Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Moral Dilemma of Save States in Emulators

I recently installed a Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) emulator on my phone, and I’ve struggled a lot with the ethics of using save states.


Previously, I used a Game Boy emulator, but save states were a paid feature and I just ignored them completely. When I got the SNES emulator, I didn’t even bother looking. I was so accustomed to *not* using save states, I didn’t care if they were even available. The actual games didn’t have save states, so avoiding them is more true to the original experience.

For a while, I stuck with strictly RPGs. Touchscreen controls aren’t responsive or reliable enough to play platformers and adventure games proficiently, but they do alright for slower paced games. When a coworker sold me his SteelSeries Free controller, I decided to test it out on Donkey Kong Country 2. DKC2 was probably my favorite platformer on the SNES, and I hadn’t played it for years. Fortunately, the controller worked well for the game, and I decided to continue playing it for a welcome break from RPGs that I had been playing.
DKC2 consists of multiple areas or “worlds,” divided into several levels that players must navigate through in a map. Each area has a single save location, Kong Kollege, where Wrinkly Kong will allow you to save your progress. Once you enter an area, you cannot leave except by defeating the area’s boss or by hiring Funky Kong at a Funky’s Flights location. Typically, both of these services are a few levels into an area, so players must successfully complete several levels without a game over to record their progress.
Logically, it helps to grind out some lives before going to a new area. A new load from the file select screen only has 4 lives, and getting through a single level often takes multiple attempts. Occasionally, I’ll go to a new world with few lives, just to get a feel for the area before an honest to goodness attempt. Usually, if I’m going to a solid try, I’ll bank up 20 lives or so just to be safe.
In this particular instance, I had just finished Krazy Kremland, and immediately pushed on into Gloomy Gulch. I beat the first level fairly easily, and reach the second level with a couple of lives remaining. After a few attempts, I expend all of my lives and get a game over. No harm, no foul, I didn’t spend much time so I didn’t lose much progress.
I reload my save, grind out a few lives in Crocodile Cauldron, and go back to Gloomy Gulch for a serious try. I get through the first level again without much trouble. I reach the second level, Haunted Hall, and I buckle down to beat this level. Haunted Hall is a cart level, with a ghost that chases you. There is a timer on screen, and the ghost hits you when the time hits zero. Scattered throughout the level are + and - barrels that add to or subtract from the time. In a perfect run, the ghost never hits you. I, however, am not capable of a perfect run.
Over and over again, I make stupid mistakes and die. I know most of the level’s layout, and how to beat it, but I mess up my jump timing and either fall of the rails or hit too many minus barrels to reach the end of the course. Finally, with about 5 lives left, the ghost in the final stretch of the level glitched out and the timer disappeared. I continued the course as best I could, trying to hit + barrels and avoid - barrels since I still didn’t know if the timer was going to affect me. Having hit far too many negative barrels to have normally survived, I reached the end of the level. I have no clue what caused the ghost to stop following me, but I don’t know that I could’ve beat the level otherwise.


Upon exiting the level, I notice that I still haven’t reached Kong Kollege to save the game. Sitting at a very volatile stage, I eyed the save state button in the emulator menu. I honestly don’t think I would’ve beaten Haunted Hall without the glitch, and if I get a game over now, I lose any progress I had previously made. Eventually, I decide to create a save state. What’s the harm in creating the save state if I never load it? That gives me peace of mind in knowing that I can reload the state if I have to, but I still haven’t technically done anything that the original game wouldn’t allow.
With a save state, and 2 levels of Gloomy Gulch finished, I continue on to the third level. I die a few times on the third level, but eventually make it to the star barrel at the halfway point. Coming down to the wire, I have 1 more life left and spawn in at the star barrel. I can do this. I’ve persevered in the face of terrible odds before, what’s stopping me from succeeding this time? After my little internal pep talk, I push forward for my last try… and die.
As the Game Over screen appears, my heart sank. Grinding those lives, while it hadn’t taken a ton of time, turned out to be wasted effort. And having Haunted Hall glitch on me was sheer luck, and there was no chance I would be able to make it happen again. I had to start over again from the previous area, and try the whole process over again.

Or did I? I had created that save state after finishing Haunted Hall. With the press of a button, I could load state, and be right back where I beat Haunted Hall. No, that wasn’t possible on the original SNES release of DKC2, but the emulator could do it no problem. Would I be wrong for doing that? It’s not like there is any sort of morals police that would come and arrest me for using save states in an emulated game.
Eventually, I elected to load the state and try the level again. Within 1 or 2 attempts, I was able to beat the level. Sure enough, this unlocked the Kong Kollege location for Gloomy Gulch, and I was able to save the game normally, and make a record of my progress to resume later if necessary. But at what cost had I reached this save point? What moral toll had I taken on my conscience to attain this success? What had I done?

Let’s ponder for a moment, how would this situation have played out if I were playing on the SNES console with the DKC2 cartridge. In that moment of tragic defeat when I lost all of my lives and got a game over, I wouldn’t have had any sort of decision to make. The game is only saved at Kong Kollege, and the last time I saved was before grinding out lives and ever stepping foot into Gloomy Gulch. My only option would have been to return to the load screen, go through the process of grinding out more lives, and starting over from the beginning of the area again.
On an emulator, though, I had literally as many chances as I could’ve needed. Sure, I got it after loading that save state only once, but I could’ve done it over and over again until I successfully beat the level. I could’ve even saved state at individual points through the level, taking it a step at a time and only saving if I had progressed perfectly. Basically, what Tool-Assisted Speedruns do, but to a significantly lesser degree.
Perhaps this difference is trivial. I’m not playing competitively against other players, or for any sort of title. I’m just playing for my own enjoyment. My issue, though, lies in the fact that I have defiled the original experience of playing the cartridge game on the SNES console. Save states were not available on the console, so I’ve done what could not be done originally.
Most people probably wouldn’t care about using save states. It is just a game, after all. I could even go so far as to chalk it up to evening the odds against the imperfections of the bluetooth controller. There is a slight delay over bluetooth, when compared to instant input from a wired controller. Plus, the controller would occasionally wig out and either buffer inputs or spontaneously force a directional input for a few seconds. It isn’t hard to justify using save states, when there are things outside of my power that make the game unfair against me.
What if this is a slippery slope? If I’ve used save states once, what’s stopping me from doing it over and over again? There are literally no penalties for using save states besides my own ethical misgivings. Instead of using save states only for the most extreme cases where I’m losing many minutes, or even hours of progress, what prevents me from using it even for the most minimal gains?
It’s a trivial concern, but it bothers me. Where do I draw the line? Am I a cheater for using save states? Does it even matter? And beyond that, where was the actual transgression? Did I only break the rules when I loaded the save state, or was actually creating it a problem as well? Even having the save state available gave me a piece of mind that players of the original game couldn’t have had. Even if I didn’t load the state, I had it there as a fallback if necessary.
This isn’t some huge affair with serious consequences. It doesn’t keep me up at night, but it is something of a moral dilemma for me. I have played the game in a way that is not true to the original cartridge. One could argue that even being able to play the game on a medium besides a SNES console hooked up to a TV isn’t the *true* experience. But alas, I’m not tracking down a SNES and DKC2 cartridge. The experience of playing the game in an emulator, with save states available, is as close as I’m getting. To use save states or not to use save states, that is the question. Avoiding them will be up to my own discipline.

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