Mount&Blade sunset['The Interactive Palette' is a biweekly GameSetWatch column by Gregory Weir that examines the tools and techniques of the digital games trade with a focus on games as art, using a single game as an example.]

The ability to save is a given among modern video games, but there doesn't seem to be a save system that can satisfy everyone. As players, we want to be able to save and resume our games at any point. For many, even save points are too restrictive; PC gamers are used to quicksaving, which allows the player to save every five seconds in fear of failure.

And that's the downside of saving, really. While it means that players can exit the game without losing progress, it also means that player failure — as well as player choice &mdash holds less weight. Playing Half-Life 2 can turn into an exercise of frequent quicksaves, where taking too much damage or becoming overrun can be reversed by loading the save made just seconds before.

In this environment, messing up doesn't matter for longer than five seconds, and important decisions can be trivially reversed, meaning that there's little consequence for poor strategy and little impact for momentous decisions. Imagine the cliche where a protagonist is presented with two identical allies, and must shoot the impostor. There's little urgency in the situation if the player knows she can just quickload if she makes the wrong decision.

Checkpoint-based save systems seem like an attempt to address this, but they really just make mistakes and choices more inconvenient to reverse at the cost of limiting the player's ability to save and exit the game at any time. Persistent-world multiplayer games often address the issue by eliminating saving and permanent death altogether, but this is hard to apply to most single-player games.

However, there is a rare approach that allows saving at any time while also making the player's choices and actions important and irreversible. It's the approach taken by TaleWorlds' recently-released game Mount&Blade, and it can be used in any game that would benefit from stronger consequences for a player's actions.

Mount&Blade noblewomanThe Leftovers of War

Mount&Blade is a game that simulates medieval warfare in the fictional but magic-free land of Calradia. In an open world, the player character can recruit huge armies, trade goods, and engage in battles with up to 100 combatants on the field at once. The game has detailed mounted combat and a deep combat and character advancement system. The world would not be as immersive, though, if not for the game's save system.

When the player creates a new character, she has an option of two save systems. One is called "Realistic! No Quit Without Saving!" In this mode, the game is automatically saved after most events and when the player quits. Upon returning to a character, the saved game is loaded. It's impossible (or at least difficult) to load a save to reverse a mistake or choice.

This approach isn't unique, of course. The Wizardry series, many Rogue-like games, and recent indie game Depths of Peril offer similar options, among other works. However, Mount&Blade is special because it allows major player failure while not erasing the player's progress when failure occurs.

In Mount&Blade, failure is common. If the player character falls in battle, entire armies can be lost, and towns can be razed by bandits. Failing to complete a quest can lower the PC's reputation or alienate team members, and characters remember and comment on failures in battle. Death, however, never occurs. When the PC's entire army is defeated, the PC is captured, and must escape or bribe her captors to be set free.

This means that the player must think carefully about her strategy and her decisions, because they will have lasting consequences. The player will never lose hours of game time, though, because the player character never dies. She may lose money, followers, and reputation, but those can eventually be recovered, and earned experience and learned skills persist.

Mount&Blade world mapVictory is Yours

This is where the balance of Mount&Blade is struck. The player can fail, placing the PC in a very unpleasant position, and can greatly affect the game world with her choices. However, the player can never fail badly enough to earn a final "GAME OVER" with no way to recover.

In Depths of Peril, failure is no big deal. If the PC dies, she's resurrected in her covenant base with only a small cost of experience and power. This means that death holds little weight in the game. There is an overarching game of covenant rivalry, but it is very long-term compared to typical gameplay. Therefore, the "no quit without saving" technique doesn't help with the issue of making player choice more significant.

On the other end of the spectrum, Wizardry 8's Ironman mode emulates the saving system of Rogue-like games, which is fiendishly cruel. Not only are these games difficult to begin with, and not only can you not save, but character death results in the deletion of the saved game. Yes, this makes the player care about her choices, but at the cost of high difficulty and frustration. Some players enjoy the challenge, but most would find it unforgivably harsh.

Mount&Blade's approach results in a game which challenges the player and punishes failure, but doesn't ever erase hours of progress by deleting saved games. This helps with making the game world seem more real; just as in real life, mistakes can happen, and choices are irreversible. Each decision the game offers feels important, even with the game's lack of a set storyline and open world.

This technique can be applied to any game which provides a wide degree of player choice. Saving periodically and prohibiting reloading in the middle of a play session means that the player's actions and decisions can't be undone. However, to avoid alienating players who aren't seeking a cruel difficulty level, the negative consequences of failure can't be game-ending. A game could put "dead" characters in the hospital for a length of in-game time, or have the characters captured like Mount&Blade does. Games without combat will have an easier time of this, as character death can likely be eliminated entirely. However, players' actions should still have meaning, and mistakes can be punished in other ways.

Mount&Blade's approach to saving and failure would be appropriate in any game which aims to make players carefully consider their decisions, and where the gameplay is not so much a skill challenge as an experience in crafting a unique story. It focuses the freedom of an open-world game so that each action feels important and permanent.

[Gregory Weir is a writer, amateur game developer, and software programmer. He maintains Ludus Novus, a podcast and accompanying blog dedicated to the art of interaction. He can be reached at Gregory.Weir@gmail.com.]