Mechanical Breakdown: The Inventory (Part 1)

June 27, 2010

This time, I want to do something a little different with the Mechanical Breakdown. After last week’s RTS article and followup on Achron, I was struck by just how much there can be to a mechanic (not to mention a genre). In particular, the RTS article took me an entire weekend to scribe, and yet it felt incredibly unfinished by its end. So instead of trying to exhaustively examine a mechanic myself, I’m wanting to try a more collaborative approach to the Mechanical Breakdown.

So what I’ll be doing is to describe the mechanic to explore, before writing down a number of initial observations about said mechanic. At this stage, I turn to you, the reader, to help me by cataloguing your experiences with this mechanic, how it affected the games you played and what you think this might mean (on top of any general ideas and thoughts you might have on the subject, of course). After a week or so, I’ll collate the results into a second Mechanical Breakdown post exploring the gameplay and narrative effects of a mechanic using your experiences.

This week: the Inventory. Can we fit it all into a rucksack, let alone a blog post? We’ll find out after the jump…

The inventory, as a mechanic, generally has two distinct purposes: to limit the player’s stash and to provide access to the items residing within said stash. For a mechanic with such simple goals, the inventory has a huge amount of variation within its implementation.

Much of this variation will be concerned with realism, and as such the inventory can’t help but have reality as a core thematic idea. This arises more due to the manner in which the inventory mechanic was born: it was created when players were losing engagement in interactive experiences due to a lack of realism in inventory systems.

Many games continue to do fine without this realism (FPS’s are the worst offenders here), and so there is a definite trade-off between the gameplay goals that breed an unrealistic inventory and the realism that is required. There’s a certain power to being able to pull out any one of 20 weapons you have at your disposal that simultaneously allows for greater gameplay flexibility, and as such, I think that we also have to consider the inventory as a portrayal of character ability (or the lack thereof).

Some games (particularly RPGs) will delineate this fairly specifically, with a characters’ attributes determining what and how much they can carry at a particular time. Often these games will utilise object weight as the limiting factor, which brings in some extra realism while providing an extra variable to (figuratively) weigh your items’ worth against. In narrative terms, I think this gives the player reason to think on the objects in the world and their purposes, providing a possible springboard for story arcs through items with strange properties (which the player might not examine closely in a FPS where you can keep everything you ever pick up).

In terms of access, the inventory is usually an interface issue rather than a mechanic persay. However, the existence of interface elements such as hotkeys can affect the gameplay quite drastically, switching between the tactical vs twitch gaming paradigms. In doing so, the inventory can quite drastically affect the pace of a game, which is an important narrative element.

The inventory can also tie us back into the entire theme of choice, by making us choose what to keep and what to throw away. These choices will usually help define the type of character we are, and games can potentially capitalise on these indicators on what the player feels is important to their characters. The choices as they extend to marketplaces and buying/selling are fascinating as well, but the idea of an economy is a separate enough mechanic that I’d like to treat it in a separate Mechanical Breakdown (this doesn’t, of course, stop you from using it to make comment on how it might affect the inventory system or its own effects).

I think I’ll leave it there for today – there’s a few things to chew on, and I don’t want to start rambling. I would love to hear any experiences you’ve had with inventory systems and how they’ve affected your gaming experience, both from a gameplay and a narrative perspective.