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Save scumming in games – and when it isn’t?

I just got around to playing Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun recently. Overwhelmingly Positive on Steam, but the concept was off-putting: a hardcore tactical stealth game – by its admission no less – which can go catastrophically bad very fast, but you would be given real-time control of five unique characters each with their own skills. I was led to believe it was going to be a highly technical, high-skilled, and overall hardcore game. 'APM' and 'micro' came to mind; I didn't think a high-stress stealth game was for me despite the reviews; maybe it was just absolutely flawless in its niche.

Though when I did finally play the game much later, it was a very different experience to how I imagined it and far more accessible. Missions start you out with only 2-3 characters, you don't have to use all of them at once, and it presents each new mechanic carefully. But the most profound mechanic was after a minute of playing, a message pops up on the screen. Last Save: 1:00. If you click 'Last Save' or press F5 it runs a quicksave and goes away… for a minute. And if you let it run for two minutes, the timer goes from green to yellow, as a warning. Buttons for quicksaving and -loading are also ever present in the top left corner of the screen.

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Very quickly, I got the message from this: "Save often. Very often. And it's okay to do so. Really, go nuts." And with the game's pace as you're never on a timer except for challenges, that is essentially after every event. But wait, isn't this save scumming?

So it got me thinking about save scumming in general. While people will say "you can play the game however you like", it still bears negative connotations – hence 'scum' – similar to how people advise against using cheats as both used excessively may ruin your enjoyment in the long-term. It was originally coined by communities from classic roguelikes such as Nethack as you go out of your way to prevent the game from deleting your save when you died, and X:COM would later carry the torch for the term given its similar campaign-long consequences for mistakes. Ironman mode (or similar self-imposed rules) is considered the best way to play the game by many; even the word 'iron' suggesting a form of moral integrity in contrast to 'scummy' saving. Other games might poke fun at you as well for it, such as how Undertale lets you know its perfectly aware you reloaded your saves and why.

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Though in Shadow Tactics, while the the difference between success and failure is on a knife-edge in stealth games, I could freely try different strategies and even try more technical tactics knowing that, if it didn't work, I could try again. I'm free to experiment and learn the game at my own pace, given the literal green light from the Last Save reminder to save as often as I wish.

I wonder now; where is the distinction? Why are players often shamed for frequently saving and loading in some games where consequences matter; where in other games it doesn't have such negative connotations or is even embraced as a tool even where those consequences are as dire as a near instant game over, forcing you to reload anyway? Is it about the kind of game the developers wish you to play, a product of a given game's community or somewhere in between?


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