Mechanical Breakdown: The Inventory (Part 2)

August 13, 2010

Originally posted on Kotaku

It’s now been a few weeks since I wrote my initial thoughts about the inventory, and I’ve made a few new conclusions from the comments and other articles I’ve researched (thanks to the Critical Distance Game Writing search engine).

What follows may rehash some of what I wrote last time, while also exploring the Inventory’s properties in greater detail than before. I fully expect this, as with all the Mechanical Breakdowns, to evolve over time, and I’m looking to make some changes to the website to reflect this (as well as come up with some way to write this on some sort of regular basis). I’d be interested to know your thoughts on the changing format.

Rather than splitting things up into ‘Gameplay’, ‘Narrative’ and ‘Other’, I’ll pick a few key themes to explore, which have been fueled by comments on this blog or other blog posts I’ve discovered.

For the Inventory, the key themes I found were: The Loot/Use dichotomy Item usage and redundancy

Loot, realism and pacing Inventory as Character Interface

More on all that, as soon as you ‘use’ the ‘more’ key.The Loot/Carry Dichotomy

(Many games have a) ‘carried inventory’ system, where you have a limited set of tools available for combat, and a secondary ‘loot inventory’ system… (whose) primary purpose seems to be the acquisition of wealth.

An inventory might be a place to store and access items, but there are underlying gameplay reasons for doing so that should be explored. MosaicIris hits the nail on the head in recognising two major gameplay modes of inventory use: as items to carry and use; and as a way to horde and accumulate wealth. Only the carry mode is found in many FPS’s, with the loot mode joining it in games with a higher RPG element.

Each of these modes have their own gameplay requirements (the ‘carried inventory’ needs to be easily accessible, while the ‘loot inventory’ needs to be easily managed), and these requirements will be explored in some of the later sections. For now, I want to have a look at the existence of and interaction between these two elements from both the gameplay and narrative perspectives.

Both of these modes concern themselves with ownership, and their interaction in gameplay is generally a matter of enabling the transfer of items from a capitalistic, absolute value-based arena to a more intimate, character-based one. The narrative analogue here is that a game that contains both demonstrates an ability to choose characteristics of a character, while enforcing the capitalist grinding that makes the hero of an RPG more like an anti-hero as they loot the corpses of the wicked and innocent with equal ease.

This dichotomy between different modes represents the different pace of the accompanying gameplay modes of fighting and wealth accumulation. The carry mode is generally designed to be quick and easy to use, enabling twitch gameplay while in combat. Wealth accumulation represents a slower gameplay mode, involving weighing up options logically and deciding which item is objectively better. With this slower pace, we often see the loot system utilised for other purposes: to deepen the world through description, springboard plot elements and allow for multiple character modes.Item Use and Redundancy

inventory can be made redundant by ergonomics… Collect an item, then whenever you have to use it on the thing you have to use it on. Just press the use key.

Jimmy Baird here speaks to an issue which is perpetuated mostly by carried inventories, but which plagues games in general as a result. The fact is that for twitch gaming to occur, the items you use have to be easy to use, meaning that a primary, ‘verb this’ button (ie. left click or trigger) is quite appropriate. Even if there is a secondary use option, you want this to be similarly easily accessible, and so the buttons for this use (secondary mouse button) are based on the ergonomics rather than the actual function of the object.

The result of this is that how you use a non-weapon object is generally not all that important, and how you use a weapon object is more a factor or skill rather than actual choice. From a narrative point of view this is awful: the fundamental aspect of games which give it scope over other mediums is agency, and so boiling down something as complex as how you use an object to either skill or an arbitrary, binary choice seems like a massive waste.

The problem here seems to be one of agency versus ergonomics, but the Blade Runner adventure game demonstrates that this doesn’t always have to be the case. Michael McBride-Carpenter describes how slow-paced games can utilise description and world-building through objects to inform other choices, circumventing the ergonomics of using an object by simply not allowing it to be used.

This is not an inventory designed to help organize items that the main character will use to overcome puzzles. The clue database is designed to organize evidence that the player will use to piece together the game’s mysteries.

In terms of gameplay, this certainly leads to a much slower pace, as much of the game’s action becomes based in the deductive reasoning of the player’s mind rather than on the screen. Yet if this is the intent of the game, it can work wonderfully, allowing the agency of the how to use an object occur within a player’s mind. Sure, the in-game character has no choice in how they use the object, but how you choose to interpret that object becomes paramount.

Another solution that’s being explored at present is that of context-sensitive controls. Controls are mapped to general ideas (feet vs hands, constructive vs destructive etc.), and both the equipped items and the situation at hand determine what each control does. This nicely allows for some agency in the intent of an action, but can emphasise a lack of control over the specifics: how do I jimmy open a crate with a crowbar without breaking it if my two options are ‘attack’ and ‘defend’?Loot, Realism and Pacing

Sure it is slightly more realistic that I should only be able to carry around 16 axes in Diablo, but it introduces a new concern into the game: having to constantly return to base to cash in and empty my inventory for more.

Loot is, in a nutshell, a problem. The idea of being able to loot corpses to earn a living is, in itself, not really a problem, as the anti-heroic aspects of this can be an interesting commentary on how a hero would or wouldn’t be able to survive in today’s capitalist society. The economy of a game as a result of this loot is a separate issue, which can be well or badly handled entirely separately to the inventory system itself. The problem isn’t within either of these elements that define loot, but is rather the emergent conflicts between loot and both pacing and reality.

As Daniel points out, the need to go back and sell items can be a real flow-breaker in games with a maximum inventory size: while it does limit the amount of loot and asks the player to make choices, these choices are often trivial and based on dollar value, rather than being a meaningful representation of the state of a character. Gamers who want to optimise their dollar gain from a mission will find themselves constantly travelling to and from the base. In a game like Diablo II, this is further compounded when enemies automatically respawn, forcing you to fight battles over and over again in order to play economically optimally.

Items like town portals and the ability to sell objects at any point help to alleviate this problem, though the latter can be unrealistic. Mass Effect created a second economic system distinct from cash in omni-gel, to which items could be converted at any point (the interface for this was awful, however, making it slow and painful to get rid of useless items). At the end of the day, however, games with a limited loot system will force players to play the slower-paced wealth accumulation mode when they may not be interested in it.

This might lead you to believe that the limits of inventory systems need to be lifted, so that players can choose when to utilise the loot system (ideally between missions, when they get a break). There are two issues with this: item clutter and reality. Item clutter is just that: you have 500 items and want to find that one broadsword from a while ago so you can put the ruby in it… which was where exactly? Reality, on the other hand, is a bit trickier.

the most natural and realistic way to profit from a kill is to loot the corpse, but if your character has a realistic carrying limit then you can only fully profit from a handful of kills before your loot-inventory is full.

In short, the reason why we don’t ever see realistic carry limits is because they’d break gameplay. In fact, you can choose exactly how often a game will break its regular flow to go into ‘sell my loot’ mode by how big its inventory is, and anything in the realm of realism is simply too small for gameplay to function.

Now at many levels, this is a non-issue: it’s now a convention to have these ridiculously big carrying limits, and so the lack of realism doesn’t grate on your average player. It becomes an issue if you’re wanting to use the inventory to make a statement about the reality of your game, and as such it’s not a surprise that many of these ‘uber-realistic’ games are FPS’s with a limited carry system and a non-existant loot system.

We need limited inventories to stop item clutter more than to enforce reality, which in turn affects the pacing of games in a generally-negative way. We can tweak the limits to place the breaks in gameplay flow more naturally, but such breaks are an inevitability if a loot system is to be used.Inventory as Character

Dumping all the food so you can haul a piano across the country says a lot about your character… mainly that you’re either crazy or an idiot, but still, it can be fun to play that role.

This is where inventory shines: its ability to let us tell a game about our character, and for that game to respond in kind. Right now, it’s hard to tell games narrative facts about your character: you can give it stats about a character’s physical attributes, but backstory’s a bit harder to fill in.

As such, the items you choose to equip and those you choose to keep on you are the closest thing we have to a system for fluidly evolving character traits. If you’re the sort of character that values pottery above all else, you can signify it by carrying a lot of pottery. If you’ve lost a love one who you associate with a certain plant, you can be obsessed with always carrying at least one flower from said plant. Games which use weight to both limit items and limit movement speed translate the inventory habits of a character into game-world effects.

As far as I know, there hasn’t been a game that looks at what players carry and keep as characteristics to react to. If a game were to do this, they could possibly inject more meaningful characterisation into item choices.

Another story element that the inventory falls into is that of home and where you belong.

With no permanent storage, there’s no sense of anywhere being a home for us, so we’re encouraged to move forwards.

Home, in gaming terms, is a place where you can store your stuff such that it can’t be stolen. As games without permanent storage portray the players as travellers, so do games with permanent storage create a surrogate home for the player character. The theme of home and what it means is incredibly important to the inventory, which has a somewhat materialistic view of what a home is.Interface

I don’t have a huge amount to say about interfaces, but they’re an incredibly important part of the inventory system insofar as a game will suffer greatly if it gets it wrong. The Mass Effect system that I mentioned earlier required several clicks to sell each item, would only allow you to sell one item at a time, and had an item limit of 150. When I did decide to clean up my inventory, it ate up at least half an hour of tedious effort. The interface of an inventory system can ensure that choices made are characterful and appropriate, or it can make the entire process of inventory management incredibly frustrating. What makes a good interface is a massive topic that really doesn’t belong in this post, but its an important topic that I felt needed to be mentioned.It’s in the bag

If I had to sum up this article and provide a take-home message (and my brain is telling me that I do), it’d the existence of loot and carry inventories as separate, but entwined, entities, each with different pacing and major themes (wealth accumulation and characterisation respectively). As I mentioned previously, I’ll be changing how I display mechanical breakdowns in the near-ish future, looking to tackle them as a series of articles that I continually update with community input. So if you have more stories about the inventory or thoughts about major gameplay or narrative themes I’ve missed, please feel free to send them to me and I’ll do my best to fit them in.