside them, enemies, dungeons etc. Because of this, the save file would've been enormous in size and take quite some time to load."

The developers behind Stoneshard have given some version of this explanation seemingly dozens of times, as different people brought it up and asked for the feature to be added.

This past March, more than a year after Stoneshard entered Early Access, the developers announced a surprise: the game would be getting a "highly requested feature" called "saving on exit" alongside a massive update that would be coming to the game this summer. Making this change work required, as had been previously said, "changes to the world generation and saving systems." But in the future, you'd no longer have to seek a tavern in the game.

"Save on exit will greatly improve the reviews," wrote one fan in response, "since most of the bad reviews are related to it. truly amazing."

With any luck, the same fortune will bless Returnal fans in the future.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561)