The first real article that I wrote on that blag was about game saves in video games. A piece of information that you don’t have if you discovered this article in 2023 is that each and every one of my articles has tags, for when one day, I decide to implement a meaningful tag system on my blag. The two tags of that 2013 article were the following: “videogames”, and “rants”. The latter of which should be indicative of the content that is to come in this article.
And get ready because ranting is what I do best.
The game save matter was so important to me that, a few months later, when I played a game that exemplified everything that was wrong with checkpoints, I had no choice but to write an article about this game: Alan Wake. As I don’t own a computer powerful enough to run its sequel: Alan Wake 2, I have to rely on testimony that the good people at Remedy didn’t read my article and heed my advice. Don’t worry, dear reader, one day, you’ll get Game Saves III, but not today.
It is easy to call out mistakes with the certainty of hindsight. However, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, be it about game saves, or the subject of this article: inventory systems.
In a lot of video games, you play a character, that will often be able to get items that will almost every time have some impact on gameplay. Eventually, as you play, you will notice that there are limitations set on the acquisition of said items: your inventory has limits. I believe this is a mistake almost every single time.
Not a preference. Not a point subject to interpretation. This is a design mistake.
There are obviously counter examples, and I will come to them, explain why setting limitations, sometimes harsh ones, work within the design and the goals of the game. But for now, I will start by explaining why, by default, setting inventory limitations is a mistake.
To put it plainly, video games are games first. In fact, games that forget that tend to be mediocre or, to be generous, deeply flawed art pieces that fail at realizing their true nature: being games. But, I digress. You play games. Games need to be fun. They can be challenging or frustrating, but they need to be fun.
That’s the case with Dark Souls, one of my favorite games, whose inventory system has very few limitations, non unique “key items” have a limit of 99 which take a lot of time to hit. You can carry every single weapon and piece of armor in your inventory without suffering any consequences. What happens once you try equipping items is a different story – but I don’t feel one ounce of frustration from the inventory size limits in Dark Souls.
Baldur’s Gate 3
Now, one of the inspirations for this article was the inventory system in Baldur’s Gate 3. I won’t spoil anything about the 2023 Game of the Year, I’ll just briefly describe inventory mechanics. Baldur’s Gate 3’s inventory system is extremely classical for a Computer Role Playing Game (often abbreviated as CRPG). You pick up items, and they are set against a limitation: in this case, every item has a weight and your character can hold a maximum weight based on their stats.
Where it becomes interesting is that Baldur’s Gate 3 does everything it can to alleviate this weight system, short of calling it into question. You can give items to your character which all have their weight limits. You can send any item of your inventory inside a storage that you can access (almost?) any time you’re not in battle. In fact, it is almost as if Larian Studios was paying lip service to inventory size limits, but did its best to make it meaningless. It is not perfect and there are still a few friction points, like trading. But I wonder why these limitations are even in the game? Is it simply the weight of tradition and of being attached to the Dungeons and Dragons license, whose rules feature said system?
One last thing about Baldur’s Gate 3: you can save at any time, including in combat, as you should.
Here’s an intermediate example before I start getting to games that actually utilize inventory limitations to improve the gaming experience and convey greater depth.
Stardew Valley is an amazing game that can feel like a happy place. It has great music, graphics, ambience, mechanics, and almost made me stick to a genre I can’t get into because I have the attention span of a 5-year-old on cocaine.
I don’t play many farming sims. I tried getting into Harvest Moon, and wanted to love Rune Factory for its combat hybridization. I spent too much time with Animal Crossing (it might not count because you don’t farm much but it’s adjacent enough to be in the same box in my head) on the DS for inexplicable reasons to me, and a few others here and there.
In any case, despite who I am, Stardew Valley managed to catch my attention longer that it should have out of sheer quality. Not just because it respected my time, compared to the latest Animal Crossing game, or because it was pretty, but because it was an overall wonderful game.
Now, how does that inventory space work? Not really in a special way, but once you get the first update, which extends its size a little, it sort of gets in the way. The inventory only works to limit the number of items, mostly the number of types of different items, you can carry in order to force you to focus on what you’re doing and make choices. This limitation works for about everything. However, after getting that first upgrade, I had the impression that most tasks wouldn’t really hit the limit if I stayed focused on doing only that task. Whether I was fishing, farming, or other things I’m probably forgetting, I didn’t actually hit the limit.
The only case where it kept being limiting was the caves, a.k.a the dungeoning element of the game, and even then being clear with what you wanted to do helped manage it.
So in the end, inventory limitation was there and it wasn’t making the game excruciating. Nevertheless, it didn’t do anything to improve the game either.
Now let’s talk about Deus Ex, you know, probably one of the best video games ever made, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. Even the best game of the current decade (Yes, I’m talking about Baldur’s Gate 3 again) can’t get close to it.
I could gush a thousand words about how amazing that game it and I wouldn’t come close to conveying what it is or how it feels. I will laud it in the upcoming paragraphs. You will be made to read an apology, unless you can detach your eyes from my hypnotic prose, but I’ll do my best to stick to the point.
Anyway, Deus Ex is an absolute masterpiece. No amount of clunk from its gameplay can counterbalance its quality. It is art in its purest most noble quality. Not a “artistic” movie being cut by gameplay or pretty graphics and music that are deemed art despite being part of a filthy game. Deus Ex is a blast to play. How you do so is up to you. What you see and what you do is meaningful and so is its political statements. Because, aside from its tendency to predict the future, it is really talking about the real world. What you take away is up to you, but please, play this game.
Oh, and Alexander Brandon is bae, like young people say these days.
In any case, Deus Ex is one of these games that feature inventory Tetris: your inventory is a grid made out of a limited amount of squares. Each item has a shape that occupies some squares. You have to fit those items in your inventory. A bar of soy meat substitute will take one square. A rocket launcher – take a guess. These systems tend to be annoying, but Deus Ex is a game that is all about choice and making the best of what you have. Getting funding to fight the illuminati is not necessarily easy. There are no shops in the game. Some NPCs can offer items for money, but otherwise, you’ll have to find the carefully hidden equipement across the various environments you’ll go through.
That’s when it becomes interesting. What you pick up matters. Can’t fit that glock, upgrade cannister, medpack, and a sniper rifle? Well, take your pick.
The inventory system synergizes with the other mechanics and is part of what makes the gameplay fun. What items you carry with you is a meaningful choice in an ocean of meaningful choices.
In that indie game that I’ve crowdfunded and followed by some time, the game IS the inventory (although… they added a lot more systems since the last time I’ve played). In this roguelite game, you go through dungeons with a backpack. All your weapons and items are in that backpack and what’s in it defines what you can do. I know this sounds like any other game but the core of your gameplay really is your backpack. How you organize your items will create synergies and deeply affect your capabilities.
Logically, setting limitations in that context improves the game. You have to make meaningful choices that will completely change your run. Will you play it safe? Will you bet on getting what you need later? In this game, the game truly is made by the limitations you face as a player.
Now, what ?
It all boils down to a simple point. Does arbitrarily limiting the inventory of the player create fun or an excruciating sense of dread ?
Just like with my game saves articles, I am once again making the points that video games are games. How you interact with your environment is important, how you access sections of it also is.
As I have the certitude that the ability affect the flow of time is a magnifying glass through which you can reveal inadequate level design, limiting your carrying ability must be weighted more carefully than Anubis would your soul.