Usually I’m in lock step with complaints about how retail games from disparate genres have become increasingly homogeneous these days, but the inventory screen is one thing I actually wish was another part of the generally-accepted concoction. It and the itemization of objects it brings gives players more to think about and makes a game’s world seem deeper.
These days in the retail console space you might find a racing game, a first person shooter, a horror game, and a stealth game, and every one of them might have a skill tree, upgradable weapons, a world map, collectibles to find, and a crafting system. All this stuff ends up in a game to possibly inflate its perceived value and increase the amount of time someone spends on it before trading it in a GameStop. And yet, almost none of these games will feature a limited or visual inventory system.
I’m not talking about just weapons, limited ammo, and other limited items like grenades, but an actual screen where you have to manage all your stuff. The most obvious effect this has on a game is it makes players think about everything they pick up. All of a sudden you think about when you should use an item, or if you can afford to pick up this other item. It adds a survival aspect to a game. The other thing inventory screens do however is they add the idea of items to grab (again, other than weapons and ammo) which immediately fills a game world with tangible objects.
In a Gamasutra article someone from MachineGames explained why the studio put so many collectible items in Wolfenstein: The New Order along with requiring players to physically press a button to pick them up as opposed to walking over them. I already went over this previously, but it forces players to actually investigate the world. It makes them look into cupboards and lockers which probably causes players to actually notice the environment the developer spent all that time making. The Bioshock games basically do the same thing which I think is a reason people revere them for having strong worlds — their gameplay actually makes makes you look deep into your surroundings.
Those games however, and many others, are only examples of what might be the first step of inventory and itemization. They make you look around and pick up things, but they never make you think about where it’s all going. Sure most shooters these days only let you carry two or three weapons but that’s it. In Bioshock you just instantly consume all consumables. That system in particular is technically a downgrade from System Shock 2 which is a lot like Bioshock except it makes you manage an inventory, upping the survival horror aspect. I think most people reading this would remember how effective this is in the earlier Resident Evil games.
You know what shooter I think has a very enriching inventory system? ArmA. The very idea of having a limited inventory in a military shooter makes it feel like a more tactical game. If your buddy goes down in a firefight you can go into his inventory and pick up some of his ammo, or his laser designator, or perhaps his armor. An absolutely genius idea is how ArmA gives every vehicle its own storage space. I think all open world games should do that. Don’t have the room to carry that rocket launcher? Just stash it in the trunk. It expands gameplay and feels a little more realistic. Your horse in The Witcher 3 is supposed to have its own inventory which should at least alleviate its weight-based system.
Of course there are different kinds of limited inventory screens too. A very popular form in RPGs these days is the weight-based system. A long time ago I wrote a post here about how these are pretty much almost always annoying. Maybe a lot of people are simply used to Japanese RPG systems where you just have a hard limit on the number of items you carry. Maybe setting a hard limit on each type of item, like 10 health potions, is a less annoying way of compartmentalizing item limits.
In any case, I’m more a fan of grid-based inventory screens which are some of the least common in action games. Within this system you generally have two kinds: the one-item-per-grid system you see in Dead Space or the old RE games, and the grid-space system you get in Resident Evil 4 or Deus Ex where different items take up relative space on the screen. I’m a fan of the latter type which not only more strongly visualizes things but gives you another thing to do by letting you rearrange and flip things. Deus Ex: Human Revolution is the only recent console game I’ve seen use this system.
I think I can make a good guess as to why relatively few games include inventory screens — they inevitably slow down gameplay. They make you stop and think about things, and most blockbuster action games today want players to always be moving around and destroying something. Just look at the difference between Resident Evil 4, Resident Evil 5, and Resident Evil 6. 5 and 6 chucked 4’s grid space system in favor of a smaller grid and a cross-based system respectively in order to greater emphasize more action-oriented gameplay. The biggest reason was probably to accommodate the co-op focus of 5 and 6.
I think that’s the big reason you don’t see grid-space inventories that often in action games anymore. You can’t implement one in a console game without pausing, which slows down the game a lot. I totally understand making a horror game where the inventory doesn’t pause in order to heighten tension. System Shock 2 does this with its grid-space system but it and the original Deus Ex have the benefit of a mouse and keyboard. Human Revolution isn’t a horror game and wants its players to slow down to consider their options frequently. I guess Dead Space and Last of Us might be the best mediums for a fast-paced console-oriented inventory system.
This is all probably why you mainly see this system in survival games and RPGs. All those blockbuster games are borrowing most of their mechanics from RPGs though. They want players to spend time thinking about crafting systems and skill trees. Why not inventory screens too?
- BREAKING: Grandia II on its way to Steam. http://j.mp/1E2CMtq Hope it’s not the reportedly bad existing PC port.
- The Witcher 3 has a download size of around 25GB. Good.
- An RE4 HD project update. http://www.re4hd.com/?p=1985
- Good article on video game narrative by Leigh Alexander. http://boingboing.net/2015/05/11/why-are-the-stories-in-video-g.html