The best feature of this console generation? Suspended games.
Years ago, I remember reading Atari Age magazine, someone wrote in to say that they had left their Atari VCS turned on with Video Chess plugged into the cartridge slot, but disconnected everything else. When they plugged the machine back into the RF adapter, they saw that the CPU had moved the pieces, for both sides. The official answer from Atari was, hey, if you were playing chess and your opponent got up and left you there for a day, wouldn’t you move the pieces around, if for no reason other than boredom?
For the truly dedicated gamer, drastic, long-term pauses are nothing new. When I wrote for Kotaku a decade ago, we asked readers the longest they ever left a game on standby. The winner, by a country mile, was someone who said they left their PSOne on pause, with the drive spinning, for more than a year. So long the LED burned a ring into the disc. In the long skein of video game history, that tale stands out forever.
We’re closing out the last year of this console generation, which made a slew of future-forward promises about the way we’d play our favorite games. Many of these guarantees didn’t come through. “Automatic updates” is as much a lie on my PlayStation 4 as it is my MacOS desktop. “Play as you install it” is likewise garbage. For sports video games, in particular, the limited form of an installing game — required by the console makers, because for sure the studios would toss this so-called feature in the shitcan — led many to think their game was broken when they first tried it.
But suspended games, that worked and still works as advertised. If you’re running a full distance race in NASCAR Heat 4 or F1 2019, if you’re in the sixth inning of a Franchise game in MLB The Show 19, and your significant other says company is here, time for dinner, you can power down the console, without reaching a save point, without losing anything. It is helpful to all genres of video games, but for the long-playing, real-time simulations that sports titles offer to hardcore fans, suspended games are by far the greatest innovation of this generation.
SIE San Diego Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment
Here’s an example: A couple weeks ago, I had an appointment with my financial adviser — yes, I have a financial adviser, I’m a 46-year-old white dude. We talked about buying a vineyard in New Zealand and opening a Tai Chi studio and all of that other fantastic bullshit they sell you at halftime of an NFL game. Anyway, I was playing Wreckfest 10 minutes before the visit, knee deep in a six-race banger series I’d have no way of completing before my appointment. No problem, just pause, quit to the dashboard, and walk downtown like a well adjusted human being.
The whole way, I was remembering all of the games and years before, being called to dinner, asked if I was ready to go out, and pleading for a few more minutes to reach a stopping point before I shaved and got dressed for a fund raiser or some other obligated crap like that. Sports titles involve the longest and most contextual experiences among the major genres of video games. And yet they have no save points.
Seriously, think about it. You can’t save-scum a Madden NFL 20 game after the first quarter if you’re gonna go for it on fourth down from your own 30 once the second begins, and need a do-over when that dumb idea inevitably backfires. If you have a triple-double boiling in the third quarter of an NBA 2K20 game, you can’t preserve it there and go back to that point to complete the feat later. Your options are to sim to the end of the game or start over. But with the suspended saves that the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One inaugurated, you can, at least, leave the game when real life beckons, and pick it up later when the house is quiet.
My best and most recent example, on Thursday I was invited to a dinner party with friends and family in the afternoon. I also had the Singapore Grand Prix to run in my F1 2019 career. No sweat, I drove 17 laps, suspended the game and went out. I didn’t finish it until today (I finished fourth, thanks very much).
When 2020 opens, we’ll all be consumed by the rumors and speculation of what amazing possibilities the newest hardware will offer. Yet I’m challenged to think any idealized feature that could be more helpful to my gaming experience than the suspended game state.
And while I don’t know a lick about programming or development, I do know IT professionals who can tell me that preserving an application’s state is a bitch and a half. As we close out the Thanksgiving weekend, raise a glass of whatever you have for the folks who made this a mainstream console gaming feature. It gets us to the dentist, the doctor and the church on time.
Roster File is Polygon’s news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.