The traditional visual novel save system needs to die
I wrote this in about 15 minutes, so some of the phrasing here might not be up to scratch. Bear with me.
For the majority of visual novels, saves do not represent what we might ordinarily think of when we think of game save states: a self-contained snapshot of game progress. Progress is instead tracked globally, independent of any particular save. What most visual novels term “saves” are really composed of just two things: (1) a list of choices the player has made, and (2) the specific scene or line from which to resume gameplay. Choices made when resuming from one saved game often affect what’s available when resuming from another. Remember11 sticks out in my mind as one particularly infamous example of the confusion this causes, but this problem affects nearly all visual novels that use a traditional save system to some extent.
The problematic nature of this abstraction is compounded by the fact that most visual novels don’t provide a way to easily jump from one scene to another. Instead, the player is often expected to “save” before every major decision point, and resume from there should he or she have picked the wrong choice, or want 100% completion, or need a refresher on what’s happened since then. Forgot to save? Tough luck. You’ll have to fast-forward through text you’ve already seen in order to get back to where you were before, dragging yourself out of the game’s narrative frame. This is a terrible user experience, and it’s almost never one that’s justified by narrative considerations. Unless the visual novel is itself about the drudgery of boring, repetitive tasks, in which case I question why anyone would feel the need to play it at all, this puts a completely unnecessary burden on the player.
The whole metaphor around visual novel saves needs to be rearranged. Here’s how I’d like to see it:
Saves wholly encapsulate player progress. I should be able to play one save without accidentally changing what happens in another. A new game should be a new game, regardless of what I’ve done in previous ones. “New Game+” options might, in cases where they’re clearly delineated, be an exception. Might.
The player can freely, and easily, jump to any scene that’s already been unlocked, without having to go through and play that path again. Just being able to replay a certain scene isn’t good enough, because that carries no information about the choices the player has made. Various games provide a flowchart; the last one I played that did this was Virtue’s Last Reward, which did a good job overall of avoiding this kind of save confusion. Visual novels that don’t have a branching narrative, or that don’t want to give away the importance of certain choices, can provide a simple summary ballot, where the user can say, all at once, “I want to spend the afternoon with Asuna, then go to the park, and follow the stray kitten.” There’s always the option for players to go through old scenes in the traditional fashion, should they need a refresher.
Finally, what used to be “saves” now become “bookmarks” that the player can create and name in order to quickly pick up with certain choices at a specific point. This is useful in case the player needs to consult the information there, such as in a mystery VN, or just has a favorite scene that he or she wants to file away and revisit in the future.
Okay, that’s all. Have fun.