The Unbearable Lightness Of Lost Video Game Saves

The Unbearable Lightness Of Lost Video Game Saves

A few days ago, I accidentally deleted a batch of saved games. Collectively they represented a couple hundred hours’ worth of time spent playing a dozen or more games. Years of hard-won progress, gone in the blink of an eye.

It started when my sister found my lost Nintendo 3DS. I’d unknowingly left it at her house in California back in June. When I returned home and discovered it missing from my backpack, I figured I’d left it on the plane or something. I thought it was gone for good. I called Nintendo up and re-activated my account on an older 3DS, then got on with my life.

A couple of months later, my sister found my wayward handheld wedged at the foot of her guest bed and shipped it back to me. When I re-activated it, I found I couldn’t re-link my account without formatting the device. I did so, and lost every save for every downloadable 3DS game I’d ever played. My Fire Emblem characters? Gone. My Zelda saves? Done for. Most heartbreaking of all: My hundreds of StreetPass Miis and my Puzzle Swap progress all vanished in the blink of an eye.

As I was reinitialising my 3DS, I decided I was also going to do a clean install of Windows 10. One good data purge deserves another, right? I backed up my documents folder, which holds any game saves that might not be stored in the Steam cloud. I reinstalled Windows, then immediately realised I’d forgotten to backup my Dark Souls 3 save, a safeguard that requires a distinct and arcane procedure. Whoops. There goes my level 100+ character, which I built over about 65 hours with the game earlier this year. Poof.

The older I get, the faster my reaction to this kind of thing pivots from intense anguish to total acceptance. I took about five minutes to process the loss, particularly of my Dark Souls save. I thought about all the time I’d spent repeating level after level to grow my character, about the unique and rare items I’d have to re-find and re-forge. I swallowed hard and realised I wasn’t going to be able to play or write about the first expansion in October. Then I put it away. This shit happens. It’s happened before, and it will happen again.

If there was a time when I was particularly fazed by losing digital stuff, I don’t remember it. I’m in my 30s, and I’ve lost a spectacular amount of data over the years. I’ve lost drafts of articles I’ve since re-written from scratch and published, and I’ve lost drafts of articles that never saw the light of day. I’m a musician, and I’ve lost ancient demo recordings and lyrics to songs I never completed. I’ve lost recordings of interviews that I only partially transcribed, and transcriptions that I never published. I’ve lost video game saves, and screenshots, and saved gameplay footage. Don’t even get me started on digital photos and videos.

The more data we accumulate, the more of it quietly goes missing.

What a tenuous attachment we have to our digital selves! Year after year we leave behind an increasingly intricate digital imprint. The more data we accumulate, the more of it quietly goes missing. We shed megabytes like we shed hair follicles and dead skin cells; our oldest digital records fade like the long-term memory globes in Inside Out. That video file… those photos from some wedding… an audio note whispered at 3:00AM… an ancient exchange of text messages. Most of the time we don’t even realise they’re gone.

Facebook, Google and Apple ask us to entrust them with the preservation of our digital selves. They offer to save our memories to the cloud, but even their most advanced and expensive services feel inadequate. Where can I preserve the gigabytes of random videos I’ve shot of my nieces? Where will I store the terabytes of video game footage I’ve captured over the years? What will I do with the massive recording sessions I’ve attempted to carry from computer to computer? How can I hope to organise all this stuff when I can’t even remember what half of it is?

Video game saves are a little different from lost text messages, missing musical recordings or incompatible word processing documents. They record where we’ve been in a digital world but they also provide a waypoint. They’re the station farthest out, where we go to hop back on the train. Losing a save can make it harder to go back, but it can also offer the opportunity for a fresh start. You can make different choices this time; you can begin anew.

In my apartment I have a stack of old hard drives. A couple are corrupted or otherwise broken, or they require a firewire connection or some other outmoded connection. I could figure out how to extract their data — there are services for that sort of thing — but where would I put it all even if I did? Each time I grow my storage capability, I simply push the edge farther out from the centre. Bits and bytes never stop tumbling out into the abyss, I just notice them less. They’re so far away that I can’t even see them.

I can’t hold on to all this data. Past a certain point, the only rational response is the acceptance of its sometimes gradual and sometimes sudden disappearance. Whatever I may have lost, I haven’t lost the experience of creating it. I can play the game again fresh. I can write the song or the article a different way. I can relive the memory with people who were there. Whatever it was, I can make it again.

In that way, my digital self will always remain separate from my real self. It’s an echo that will only fade without the real me to perpetuate it. That’s terrifying, but also freeing.


  • Yeah, this is something I’ve experienced recently.

    I was doing a system transfer between 3DSes, my save data for my digital copies of games came through, except for Animal Crossing (200 hrs +) Smash Bros (all characters unlocked) and about 12 hours of Tomodachi Life.

    Yet I couldn’t diagnose the problem completely and re-try because my 250 hr save file of Pokemon Y HAD come through, along with the bulk of my save games and of course the on-board stuff.

    To this day, I think it was the fact I was using a 64GB micro SD. I was transferring from an 8GB SD, formatted the usual way. But the rules and regs and whatever else state 64GBs are not supported. I followed guides how to get around this, and I still came undone.

    This was from an XL to an OG, before the New Ones came out. I went and did another transfer from the OG to my New XL using a 32GB SD.

    There’s no way I can perform microsurgery and retrieve just some of my save data, while retaining what’s already stored. It’s just the way the 3DS was built and I accept that, but I’ll never know how much of the stuff-up was its fault, and how much was mine.

    • I also swear by this. Its a dodgy looking URL but it simply works a treat.

      I lost a bunch of saves to a HDD crash, games that were sold as “Steam Cloud Enabled”, but were not automatic.

  • It’s fun to look back onto old backup drives and see a snapshot of what was important to you back then. It’s like a collection of old records that you played in your youth. Just looking at the album covers is enough to bring memories flooding back.

  • When my original PS3 died, I lost a 100+ hour Oblivion save and about 50+ hours of Fallout 3. Bit the bullet and re-started Fallout 3, but never went back to Oblivion again.

    After that, I started doing weekly backups of my PS3 to an external hard drive, then later I got PS+ so the cloud saves made this kind of thing less likely to be an issue in the future.

    That said, I also find I’m less bothered by this kind of thing than I used to me. Must be because I’m getting old 🙁

    • At least with the PS3 you could copy a backup of your save to USB, at least for most games you can. I took backups of all my PS3 games that I could, but some games are locked. Even X360 you could format a USB drive to their file system and move old save games to it. Have them sitting in Dropbox now.

      • You can, yeah, but I wasn’t doing it at the time. So I started doing it regularly after The Incident. And, of course, I’ve not had a console die on me since. Except for my original Vita, but that died about 24 hours after I bought it so I didn’t really have anything to lose. Just took it back and swapped it over and that was that.

  • can’t remember this really happening to me, once ive lost interest in a game i don’t tend to hold on to the saves. only time i remember something similar was after my wow account got hacked way back when, blizzard couldn’t restore all my items for some reason. I never went back to the two characters i lost all the gear for, now it would be easy to pick up some cheap gear (or just give them heirlooms and keep leveling) but i just started fresh.

  • i think my most painful save issue was having played skyrim for over 100 hours, then installing a mod which fucked up my quest progression, but i didnt realise it until i had pumped in another 40 to 50 hours, so then i had to uninstall the mod and revert back to a save that i had made before the mod install. which meant re-doing some of the main questlines… it was painful to begin with, but then i decided to go a different path in the end.

  • I remember being eleven and losing the race in OoT to get Epona and hitting the reset button in order to just do it again without losing rupees or whatever. The game then booted back up inside of Jabu Jabu. It was heartbreaking. I also remember falling down a big hole in Red Faction and hitting auto-save instead of auto-load. That was annoying but as that game only took twenty minutes from start to end it wasn’t a big deal. Last time I remember being even slightly annoyed was losing my CoD4 multiplayer save and losing over 200 hours, but like everyone else, the older I get the less I seem to care.

  • I have a folder on my 3DS called “Lost Saves” with games in it that I lost the save files to and probably won’t play again because of it.
    It’s marked with a grave icon from the original Legend of Zelda I won in the badge arcade.

  • My friend’s sister used to do this to us when we were kids. Would get most of the way through the game only for us to fire up the SNES and find the saves gone. I don’t think it really cut us up too much we’d just start again and relive the game.

  • Oh man. One time someone stole my Gamecube with 4 years’ worth of save games on there. I didn’t care about the console but dayum that was the worst.

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