I Am Overencumbered: Why Game Inventories Matter
Rob Sherman, author of interactive fiction project Black Crown, asked if he could write about videogame inventories. We were powerless against the result, which pairs a personal journey through the English countryside with a treatise on the power of possessions and the reasons videogames must do better in representing them.
There was once, and still is, a boy and a man called me, and one summer, two summers ago, I could be found tiptoeing along a main road in southern England, my boots full of dusty blood.
I had only taken them off once in the last day, and at that point I had nearly wilted from the sight and smell. I took my diagnosis on top of a chalk escarpment, a widow’s peak, a combover of woodland. The couple on the bench next to me were after-work drinking from cans, and looking at the wealds rolling away from them. They must have thought that some medieval leper had staggered out of the local hospitalers, holidaying on his stumps.
I had walked nearly 80 miles in the previous three days, and in that moment I decided to give up on my journey. My aim had been to complete the North Downs Way, a 153-mile path along the southern lip of London, one that follows, or might as well follow, the legendary Pilgrim’s Way to Canterbury that Chaucer and his epicurean crew took, giggling in echoes.
I had to leave the Way to get into Godstone, where I could meet my Dad and his blessed car. I barrel-rolled down steep slopes of oak and lime, over a high fence into the yard of a fearsome traveller and his trained horses. I crept by the house, under the sound of the motorway. I loped along avenues, trying not to whinny in pain, and finally sulked across the footbridge, the cars uproarious. I tried to hide myself, and my gammy foot.
And so there I was, on the Roman b-road into this market town on the edge of Kent, all bonhomie gone, all cheeriness squandered. All I could feel were my feet, and the weight.
The pack on my back was depression-blue and full of rotting food. I could smell the farting bacteria getting hedonistic on my chorizo, and the parmesan was like a poisoned knife. My camp stove, so far unused because the apertures were clogged with yoghurt, clanked cheerily like armour. I did not feel much like a warrior. The acne on my back was felt, dimly, blinking green and white and red under the straps, and the sweat was barely worth speaking about. The strap marks, I was to find out, would not disappear for many weeks.
To pass the time, I once again added up every gram on my back, doing the sums in my head:
- A sleeping mat that sucked in air like a diver with the bends.
- A tent like a coffin, apart from all the light and sound of the living that it let in.
- A set of army mess tins, though until that point I had only eaten cold macaroni cheese out of the can.
- A hardback copy of Thoreau’s Walden.
There was the French pocket knife, bought on Amazon. A tarpaulin, for covert operations. A notebook to write it all down in. Cutlery, hot chocolate, toilet roll, field guides, spare t-shirts, a growing collection of chert.
My inventory weighed 40 kilograms in all, and most of it had not been used. However, as I slumped down at Godstone’s first pub, leering at my pint like it was some sort of shimmering pillar of jasper, I knew that I could not have left any of it at home. There are very few people who look at a battered old rucksack and do not get a fizzy drum sparkling in their gut, telling them to pack it full right now, and go off to be aimless for a bit.
There has always been art made on the subject of belongings. Videogames have been especially quick to explore the desire for migration and ownership which survives in the hazier, mint-green recesses of the human imagination. From its very beginnings, the medium has used the inventory as a mechanic designed to organise, display and utilise a character’s possessions. The backpack is this mechanic’s most common symbol, though of course inventories are not limited to games where the player controls a distinct character. Tetris includes the concept of accumulation and the need to order the result. The entire screenspace is a constant rain of awkward gifts, and the player’s mission, opposed to such gift-giving, is to finish with nothing whatsoever.
However, despite their ever-increasing complexity, most games still treat the player-character’s relationship with objects on a tight planar scale. At one end is emptiness, exclusion, unpossession; war games such as Call of Duty exemplify this, in the constant pressure to rid oneself of bullets. At the other end, a more traditional want, found in games from Baldur’s Gate to The Sims; collection, curation and hoarding. Most games can be located somewhere on this scale, and so the inventory, the carried life, becomes a vapid mechanical inclusion, a trope so default that very few people question its presence.
With this inclusion so final, the questions that are asked of inventories are often perfunctory, and utilitarian.
Should we make the user interface less busy?
How do we rank items?
Should we display them in a stack or a grid?
I have seen inventories represented in many different ways, and these questions are important ones. In many games, players are estimated to spend one fifth of their playtime inside the inventory menu, purely spring-cleaning. These are undoubtedly evergreen queries of design, weighted down by tradition, industry ritual and accepted wisdom. Jimmy Baird, a designer at PikPok games in New Zealand, has called the inventory a "lose-lose situation" 1. In the eyes of many, we are at an impasse.
However, there is an enormous assumption in trying to fix the inventory as a closed problem, purely of design. The problem is larger than this, and more exciting. If designers take for granted the human component of inventory, the unbelievable massif of psychological, cultural, intellectual and social cache which is unlocked when you talk about human beings and their belongings, they risk never solving their "lose-lose" situation at all.
Possession is fundamentally human, our most defining feature. We are not the only animals that recognise ownership and the need for the safe transport of our treasures2, but we are close.
What is more, the need for a human, non-heuristic approach to inventory in games is no less necessary because we sometimes play as aliens, or an anthill, or a drop of liquid. Whatever the role we assume, there will always be a human in front of the screen, and our prejudices, memories and associations with the act of owning an object, and bearing it with us, are gargantuan.
Games have a problem with representing possessions, and their effect on those that carry them. I propose a simple, but rather lengthy, solution. Walk with me.
Half a day before my glum parade into Godstone, there I was, struggling through a cornfield, a breakfast platter of cereal looking like cut butter. The sun was a tureen of fire, and I had no choice but to hold my head over it. The weight on my back was appalling, and my shoulders felt as if they were about to divorce. The cornfield rises up steeply on one side of the M25 motorway, and there were those cars, snickering at me again. Never mind; they were behind me in a moment.
I was in so much pain that I did not really think. I have since climbed that cornfield without a pack, and it is a beautiful walk; gate after gate of high trees, giving on to lush, brittle gold and gold and gold. But in that moment, all I could think about were my shoulders. I tried, for the first time, to inventory that hulking bag on my back. There was the water bottle, the spare shorts with the bottle opener in the pocket, a tin3 of colouring pencils, and perched on top of it all, my copy of Walden, a book which made me feel virtuous, but which I had lied about reading in the past. I only glanced at it between my furtive shits, and silent meals in churchyards.
Henry David Thoreau was part of a philosophical tradition which stretches back, in popular imagination, to Diogenes, the Greek philosopher who lived in the barrel 4 and was disdainful of personal possessions of any sort. Walden is the story of Thoreau’s own walk in the woods, to a small cabin beside Walden Pond. There he owned little, ate flowers, walked circuitously, touching the same trees everyday and carrying nothing on his back at all; he was elated by it. Thoreau saw acquisitiveness as a primary evil, and humanity’s spiritual fulfilment hampered by its reliance on objects.
Minimalism and asceticism can have a place in videogames, as well, despite this medium’s role as the mooncalf of late capitalism. There is a lax happiness to those people who can count their possessions on their hands and feet, a levity which many videogames have sought to emulate almost at system level. Minecraft, in its early stages, is perhaps the most modern expression of this monasticism that I can find. It is a marriage of two doctrines, the Laputan desire for a world with limitless resources on one hand, and the homely appreciation of hard work and ingenuity on the other. Steve’s inventory is theoretically limited, but as well as swords and picks, artisan tools 5, he also spirits up vast tonnages of sand, soil, granite and feldspar. In the earliest moments of a Minecraft world, we see minimalism at its purest; only what is to hand matters, and the experience is positively Arcadian; at least, before night falls. Items are lost quickly, shattering into the past, but there is always more with which to build. Before the cogs and chests and redstone is discovered, before industrialism, we have a distillation of this Romantic, pre-millennial ideal of the itinerant ascetic, looking for a place to rest, to be alone, to own nothing and yet everything all at once.
This via negativa is perhaps found most keenly in the adventure game genre, where the player-character is practically forced into non-ownership. Adventure games such as Botanicula and Machinarium, two recent examples of a venerable tradition, not only keep the character’s inventories extremely small, but imbue the objects within them with totemic significance. There is, in the adventure genre, perhaps the strongest stirring of the true nature of objects; as complex components of a character’s emotional machinery. This, however, is where adventure games fall back into the mathematical imperative of design. Though a hammer, in an adventure game, is never just a hammer, and a plaster is never just a plaster, their true identities are clownish, rarely tied to any artistic semblance at all. They are mostly negated by the Rube-Goldberg puzzles of which they are a part.
And, of course, such items are rarely in the game for sentimental or overtly artistic reasons. This desire to empty oneself 6, that most adventure games possess, is intricately tied to the problem-solving at the heart of their gameplay. The watch is gone, the bungee cord is broken. Next puzzle.
Asceticism in videogames is as deliberate a choice to a designer as including an extensive inventory system. What is more, this choice is not only mechanical one, or one of workload or precedent. Making a tiny suite of items usable in your game, and therefore the rest of the world only scenery, requires a respect for the items which you choose. As we can see, minimalism is a psychological and social choice, a refusal to conform or become sedentary, and perhaps evidence of a deep unhappiness with the state of affairs as they stand, and this can be a philosophical position for any game character. Thoreau was noted for his sine waves of depression, and in his choice to reject an inventory, a weight on his back, a panoply of tools, he found a complex and contradictory peace. He said, perhaps most famously,
"I love to be alone. I never found a companion so companionable as solitude."
Of course, in this solitude, he still had his hut, and his books and his walking stick, mute and friendly, companions nonetheless.
A few hours before my trudge through the cornfield I was stood at the foot of Reigate Hill, feeling very sorry for myself. What I did not know was that, in around an hour or so, as I moved off the baked clay and the cutting flints and into a yewy sort of gloom, I would find a secretive treat; a Land Rover, overturned at the foot of the hill below me, grown through with ivy and wild garlic, and me the only witness. Then, however, I was too busy patching my foot. A tumulus of a blister, a proper barrow on my heel, had popped, and the blood was all over the grass. I found the dryest tussock that I could, an imperfect gurney, and attempted triage with pinesap antiseptic and white bandages that already smelt of Italian cheese. The rubbing of my boots and the swaying of my pack had absolutely eviscerated me.
However, I was smug. I had completed an ancient equation, and used the tools that I had brought with me. I had no personal attachment to the bandages and the antiseptic, and they had quietly and reliably fulfilled their use, justifying their presence on my back. As I mopped up the blood, I looked at the interior of the blister, suffering a slight attack of vertigo at its depth. My foot took on the appearance of a prop in my hand, a badly-made one, the veins painted too prominently, the weight all wrong, and the wound too red to be convincing.
I spent the last of my bandages, and hobbled on, unknowingly, to find the Land Rover, and the cornfield.
That fucking pack.
If we proceed eastward along our scale of possession, from minimalism to maximalism, from ascetic to baroque, we come near the middle to a vast collection of games for whom an inventory is a vital, yet strictly utilitarian, feature. The items which the player retrieves in these games are intensely useful, and are instantly categorised according to some system which the character seems to understand inherently.
Though this is a site which treasures PC games above all others7, I am not sure that I could talk about this breed of game without mentioning Nintendo’s Legend Of Zelda series, a part of the canon thoroughly mocked for the enormous and unrealistic size of its inventory. The protagonist, Link, often depicted as a small boy, carries around bombs each the size of a drawing-room globe, bows and arrows, bags of weighty crystals with which he buys nuts, seeds and shields. I am envious of how he glides along unburdened. The items that Link owns each have a specific use, and in fact the entire series’ architecture and geography is predicated around the slow, purposeful and generational dance of acquiring items, and using them as integers in the algebraic dungeons of Hyrule. The mathematical metaphor, I think, is apt; the Zelda games are about solving an equation with one’s possessions, albeit a poetic and arcane one.
The Zelda games represent, unsurprisingly, a manifestation of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, where the archetypal hero is a highly mobile explorer and adventurer. Their constant pilgrimages mean that their possessions must be finely attuned to the needs at hand. I’m reminded of the trinity of basic objects that pilgrims all over the world possess, from Japan to Spain, from Bashō to Peter The Rock; the begging bowl, the stick and the wide-brimmed hat.
For something like Zelda, this is not such a problem; Link at least admits to being an archetype, blade-eared and lighter than air. But for the likes of B.J Blazkowicz, it is something to think about.
It is an interesting kink that many of these games that evoke the Hero’s Journey are wargames, perhaps the most popular topic for videogames now and ever. Guns, and their ammunition, are the sticks and begging bowls of our disruption-pattern pilgrims, the tools with which problems are overcome. The ammunition never stays in the hand for long, slipping through the fingers like doubloons in a crude simulation of economy. Though some games, such as the Borderlands series, turn the tools themselves into an economy, making the player’s inventory into a rainbow flash of passing pistols and carbines, most keep your weapons in perpetuity. Once acquired, they cannot be dropped, unless the plot demands it, at which point the process of accumulation, of heroic encumbrance, starts again. Every other item8 is politely termed ‘consumables’9, and when encountered is swallowed into the unseen character’s maw.
It is no coincidence that most of these games maintain a strictly first-person perspective, a term that is used quite differently here than in literature. Instead of a painfully personal perspective on life, the perspective of Ishmael, Humbert Humbert and Kathy from Hailsham, first-person implies a negation of the personal in videogames, one where acquisitions from the gameworld disappear off-screen, into whatever form we might imagine our characters to take. Without form, our characters cannot be burdened by their load, all that burnished steel, and so we drive them around serenely, like vehicles, never looking down at the upholstery.
However, it is clear why the character must be careful with his weapons, and flippant with other items. As the only possessions that the character cares for, or values (most often because he is a soldier, with no apparent life before his endless wars) the guns must be preserved. They are not only utensils; they represent the only character progression that it is possible for the player to influence. Each new gun represents a new trait, a new weakness, a new jealousy or proficiency or advantage, and in doing so takes the place of personality. I am not sure that this is necessarily an inherently bad design, but in its endless repetitions, its countless calls of duty, it begins to lack in spirit.
I do not propose the abolition of the FPS. Incalculable work and love has been poured into that particular cauldron. Instead, perhaps priorities should be changed. Perhaps these games should instead focus on how these gunmetal keepsakes, these belt-fed knick-knacks, say something about the psychology of possessions in the first place.
There is a depiction of war outside of videogames that I think this industry could learn from enormously. It is a novel, called The Things They Carried, written by Tim O’Brien, a Vietnam veteran, in 1990. It follows a combat troop before, during and after that war, and tells their stories through their belongings. Their weaponry is mentioned, the uniforms and standard-issue character builds bestowed on them by the Draft Board, but they also carry subtler, more delicate things in their packs, things that in a videogame might only be part of the geometry or, if interactive at all, only fodder to be gulped down by the hero in their pre-homo wont. The men in O’Brien’s book lug around extra ration packs, marijuana, tranquilisers, foot powder, mocassins, a girlfriend’s panties tied around the neck as a kerchief, chewing gum, pocket knives. Nothing overtly poetic, but out of this more ordinary character customisation, we can see, arises an art.
The night before I set up my field hospital, one summer two summers ago, I stopped for the night at Box Hill, on the banks of the River Mole. It is National Trust land, and illegal to camp on, but I had no choice; I had walked seventeen miles that day, and was on the point of tears trying to find a patch of quiet, loamy land in the sub-London laeth of sprinklered gardens and pub car parks.
There, in the long grass, teenagers high in the tyre-swings above the river, I repacked. The tent was single-occupancy, barely long enough to sleep me; absurdly, this was my one concession to lightness on my walk. I was terrified that I would be moved on, and have to sleep on the hard shoulder of the A24 into Dorking. I sat and nibbled at the cornucopia spilling out of my open pack, waiting. I froze when a pop-orange hang-glider glid over the tops of the trees, and the stylish pilot peered down at me, as if sighting bombs.
As the sun set, and I was too scared to wander down to the river and cool my feet, I just lay there hating myself and my pack and all the things I thought that I needed. I spent the evening making a second rucksack, an ideal one, inside the tent. Everything had its place; my shawl was tucked into corners, my drawing paper rolled up and my paracetamol squirreled into the pockets along the inside wall. There was barely enough space to turn, and I rummaged and grizzled and searched for all my lost things. A year later, airing out that tent, my quarry appeared; a set of wax earplugs. If I had found them on that night, I would have laid the box neatly by my head, an ersatz sideboard, and stuffed my ears against the children whooping. But, as it was, I didn’t sleep much that night.
One of this country’s cheeriest Pucks, a lifelong walker called Roger Deakin says, in his book Wildwood:
"there’s more truth to a camp than a house... the house represents what we ourselves would like to be on earth: permanent, rooted, here for eternity. But a camp represents the true reality of things: we're just passing through."
A beautiful paragraph, Roger, and, just so you know, I miss you. However, I cannot say that I feel the same way. Wherever I stop, even briefly, is a new installation, and the possessions that I bring with me must be arranged just so. Sometimes there is a glamour to this, like the old woman in Titanic who brings her photographs, complexes of them, everywhere she travels. Sometimes, as with me, it is a symptom of homesickness. But many characters, in those games that we call RPGs, rise above the ‘wandering ghost’ discourse of Call Of Duty and its ilk, and share my instinct to nest.
The world of such games is open, the possibilities for possession heady. Not only weapons are carried and valued, but also clothing, goods, food, drink, potions, books, jewels, keys, vases, cans of drink, thumb drives. But, of course, human beings are both covetous and afraid of choice. Possession in and of itself is desirable, but disorganisation is not. Even the neolithic homes at Skara Brae, on Orkney, which I visited last year, slate pits dug into a coastline 5,000 years ago, have areas which look a lot like Ikea cubby units, designed to divide items by their constituent use; herbs in one, antler in another, whale tusk somewhere else.
If we turn back to RPGs, we see that, likewise, the player is a deeply-invested, organising presence. They bring value and meaning to the items represented in these games. Therefore, a major problem for designers, and the source of Jimmy Baird’s frustration, is the inventory. Many designers balk at the incredible webs of association that all these items have, from swords down to steaks down to spoons, and so their categorisation is predictable and tactical. Swords go in one cubby, potions in another, and everything else? Well, nobody is quite sure.
As I have already discussed, many games are chiefly acquisitive. It is no coincidence that the main verb used in relation to in-game items is ‘grab’; grab this gun, grab the food, grab the ammo. There is a selfish, childlike quality to this word, which reveals the magpie consumption that forms the heart of most modern play paradigms. We fetishise collection, our growth in power shackled to the number of items we possess, and before long we lose sight of the individual items themselves. They become a variable in a strategy, part of the medium’s insistence on the overriding utility of the lower reaches of human psychology, what might be called ‘the tyranny of fun’. RPGs are less about the worth, or worthlessness, of the things our characters own, and more about the curation of a collection, as if the player is a drone-like museum of things, pillaging the landscape of significance.
Indeed, in many modern RPGs, when we move from ten to tens to hundreds of items in a player’s inventory, our characters are in danger of becoming our storage units, merely furniture. We make our rich, dearly-loved avatars into cabinets and drawers for for our possessions, the possessions themselves having little bearing on the character’s personality past the Eternal Triumvirate.
Mage. Warrior. Thief. Mage. Warrior. Thief. Mage. Warrior. Thief.
The problem is that the inventory has almost always been part of the user interface, rather than the gameworld, part of the playerspace rather than the characterspace. The orthodox UI for inventories has barely changed in the thirty years of the medium’s existence, and I believe that we are starting to run into problems.
Let us look at one of the recent pinnacles of inventory design, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. There are few games that can match Skyrim’s hot buffet of playable objects. Accordingly, the player inventory is a centrepiece of the game. The game’s director, Todd Howard, once said in an interview that he had taken a lot of inspiration for the inventory interface from iTunes, Apple’s music management software. The influence is palpable; everywhere is sable-brush minimalism and stylish blackspace. The items themselves are rendered fully in 3D, manipulable and gorgeous.
At face, this seems to be a celebration of the inventory as a vital organ of the game’s themes. And yet a closer look will reveal old, corrupting conservatisms creeping in. In Skyrim, items are segregated based on designer-dictated value systems, making the seemingly organic interaction of the player with the world subtly feudal and brittle 10. The game is ruthless with these categorisations; any item that is not directly useful to the character’s art of war, not weaponry, armour, or potion, is composted neatly into the Miscellaneous section, all things to all Argonians, a salmagundi of keys, torches, books, scrolls, salmon steaks, artefacts and balls of twine.
There was a great opportunity here to give such objects meaning, to imbue them with the sort of accidental significance seen in The Things They Carried, but no such attempt is made. The textures on the ‘miscellaneous’ objects are muddy and meagre compared to the heroic, high-definition glint along the edges of the axes. One need only look to the modding community, and the flurry of activity after the release of Skyrim, to know that players were not indifferent to this hierarchy. As well as a few retextures of the game’s weapons, far more were being released for the mundane objects in the game, wine bottles, forks, potatoes and cartwheels, all re-rendered lovingly.
Skyrim’s inventory, for all of the ordinary beauty with which it can be filled, is a mechanical diagram. Corruption, decay, and fluid have no place here. Endurance is binary, exhaustion instant, with none of the personal revelations that the true, dusking onset of tiredness can bring. The items in your pack do not graze, or mix, or take on the qualities of others, sluicing in interesting and separate simulations as you walk along the road to Winterhold or Karthwasten. I suppose that it does not matter. The inventory in Skyrim is meant to celebrate tactical elegance and artistic ingenuity, not the fallible, granular nature of objects in a world.
Some games pay more attention to the poetry of everyday life. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series comes from a left-field, Eastern-European tradition of gamemaking, and takes a more roughspun approach to its inventories. Items are barely categorised at all, and the effect that their weight has upon a character is far more scalar and draining. The item set is necessarily much smaller, given the post-apocalyptic fiction of the games, but many of the items evoke a particularly Caspian culture; vodka, raw beef, old industrial equipment. There is a combination of the industrial and the domestic, the agricultural with the speculative, which is deeply embedded into the playing of the games.
However, the user interface, as we seem to find everywhere else, has barely progressed in three decades; everything is laid out in grids, as if being field-stripped on a table, a far cry from the true experience of walking in the wilds with your home on your back. Some games, such as Papers Please, suit such a strategic presentation. The player, in that game, spends their entire time looking at the pitted surface of a desk, hurriedly flipping through countless rulebooks, visa applications and passports to find the right document. These emotions of frustration, these acts of rummaging and losing the objects most needed, are a huge part of everyday human experience, and should not be inimicable to the making of games. More games need to be made to celebrate human forgetfulness, the inadequacies of life on the road, and the peculiar ability of most objects to disappear into thin air, just when you need them.
I would like to finish this section with a thought. Please look at the painting above; it is a vanitas in the Dutch style, by Harmen Steenwyck. People take many messages from still lifes such as these, but there is one particular one that I would like us to take away. Look at the placement of the objects, highly artificial yet designed to provoke a sense of accident. Look at the decay on the book edge, the lacquered gleam on the sword, the fissures in the skull. Despite this picture’s mission to make us think on the unimportance of the material realm, the painter cannot lie. He loves the objects that he paints, renders them gorgeously and sumptuously on the canvas. However, they are ordinary, these objects, and other paintings choose subjects even more mundane. The sword is given as much importance as the pitcher and the silk, and so we see how ordinary objects, not immediately useful, can have a profundity all their own.
What we must do, as we continue to tell stories into the future and on and on, is not to treat the inventory as a software experience, as a challenge in usability only. Inventories are messy, handsome things, cheeky and social, where items have a life and death of their own, and a thousand associations which can be mined again and again. Of course, human beings will always try to fight this naughtiness that objects have; we are creatures of organisation, of order.
There is a simple reason for this.
The inventory is not just a repository of our stuff; it is a barrier, a veil between our inner vulnerabilities and the cruel world, all maelstrom, beyond. It is a psychopomp, a Papa that consoles us and interprets the outside world in a form that we can understand.
We organise because we are lonely.
It was two days before I made my sad little camp at the foot of Box Hill, and my first day on the North Downs Way. My step was an awful lot lighter then than it would be, my feet like lively marble, dry and clean. I knew that my pack was heavy, but I didn’t feel it in the shoulders yet. The rash had not spread, the food was still cold and fresh from its night in my friend’s fridge, and for much of the day I forgot entirely about the belongings on my back. That they were there, joggling, in time to my step, was enough. I instead marvelled at the sunlight, waded through lawns of mushrooms in the shade, skipped past trees uprooted and showing roots like mandrakes, like spread legs. I clumped through copses of plane trees, their trunks spackled with lichen, plasterer’s radios.
There was still a little bit of pain on this bright day, however. It was the loneliness. I had, before this walk, considered myself a solitary creature, a hermit born in the wrong millenium, a desert father always in want of a desert in the Home Counties. However, a mere four hours after saying goodbye, I was on the point of tears. I talked to myself incessantly, booming like a troll in the drainage tunnels under concrete bridges. That night, at a pub near Guildford, I spoke to my girlfriend on the phone and loved her more than I had ever loved her before. I talked to my possessions, wrote in my copy of Thoreau, trying to elicit an IM chat with him. It did not work, I think.
At lunchtime, sheltering outside an art gallery, I was given a bar of chocolate by one of the directors in his pinstripe suit, a gift from the gift shop. I did actually cry, just after leaving him behind, letting the bar melt in my hand. I was convinced that he was the most generous man in the universe.
As you can see, there is a huge dimension of inventory which I have neglected until now, and I regret giving it such short shrift. Ownership, by definition, requires the presence of a foil; other beings who, in comparison, do not own your possessions. How you and these other beings interact is the basis for much of our culture. The notions of theft, loss and gifting are so important to our emotional, political and social states, that we take them for granted on a constant basis. We use our possessions, our inventory of goods, to bribe, cajole, blackmail, keep secrets, hoard, enslave, miser, invest and divest. The role of all the archetypes about which I have already spoken, the ascetic, the hoarder, the hero with his roll of tools, are all predicated on the social network of possessions. When you possess something, you take it out of the general arena of existence, rarefying it, making it sacred. This can lead to some rather bizarre behaviour in other human beings, and ourselves, much of which videogames choose to ignore entirely.
Take charity. Charity is a yawning, moralistic division of possession, a deliberate ritual act which is common to all peoples. Anthropologists are fascinated by gift-giving, as it remains one of the great mysteries of human psychology. The classical anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski became enchanted with a group of Pacific islanders who took part in something known as the Kula Gift Ring, a huge migration present-exchange of ritual, ostensibly ‘useless’ items across many thousands of miles of island chains between neighbouring, and sometimes rival, tribes. There was, unlike Western gift-giving, a full expectation of reimbursement, albeit in the format of an unspoken, unmappable ritual. Similar traditions exist everywhere, from the potlatch of the First Peoples of the North American continent, to the Christian concept of alms, and their analysis unlocks all sorts of potent social data.
In videogames, however, gift-giving is a binary decision, if it is even included at all. The loss of an item is almost always viewed in a tactical light, especially when the receiver is part of the game itself. The frothy cocktail of emotions that the giving and receiving of gifts invites fits most interestingly, it would seem, into multiplayer games. We are not blind to the value of purely digital gifts when other, real humans are involved.
The F2P market is a monstrous example of the power of games over the human mind. We shrink at paying 99 pence for an app that would vastly improve a sector of our lives, but when an attractive codpiece or merkin is part of a live gameworld, some people will pay many hundreds of times this amount for items that are as spectral as air. It is their embedding within a fiction, alongside ourselves, which manifests as incredible social attachment. Some of us buy so many digital goods that in a game like World of Warcraft 11 players will open multiple character accounts, stuff their inventories with riches, and then designate one character as the shepherd, leading these mute sacks made in their image, self-chattels.
This leads me on, rather horrifically, to the possession of living creatures, a hugely delicate subject in life whose implications are rather ignored in videogames. Due to the current limitations of artificial intelligence, those characters which are nominally our ‘partners’, or ‘companions’, to use the parochial buzzword, are in effect slaves to our whims, bound to us and unable to exercise their free will. This has enormous implications, which are often glossed over as a limitation of the medium. Other games go further, and actually make characters fill a slot in your inventory; the Final Fantasy games certainly spring to mind, and Zelda’s Link and his fairies, and even the Total War series, where princes peer out of tiny windows in your user interface, looking extremely worried. Then again, so would I, if I was about to be wedded to a French princess with the teeth, hair and brow of a beaver.
The word chattel, meaning personal property, comes from the word ‘cattle’, and the livestocking of other beings, artificial or not, is a rather peculiar culture that is an extension of videogames’ child-like relationship to possessions; the same selfish, psychotic character that will murder people for their houses in Morrowind, using their persistent corpses as a sort of squelchy ottoman, will also load down their companions with all their finery. These courtiers remain polystyrene-faced, mouthing the same rote platitudes over and over, and so the procession moves off, headed by the pompous, junior emperor.
The night before my loneliness on the trail, I had not begun my walk. The North Downs Way stretched out in front of me. I still had the blisters, the strap marks, the acne, the headaches and the dehydration and the mouldy bread and the sleepless nights and the glossolalia to come. I was unburdened then. It was June two years ago, and everything that I would carry with me was spread out on my bed. Each item is a different node on a titanic, numinous blueprint of meaning of which this backpack is only one sheet.
There was the chocolate bar, specially formulated for long-distance walkers, bought for me by my girlfriend. She thought too much of me.
There was the huge carabina, too heavy but key to my daydreams of climbing chalk cliffs on my own.
There was the toothbrush, the handle hacked off to save weight.
I would look ludicrous, tramping across England with all of this on my back, and by the time I carried myself into Godstone I would know the limits of my endurance. My things have weight, far beyond the kilos upon kilos.
Videogames need not concern themselves with such burden. They are after all, exercises in abstraction. Games condense elements of human psychology and experience and present them in a form which has yet to be perfected. However, inventories in videogames exist as a trope for an integral reason, and are currently at their slimmest value.
Improvement is needed, and I do not suggest such improvements for a Kosterian 12 injection of fun, nor a McGonigalite plea for social enterprise, for valuing our own things more, or teaching the basics of aesthetics to children through play. These are worthy causes, but I believe the need is more basic than this.
As creatures, as the billowing nonsenses of protozoa that we are, we are some of the greatest kleptomaniacs on earth. We are magpies, macaques and two-footed molluscs, carrying our homes with us, defending our inalienable things, imbuing them with personality, use, hope and scapegoatery. The bare sliver of these relationships that are represented in videogames is frustrating to see. Designers are not wed to the act of creating blank systems which only the player can imbue with meaning. They can make statements, like any artist. Changing the way we think about inventories, about collection, about acquisition and ownership in games, will allow us to represent more of the warm mess of human experience, and not merely bow down to the imperative of the tactical, of balance and function, that infects so much modern games design.
Players, as much as designers wish to believe it, will never see a game inventory as just a grid of weights, sizes and +1s. Players are macaques, just as I was, bringing a thick book of backwoods philosophy on my hike just because I liked the way it made me feel. On many levels, designers are not dealing with tacticians, but rather with footsoldiers, carrying the things they carry because they are cowardly, romantic and human. Games do not only need to appeal to the baser elements of psychology, and the heightier heights of logic.
After giving up in Godstone, I will be finishing the North Downs Way this summer, taking the last three days and 70 miles in my stride. I still have vestiges of acne on my shoulders, but my posture has improved. I have bought a new pack, smaller and cheerier, and this time, as much as it pains me, the Thoreau will stay at home.
Rob Sherman is the author of Black Crown, an interactive fiction game funded by publisher Random House. You can also find more of his writing at his blog.
1. Jimmy Baird at Gamasutra, Feb ‘10 ↩
2. We bestow mirrors on budgies in cages, and even in the wild orangutans fashion and jealously guard their own toothbrushes. ↩
3. A tin! ↩
4. Who, I have just realised, bears a striking resemblance in lifestyle and temperament to Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street. ↩
5. Interestingly, these items are not stackable, and are thus accorded a special reverence. ↩
6. A desire that the Greeks, as they always do, had a name for; kenosis, though originally it was used in a strictly religious, sacrificial sense. ↩
7. As worthy a doctrine as any other. ↩
8. The Bioshock games are particularly guilty of this. ↩
9. In other games, the term might be ‘vendor trash’. ↩
10. Of course, I’m not trying to be cruel. I understand why they made this decision. I just hate that they had to. ↩
11. Or so I have been told, anecdotally, by a friend in the pub, like John Mandeville relating his stories about lambs growing on trees in Syria. ↩
12. I have an awfully large soft spot for these people, as key subject tutors in my auto-didacticism. However, I just happen to disagree with them. ↩