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March 2020

Fatal Exception: Inventory management and Resident Evil

Pockets are a wonderful invention. Someone looked at a pair of trousers, thought “there’s a lot of unused space there,” and just went for it. Bags are pretty great as well, but for the convenience of carrying just a tiny bit of extra stuff without losing the use of your hands, pockets are the answer. And do you know why pockets are so nice? Because holding items is boring, annoying, it takes effort, it makes your hands sweaty.

Despite this, many games place a lot of importance on the gathering, sorting and using of objects. Shooters give you boxes of scrolling information or radial menus from which to select just the right combination of gun and bullet; in an RPG, there can be literally dozens of screens exclusively dedicated to making sure you know where you keep all the different kinds of berries; a point-and-click adventure will frequently ask you to collect random pieces of scenery and try to jam them together. Unfortunately, most attempts to craft an inventory management system sit somewhere between average and deeply flawed. Games like Skyrim and The Witcher 3 have too many columns and not enough ability to organise all the information the player is given, leading to the frustration of knowing what you want to do inside your inventory and being unable to do it. No Man’s Sky is a mass of boxes crowding your vision and begging for your attention. Mass Effect’s inventories are to space adventure what registration paperwork is to car racing. No matter how big or small the game, you just don’t hear people gushing about the experience of selecting Plasma Rifle V when upgrading from Plasma Rifle IV.

Is this because inventories are awful, time-consuming busywork sent by the game gods to punish us for our hubris? Absolutely. Should they all burn, leaving nothing but linear item acquisition and action-packed setpieces in their wake? Yes please. Except…

Well, there is Resident Evil. Amid the goofy horror and eyeball monsters, the Resident Evil series puts a fairly heavy focus on resource management; it’s about the survival in “survival horror.” An average session in any RE game involves just as much item juggling as it does shotgunning mutated corpses, as the player attempts to figure out what supplies they might need between here and the next magic box teleporter. Oh no, you might say, inventory management. That’s already been proven to be bad in peer-reviewed scientific journals!

Against all odds, however, the inventory management in Resident Evil games is uniformly excellent. And much of it comes down to physicality. Unlike many of the examples above, Resident Evil inventories are undeniably real objects with very tangible restraints. The player is given a limited set of boxes which follow simple rules: only one item can occupy a single box, if an item is larger than normal it takes up extra boxes. Rather than the somewhat nebulous concept of a weight limit (employed by many RPGs) or the even less logical item limit (where you can carry, let’s say, 100 ‘things’ of any size or shape before becoming overburdened by 101 feathers or 101 steel girders), RE stipulates that you have a certain amount of actual space in which to hold items, and that’s it. Moving objects around in your virtual bag then becomes less of a meta-exercise in making sure your bag conforms to the code of the video game, and more of a personal challenge in backpack efficiency.

That desire for efficiency, too, sets the systems apart from the rest of the pack. There’s little satisfaction to be squeezed from moving hundreds of healing potions and iron swords back and forth between your infinite bag of text and Lydia’s similarly bottomless burden carrier in Skyrim; it’s an exercise in practicality. But making sure you have all your herbs and ammunition lined up just-so in Leon’s satchel, allowing you to tote that useful shotgun along, is beautiful catharsis. The experience is akin to making a perfect pull in Jenga, or getting all your shopping to fit into the fridge just right; that feeling of a job well done, heightened by being able to actually look at the fruits of your labour and assess their value.

Resident Evil inventory systems feel tangible, and, more importantly, they feel connected to the larger game world. When you pick up a grenade in Resident Evil 4, it continues to occupy space inside your mind and in the game; when you need a heart-shaped key to open the door in Resident Evil 2 Remake’s police station, you physically grab the key and watch as it unlocks the door. Cause and effect.

Speaking of the RE2 remake, the effort it puts into making sure the inventory system is an enjoyable part of the game should make every other game feel bad. Items are marked as generic versions of themselves—key, book, etc.—until you choose to examine them closely and they’re relabeled as something more specific and informative. Crucially, though, the item in question still works just fine even if you never look at it properly. Once an item has fulfilled its purpose, been used in every proper keyhole or cut through every chain, it gains a small checkmark which denotes the fact that it can safely be thrown away. Any item in the game can be thrown away at any time, which is terrifying power, but this tiny indicator is a life-preserver to nervous players unsure about whether that precious square of space in their bag can be safely flushed.

Finding items in Resident Evil games is a joyful experience. Instead of dreading having to work out what to do with another widget, or simply storing it away without much thought, the player’s puzzle brain swings into action. Can I safely store this important item in my current state, or do I need to make some clever changes to my backpack? Is this item even important enough for me to make that call? Will I be able to combine the red gem with this weird box I’ve been carrying around for two hours? The result of this focus on physical presence is that the inventory feels like part of the game, rather than a separate system designed to act as a big box of stuff. The inventory management is simply an extension of the rest of the management tasks present in the game. Players need to keep an eye on Leon, Claire or Jill’s health, their general physical safety, the status of the room, and, of course, the contents of their pockets. And the inventory system allows bouncing back and forth between all these competing areas without the dissonance one experiences when trying to switch swords in The Witcher or scrolling through 100 near-identical sniper rifles in Borderlands.

If there’s one thing other games could stand to learn from Resident Evil’s inventory, it’s that players need to feel that their items actually exist. It’s not enough to simply be told that I hold five wheels of cheese; I should have to deal with the physical and spatial consequences of holding way too much cheese, I should have some indication from the game that I picked up cheese from this digital universe and it’s mine now. I want to own that cheese. Letting players get their fingers into the nitty gritty of managing an inventory in a way that suits the world you’re trying to make them inhabit might even make this large, inescapable aspect of video games kind of fun. Or we could keep shoving everything into big, nondescript bags.