Tuesday, March 15, 2011
While I haven't done any scientific studies, I get the impression that limited inventory systems and item management aren't very popular game systems. This is understandable, as arranging and storing virtual items usually isn't as exhilarating as exploring fantastic landscapes or battling mythical beasts. As one poster on RPGnet Forums put it: "There is nothing epic about packing your goddamn bags."
I think inventory management is an interesting example of the uncanny valley as applied to in-game actions. Having to meticulously pack your briefcase in Resident Evil 4 is definitely closer to real life than Link's bottomless pockets in the Zelda series. However, getting closer to the real world often just highlights the remaining differences. Consider again the RE 4 example: having to deal with limited item space just raises more questions: What kind of huge suitcase can hold a rifle and a rocket launcher? Why can't herbs be wrapped around canisters of health to save space? Why is everything arbitrarily locked to a grid? Packing in real life doesn't conform to a single set of rules: objects are flexible, clothes can be used as padding for breakables, and suitcases can be sat and squished down. In seeking to recreate the realistic pressure of having too much stuff and not enough space, RE 4 can feel inadvertently arbitrary.
Even so, I don't mind a bit of inventory management. In fact, I enjoyed RE 4's system of item storage because it rewarded a careful packer. Rather than deal with arbitrary numerical limits on items, I could carry whatever I wanted as long as I could fit it in the briefcase. If I can suspend my disbelief when it comes to zombies, I think I can mange to go easy on suitcases. More broadly, limited inventories force me to fight my tendency to hang on to every minuscule object I encounter in games. By the time I reach the end of most RPGs, my item list is usually bulging with a ridiculous number of weak and useless items that I had been hoarding "just in case."
As Matthew Gallant demonstrates, inventory Tetris taps into that familiar impulse towards compulsive organization. True, utilizing every square inch of space in your virtual luggage or managing your stock of digital goods seems decidedly less heroic than saving the world, but there remains a certain amount of satisfaction in finding a place for everything. Overcoming challenges with limited means can be very satisfying, as can organizing your gear in such a way that keeps the most useful tools at the ready.
As an added bonus, you don't have to worry about airport security rummaging through your meticulously-packed stuff in a video game. Which reminds me: I should probably leave my fire arrows at home.