It scares me how suggestible I can be. I worry that one day I’ll walk past a sign saying “heroin makes you big and strong!” and that’ll be it. Most recently, I saw all the Diablo III stuff and duly thought “durrrr I wud like 2 play dat”.
So I load up Diablo 1 (now almost unplayable in this day and age. While it was scarcely inventive as sequels go, the improvements Diablo II made to the formula can't be overstated). I play some Mythos. Most of all, I play Titan Quest. Amusingly, my Steam friends list revealed that several people I know have also been playing Titan Quest lately. My, what a coinkydink.
I’d slaughtered my way through a good seven or eight hours’ worth of beastmen and harpies before I had one of those catch-yourself-in-the-mirror moments. What was I doing? Theoretically, I was killing an awful lot of monsters, big ol' hero that I was. Actually, I was obsessively picking up shiny things from the ground until a number of small squares on my inventory screen were full up, teleporting back to town to sell said shinies, then repeating the process. This was not, I realised, making me a better person. I'll stress that I'm fine with a few hours of mindless hacking, slashing and looting (though I'll tire of it before too long), so my objection is not to the basic nature of these games. It's an objection to the fact my hacking, slashing and looting is so regularly interrupted by thankless commuting. And lo, I became annoyed enough with both myself and the game(s) to make some sweeping generalisations. Not novel ones I'll admit, but as we're in digs-at-gaming-clichés mode today anyway... Whee!
Thus has it ever been, thus shall it always be. It's how RPG inventory systems are – from Diablo to WoW to Deus Ex, it’s always about running out of little squares to keep stuff in. But while story/character-led RPGs tend to be a little more restrained in their loot/inventory treatment, often sensibly employing it to prevent players becoming overpowered, the pure-action likes of Diablo, Titan Quest, Mythos et al actively make storage restrictions an essential mechanic of the game. All that relentless dungeoneering is extended and broken up by regular return trips to the shops. You don't have to to make 'em, but oh you will, because you need that sweet, sweet cash for better toys.
Some Diablolikes are more thoughtful than others, and occasional evolutions such as potion stacking have taken some of the pain away, but no-one seems in any hurry to replace the system. Instead, they're going to increasingly ridiculous lengths to keep it on life-support. Titan Quest even has a button to automatically re-arrange items so they're stacked as neatly as possible, maximising the available space. Well, I say automatic, but it doesn't do it for you. You have to press a button every single time you want to rearrange, and half the time it doesn't result in the right-shaped gap anyway, so you end up shuffling kit around manually. You should be saving the world from demons, but no, you're mucking about with spreadsheets so that you've got space for an extra pair of bracers.
And Portals! I mean... These are worlds capable of incredible teleportation magic, the ability to travel instantly over miles of land, and what's it used for? Shopping. Not banishing evil or revolutionising society or sticking one hand through so you can wave to your mum from the other side of the world. Just. Shopping.
Is it fun, this unending cycle of luggage-rearranging and travel? I don’t know that it is. It’s compelling for sure - but so’s watching all those coloured blocks dance around when your hard drive’s defragging itself. Creepily, from this compulsion has spun all manner of weird little tricks and delays that offer the illusion of personal achievement. They're most common in MMOs – like buying additional slots in the WoW bank, or a 1000g backpack with two more spaces in it. Every time, I get this brief burst of pride. Yeah! I’ve won... more room! I haven’t achieved anything. All I’ve done is jump when the game says ‘jump.’
Would having more slots in my backpack make my game more enjoyable? No, it’d just make it slightly less annoying. Because that’s the horrible truth of it – WoW and cos' inventories are deliberately designed to be annoying, so the games can forever hold the tempting carrot of less-annoying before you. Your reward for long adventures is convenience - but crucially never quite enough convenience.
Elsewhere, it’s less cynical but still this blindly accepted side-effect, like getting hangovers from booze or that horrible black bit at the bottom of bananas. No-one actually tries to do anything about it. Instead we get painkillers such as Dungeon Siege’s mule or Dungeon Runners' Bling Gnome. They’re there to ease the burden of constant space-shortage, but in a way they just emphasise what a ridiculous, mechanical system it is. When a game offers its players so extreme a fix as a Gnome that can eat loot on the spot and crap out gold, it’s a pretty clear sign that a critical element of the game isn't as fun as it could be. It is, of course, also a very canny way to lure free players into picking up the boxed copy.
If these sorts of lengths are being resorted to, why even try to mask that the inventory/shopping mechanics are totally artificial? Those Diablo-esque portals might as well just connect directly to the shopkeeper’s pockets, selling any item there and then with a right-click. That way you get to keep on killing and killing without interruption, without worrying that you’ve only got two squares left, so the next drop had better be a dagger or a bracelet and not a giant helmet adorned with 40 rhino horns. Inane, you say? No more so than the fact there's a guy hanging around in a city somewhere with pockets full of infinite weapons, happy to buy infinitely more weapons from you (no matter that they're dripping with bits of ogre brainmatter), even though quite clearly no other bugger in the entire world is buying anything from him.
Admittedly it’s part and parcel of the inherently statistical nature of RPGs, though it’s a deviation from the original D&D approach – where your character’s strength affects how much you can carry. That’s a take on the concept more common in RPGs that think beyond base hacking and slashing, and one I much prefer. It's still a statistical limitation, but it at least has the pretence that this is something to do with real-world factors, not how many pixels are on the inventory screen or your character’s mystic inability to equip backpacks until he’s level 28. I oddly enjoy that Oblivion has a spell that temporarily increases your maximum carry weight. It was still artificial and ludicrous as all hell, but I chose to learn that spell, I chose when to use it, I elected when to augment it with a potion that increased the effect. It felt as though I was flexing the game and my character to my purposes, not simply being restricted by a cynical/pointless/archaic limitation on the developers' part.
Of course, I’d still really, really like to see my character visibly carting around six sacks of potions and forty swords. That's my idea of next-gen.
Oh God. Have I really written 800 words about how I'm annoyed by RPG inventories? I do get far too het up about these things. Don’t even get me started on how you have to buy weapons off your own employee in Mass Effect...