Beyond Inventory Systems

Going on an adventure means, at some point, having to look through your pockets for those all important bits of kit. Whether it’s a map, compass or gauntlet of power, you need to make sure your preparations weren’t in vain and that you’ll last long enough to reach the next safe spot. Inventory systems are a core component of many genres and aren’t exclusive to roleplaying games. Choosing your loadout in a first person shooter, making sure you have your long and short range options carefully considered also qualifies.

Rather than focusing on the different ways of handling a grid of images (as most discussion on this topic seems to get stuck), I wanted to reflect on some great examples of how item storage can be tied more closely to narrative elements used to enhance the emotional conveyance of an experience.

Survival Horror – Safe Rooms

In gaming, the survival horror genre came of age when titles like Resident Evil and Silent Hill were released. What makes them special, in my eyes, is how they paced the action gameplay. Much of the experience involved exploring environments and solving puzzles. Inevitably, through the sheer volume of of discoverable items, the player was required to decide what to take for another trip outside the confines of the safe room.

The safe room is, as implied, an area of sanctuary wherein an opportunity to save game progress and shuffle through an item bank exists. As a standalone mechanic, it doesn’t sound remarkable but, when considered in the context of an incredibly tense gameplay environment, it provides an indescribable sense of relief. There is a genuine feeling of progression when entering into one of these rooms, even with all the backtracking the gameplay demands.

An item box in a save room – Resident Evil

Roguelikes – Permanent death

Roguelike games are defined by a number of characteristics, the most prevalent of which are permanent death (one life only) and procedurally generated content. If you visit any online community wherein this genre is being actively discussed, you’ll often find heated debate surrounding what constitutes a true roguelike experience versus a more diluted one, usually referred to as a ‘rogue-lite’. That aside, these sorts of games have a lot to offer by way of variety and much of the experimentation seen in the indie gaming scene, these days at least, occurs in this genre.

Item storage in roguelikes is tricky business to say the least. Upon death, any evidence that the player once walked the world is usually erased from existence. There are a few exceptions however and they remain, to this day, unique in their implementation.

Nethack is an older game which, much like those before it, is rendered via ASCII characters. Though never designed to be visually compelling, it delivers an incredibly challenging dungeon crawl in which all learning is implicit. That is to say, you learn through trial and error and, true to form in this pit of despair, most experiences end in utter failure. Upon death however, there is a chance that the game will retain the state of the level in order to be loaded again in a future play session. After encountering the ghost of the previous player, there is an opportunity to recover their inventory but with the caveat that much of it may be ‘cursed’.

As implied, anything which is cursed shouldn’t be used unless the player is able to mitigate against the risks. Whether those are unpredictable behaviours, reduced efficiency or something directly harmful to the user.

Open Worlds – Morrowind

Despite their current prevalence, open world games weren’t always so popular. The big change in recent times has been the focus placed on the user/player experience with titles like World of Warcraft raising what was, admittedly, a rather low baseline. Much has been learned about how players interact with large environments and how we, as humans attribute meaning to our actions. To keep this commentary on track though, I’m going to use The Elderscrolls: Morrowind as my primary example.

Dr Who and his TARDIS in the lands of Morrowind

In Morrowind, you are homeless for the majority of the game. Disembarking the imperial prison ship, with not even a penny to your name, you find yourself scorned by all those who inhabit the realm. Shortly after finding your way however, it’s not long before you realise that you can’t carry everything you ‘find’ / steal.

Unlike most modern games which seek to optimise system resources like memory, in Morrowind, if you drop something on the floor it stays there. There are no magical cleaning fairies employed by some centrally-funded government program and that means you can find a ditch someplace and make it your home. As the player ekes out their miserable existence, they may find themselves living anonymously in someone’s attic or, as I preferred, the balcony of the thieves guild in Balmora. Granted, the game does provide you with a small house which you inherit after the passing of a friend though, for many, the joy of the game lies in claiming a nest of their choosing and filling it with all manner of shiny objects.

That’s all for now, there are many more examples of excellence though the takeaway message for me is that even something as simple as an item bank can be a powerful tool in a gaming narrative when used creatively. There are things I want to experiment with such as allowing a player to bury items and mark the location on a map, I see it as a more acceptable way of keeping an environment clutter free whilst providing an opportunity to personalise an isolated area.

I’ll be posting more on my thoughts in the near future.

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