A save point is a point inside the world of a video game where the player can save the game, allowing return to that exact point at a later time. This facility is used for a number of things, not all intended by the original designers. The concept of a save point is also deeply involved in an ongoing debate among gamers, the "save anywhere" debate.
Uses and Abuses of Save Points
The most obvious use of a save point is to allow the player to quit the game and come back later. This is of particular use in long games such as RPGs which cannot reasonably be completed in a single sitting. Similarly, they are also useful in that, if the player fails at some further point in the game, he or she is able to resume play at the save point rather than starting over from the beginning of the game. This is significant in decreasing player annoyance.
A more cagey use of a save point comes about since, although the game state is restored to exactly the same point, the player's state of course is not. Thus, a player can 'probe ahead' in the game by saving, and then proceeding with less care than usual so as to find out what lies ahead. By proceeding without regard for continued success, areas can be reached which would otherwise require careful play. There are many circumstances in which this is useful.
Appearance and Secondary Effects
Save points are given a variety of different appearances, ranging from the simple 'shining point' of Final Fantasy VI to the graphically rich 'save rooms' in the Metroid series. Sometimes the save point is disguised as a relatively mundane item, such as the telephones in Parasite Eve and the hideouts in Grand Theft Auto III. Other times, it is rendered as a deliberately incongruous element, such as in Final Fantasy VII, where a save point is a tilted, rotating 'C', floating above a yellow, circular "halo".
Often, save points are overloaded by the game designers to serve other functions, as well. In particular, save points are often associated with methods for fully restoring the health of your character or characters. A hallmark of Squaresoft console RPGs is items that fully restore health but can only be used at save points. In some action games, save points fully and unconditionally restore health. Games where this is true include Castlevania: Circle of the Moon and Metroid Prime. Some older games, such as the original Final Fantasy, reverse this, where items and locations that restore full health have the side effect of saving the game.
The Debate Over Save Points
Many gamers find that only being able to save the game at certain specified points is unnecessarily restrictive. This usually comes up in the context of PC games, as the nature of saving games on consoles generally makes save points inevitable. Proponents of 'save anywhere' setups generally claim that restricting saving with save points does nothing but artificially increase the game's difficulty. Save anywhere, on the other hand, can be seen as promoting an undue level of micromanagement, and can act to decrease the intensity of the game, since failure has less of a 'penalty'.
Another issue regarding save points is their placement; if the save points are too widely spaced, the game can be mired in repetition, but if the save points are too closely spaced, the player may wonder why save anywhere wasn't implemented instead. This placement is complicated, since the impact of a wider save point spacing depends on the difficulty of the game. Many games have multiple difficulty settings, and the percieved difficulty of the game depends on the player's abilities, so a save point spacing that is reasonable under one set of circumstances can be frustrating under other circumstances.
At the same time, few games with a 'save anywhere' system actually allow saving anywhere. Few games will allow you to save in the middle of a melee, and many will refuse to save whenever enemies are visible. This is due to the inherent complexity of the game state in these situations. A save point system makes the restriction on saving explicit, although most gamers find the save restrictions in most 'save anywhere' games to be innocuous.
A variation on the 'save anywhere' system is the 'iron man' system, where saving is permitted at any point, but the game exits after saving. This provides the ability to leave the game and come back later, but no other uses of save games. Many strategy games provide this as an option, and for roguelikes like Nethack this is the default. This increases the difficulty significantly, and is one of the main factors in the legendary difficulty of Nethack.
This writeup is copyright 2005 by me and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs-NonCommercial licence. Details can be found at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd-nc/2.5/ .