Monday 27 March 2023

Inventory Systems I Have Known And Loved

For as long as mankind has battled orcs, zombies, and dragons, so there has been a greater foe: ones own limitations. Specifically carrying capacity. Why battle the monsters in the first place if not to nick all their loot, after all? Encumbrance has been around in RPGs from the start with rules on how much a character can carry, though in pencil and paper games it can always be augmented with a Bag of Holding, glossed over entirely (especially if spending more time creating characters than actually adventuring with them), or a bit of common sense can be applied if everyone is on the same page (“yes, as per the rulebook your high strength would let you carry a glaive, a guisarme, a bill-guisarme, a glaive-bardiche and a glaive-glaive-glaive-guisarme-glaive without being encumbered, but they’re all twice your height, how would that even work? Over your shoulder in some sort of bundle? Well, OK, but they’re not going to be immediately ready for combat. Also, if anyone attracts your attention it’s going to be a 2d4 Plank Gag Slapstick Attack on the person behind you unless they make a reflex save.”)

CRPGs also tend to include encumbrance, though obviously without the wiggle room of a DM; back in the good old AD&D-based party games I’d furiously re-roll virtual dice to get a Fighter with a nice high 18(90+) Strength (ideally boosted by rings, bracers, and whatever other magical jewellery was kicking around (Labret of Stone Giant Strength? Yes please!)), partly for the bonus damage in melee attacks, partly to load up with every scrap of loot it was possible to hoover up (including the Wizard’s share, as they used Strength as a dump stat and were struggling under the weight of a couple of scrolls and a pointy hat). First Person Shooters didn’t bother about such things, you had the fixed array of possible guns, and nobody was worrying where Doom Guy was storing the chain gun, rocket launcher and BFG9000 when he whipped his pistol out (matron). As CRPGs became more visual than text-based so the inventory evolved into the good old grid of graphical objects, sometimes with the concept of weight as well, often not, so you could quite happily be carrying 20 polearms but if you wanted to swap one for two daggers, or a ring and a gemstone, no dice. A slightly evolved version of the grid has larger items taking up more slots, the original Deus Ex being a fine example, giving the added joy of playing Inventory Tetris, especially if some items had irregular shapes. Someone even turned that into a standalone game, it looks quite fun in itself, but in the wider sense it’s quite the irritation if you only have space for one of a magical gold-plated dragonfly that grants wishes or the holy grail. A variant has containers that can only hold certain items; that makes sense with, say, a scroll case that can hold a bunch of scrolls, but is less explicable in Far Cry 3 with its baffling range of very specific luggage made from very specific animal parts (a grenade can be placed in a pack made out of deer hide but not a pouch made out of tiger skin, obviously).

With loot being such a vital part of many current games, especially MMOGs, inventory space is inevitably in high demand. In World of Warcraft there was a clear path for making money; “I am the most skilled tailor in the realm! I can sew the most elaborate robes you have ever seen, or a cape with the deepest magicks embroidered into its very essence, or… a bag. sigh Yes, all right, the biggest bag I can stitch together, coming right up.” Expanded inventories are often rewards or available as a real money purchase, highly desirable for players, and comic asides apart realism isn’t really a concern. You can always handwave things away with magic or sufficiently advanced technology, or come up with alternative explanations for present(ish) day games. In The Division, for example, just out of shot there’s the Gun Caddy wheeling around a modified golf trolley crammed full of weapons for different scenarios. “Ah, Jeeves, a wide open space with excellent sightlines, I’ll take the niblick for this one.”
ahem “Sir…”
“Now, Jeeves, I know that tone, you’re going to say a mashie-niblick would be more suitable, aren’t you? Well I’ve jolly well made my decision, hand over the niblick.”
“Actually, sir, I was going to suggest the SOCOM Mk 20 SSR with 8x scope, but have it your way.”
“That’s better. RAAAAAAAAGH!”
Bertie Wooster charges off towards the Black Tusk mercenaries waving a golf club

All this has been on my mind as I’ve started playing State of Decay 2. Inventory systems tend to be more restrictive in survival games, yet scavenging for weapons, components and other items is crucial, deliberately forcing difficult choices. Fair enough. I don’t think anything has implemented a ludicrously realistic system (I mean Completely Accurate Rucksack Simulator could be another interesting spin-off standalone game, where you desperately need to heal yourself using bandages you’re carrying but can’t remember quite where you packed them so have to go through all the side pockets, then empty everything out and rummage through it, finally find the bandages right at the bottom of the pack, then have to carefully re-fold and re-pack everything again afterwards), but you’re unlikely to be able to casually tote around 50 spare guns.

The State of Decay 2 system is a bit messy, though. First of all it’s slot-based with one item per slot and characters able to equip backpacks of six to eight slots, with all the inherent quirks (“my inventory is completely full, but I really want that assault rifle. I shall remove this single 9mm bullet from my pocket and now have room for it!”) exacerbated by stacking (“I have eight cartridges, each of a different calibre, so my backpack is completely full and can store nothing else. Unless I drop them and pick up 20 cartridges of the same calibre, now I can carry seven stacks of other things too…”) Items also have weight, so you can be overloaded carrying particularly heavy items and run out of stamina more quickly (again, fair enough, but emphasises the fact that the eight individual cartridges weigh almost nothing unlike the eight stacks of multiple containers of liquid for crafting). Fortunately you can drive vehicles, and offload that weight by putting it in the boot (trunk, if you’re an elephant). Unfortunately a car can, apparently, hold slightly less than a backpack. Apart from supply rucksacks, they can’t fit in a backpack but can be carried one at a time by a character; several of those fit in a car boot.

It’s not as if it’s a terribly different system to any number of other games, but the limited space makes the quirks chafe that little bit more. Setting out on a trip to gather supplies, if you kit yourself out with a bunch of weapons, ammunition, health packs and other consumables then you have enough space to clear out a single sock drawer in an abandoned house before you have to return to base. Take nothing but a rusty screwdriver to maximise your carrying capacity, you’re screwed if you misjudge things and end up swarmed by a mass of zombies. Difficult decisions are one thing, repeated trips back and forth to empty a single toolshed are another.

All of that wouldn’t be quite so bad if it wasn’t for the fact that you barely get five minutes of peace. It seems like I can’t head out to explore without some random band of survivors getting on the radio and asking if I wouldn’t mind getting them a rucksack of supplies. Sure, fine, building relationships with other groups is important. Then two minutes later they’re back on the radio checking up, and if you haven’t dropped absolutely everything to pander to their demands shortly after that they get in a huff. Then some trader is visiting for a limited time somewhere else on the map, another survivor has a mission they’d like assistance with (with no indication if it’s a persistent thing that you can get around to later), and then there’s a warning that zombies are gathering to attack your base and you have ten minutes to get back there and defend it. OK, a zombie apocalypse shouldn’t be the ideal environment for chilling out, but I was hoping to slowly build up my base, explore the immediate surroundings and secure them, expand from there, rather than constantly dashing hither and yon at the whim of other survivors. It hasn’t completely put me off, I’m enjoying it enough to keep plugging away, but it has got to the point that I was glad when one group demanded stuff rather than asking nicely, it made it much easier to ignore. They subsequently turned hostile, so when I happened to be in the area later and they attacked I didn’t feel at all guilty taking them out. In fact it was a bonus, as I got to take all their stuff rather than having to trade and pay for it. Or at least it would have been a bonus, if I could have carried any of it, but sadly my backpack already contained a small bottle of painkillers, a grenade, a matchbox, two nails, a butter knife, and a toothbrush, so was completely full.