Fallout 4 and The Witcher 3 have made me realize that one problem I’ve never seen an open-world RPG solve is that of carry limits and encumbrance. I talked about it a little bit in 2012 but developers haven’t really done anything significant about it since then and I think the common game mechanic needs to be reexamined from multiple angles.
I understand why we have carry limits of course. It’s not about realism at all, but more like a rule of games because being able to carry and/or sell literally everything could break the difficulty. In many cases managing an inventory is supposed to be part of the challenge. My issue with the system though is that leaving it up to an arbitrary number above which the game restricts the player to walking speed seems like simple and haphazard design. This is especially true when the rest of a game like Fallout 4 or Witcher 3 is so complex. Other, technically smaller games actually tend to have a more measured and nuanced approach.
For starters, why even slow the player down? Does anyone actually play these games at that restricted walking speed? Can they be effectively played at that speed? I haven’t seen anyone do it, so why don’t they just stop the player from collecting anymore items above the weight limit? That’s what they might as well do.
I’ve also only noticed this whole problem in RPGs where selling loot and gathering crafting materials are major elements. I mostly only ran into encumbrance issues in Skyrim when I tried to sell off every piece of weaponry and armor from every enemy I killed. In Fallout 4 I’m only running into encumbrance issues when I gather a lot of crafting junk. CDProjekt almost completely solved this problem in Witcher 3 with a patch that simply made crafting components weightless, but I think that’s a bit of a cop-out. You also have this problem in isometric loot games like Torchlight, and they usually just either let you send a pet back to sell junk or give you teleportation.
In my experience the games with the best limited inventory systems are smaller games with smaller inventory limits like Deus Ex, Resident Evil, or System Shock. They tend to have visually-oriented systems where you can actually see how much space you have and how much each item takes up. Managing that inventory becomes a constant element of gameplay and feels like a natural part of the challenge instead of an occasional annoyance.
However, Resident Evil and System Shock in particular are survival games, open-world RPGs like Fallout and Witcher 3 aren’t, so they probably need a different solution, one nobody (to my knowledge) has ever really come up with. What if limiting the amount of weapons, ammo, or health items players can carry added an interesting dynamic to these games? At the very least I’d be interested in seeing them put crafting junk into a separate limited inventory. At least Witcher 3 let’s you buy bigger saddlebags for your horse. Couldn’t Fallout let you buy bigger backpacks or some kind of quantum container?
And rethinking inventories would go beyond the inventories themselves. I think another problem is that some of these games do a bad job of teaching players what’s most important to carry. It took a while for me to learn that Skyrim probably doesn’t want me to carry and sell every sword I grab off a dead enemy. In Fallout 4 I never really know how often I’m gonna need to use a big gun.
Another thing I want to see open-world games consider more carefully is the distribution of crafting materials. Before Witcher 3 came out I said it would be nice if developers deliberately made certain materials most common in certain areas to where players could actually figure this out and know where to gather then when needed, instead of randomly trying to find junk. Fallout 4 sort of does this a little bit — you’re more likely to find a biometric scanner or a microscope in a hospital, but most junk still feels somewhat randomly distributed.
The game that finally figures out how to properly balance loot and crafting with a limited inventory system that feels like a proper challenge in a game without feeling needlessly annoying will be hailed as an innovative step forward.