A Date with Save the Date

Warning: This post is entirely Save the Date spoilers. If you haven’t played it, please go do that before you read this. Here’s a link.

At the request of a friend, I played — or read, or whatever you do with visual novels — Save the Date a couple weeks ago. That recommendation may have been the biggest reason I took Save the Date the way I did.

“Play it” was basically all this guy told me. No explanation or disclaimer or anything. All I knew was that he had just lost his best friend, and — with that in mind — I may have gone in with certain expectations. I may have jumped in expecting some sort of answer to the questions he had been struggling with. The questions he’d posed to me, of all people.

Part of me was hoping Save the Date had been able to provide the answers I couldn’t.

When I came out the other side, whatever Save the Date had been trying to tell me felt a bit muddled. Maybe it’s my own fault, imposing meaning — unintentionally or not — from the outside, but even so, I’m not sure what it would have said to me otherwise.

There’s almost too much to be said about this game. I’m trying to keep this under a bajillion words, so let’s get straight to the conflict. At its core, I’m convinced — or was convinced — that Save the Date is about loss. I think we might all be able to agree on that. The constant failures and starting-overs are a really clever way to talk in a sort of humorous, fourth-wall breaking, nudge-nudge-videogames-am-I-right? sort of way about something really serious: about inevitability, acceptance — about saying goodbye.

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For me, though, it was specifically about how to deal with the death of someone you care about. It became a metaphor for the loss I was trying to help a friend through.

You’re quite literally revisiting the death of someone you care about — two, three dozen times maybe. The same way you replay memories in you head, hoping they’ll be different this time. The same way you try to avoid what’s unavoidable. The way you try to make time last forever or bad things never happen.

Even in its loving references to Groundhog Day and Chrono Trigger, Save the Date feels like it’s challenging their rosy outlook. Sure, Bill Murray escapes the looping day by becoming a new man. And Crono and friends prevent the future-that-refused-to-change by leveling up until they’re powerful enough to defeat Lavos. Here, though, it comes across as the author poking his head out from behind the curtain and pointing to these stories as if to say, “Not this time. You’re not getting out that easily.”

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Felicia says it herself: the only way to stop watching her die is to stop playing. You can substitute your own ending if you want, or leave the story unfinished, or play through one more time just to say goodbye, but eventually you’ve got to stop.

That word, though — goodbye.

I guess… that’s what I wanted out of Save the Date. There were genuine tears in my eyes when I thought I had figured out where this story was going. Sitting on a hill at night, watching the falling stars, both of us fully aware of how this would all end. “Will it hurt?” she asked. I had to tell the truth — that I didn’t know.

And then… that exact dialogue option appeared on the screen: “Goodbye.”

That was the end, I thought. I’d spent something like twenty-five trips through this story, trying to avoid the inevitable, and the most I could do was this. The most I could do was look Felicia in the eyes and say goodbye. Forget all the other brilliant stuff the game had done; this was the gut-punch I was looking for. This was the end that made everything I had brought to the table make sense. The metaphor was complete.

But it wasn’t the end, and that’s where the game falls apart for me. It falls apart because there is a “good” ending. Once you’ve exhausted your options, you can restart and just not go on the date. That’s it, and that’s what the game treats as the proper ending.

I’ve heard Save the Date compared to the Kobayashi Maru, and in truth, I think that’s what I wanted. I wanted there to be no solution — for the game’s theme of saying goodbye to pay off, or its message about substituting your own ending. I wanted there to be no other option but to lose the person you care about, and the only way out of the cycle: to close the game and stop reliving it. I wanted to be told that sometimes there really is nothing you can do but accept the cards you’ve been dealt.

Instead, it fumbles that message — the message I unfairly imposed on it, maybe — in the final moments. Sure, you still lose Felicia, but she lives happily ever after, and you never have to face death. You don’t have to accept that reality, or come to terms with your helplessness. This is the Kobayashi Maru, but it turns out you’re James T. Kirk. All you have to do to get your happy ending is nothing at all.

So how do I feel about Save the Date? Well, I love how it toys with the medium and how it challenges the way I think about stories. I adore every single thing it does, everything it has to say, and the all the ways it says those things. I just wish it could have ended here:

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But, like Felicia says, it can end there if I want it to.

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