Video games give you a lot of crap. Be it arsenals of weapons, a chest full of treasures, or enough provisions to feed an army, most modern video games heap items onto the player. This necessitates some form of storage system for the player, which allows for easy retrieval of their possessions. In fast paced action games, this is often just a remembered system of button presses, using one control to switch weapons, and another to use equipment items, like grenades. More relaxed RPG style games often employ a menu driven system, with lists of a player’s items, organized by type. Many games employ a combination of the two, utilizing a few “hotkeys” to quickly use commonly needed items, and a deeper menu system to allow for greater item interactions. And then there is Resident Evil 4’s method. Described by some as clunky, slow, or weird, it is one of the most interesting designs for a storage system in video games today. It breaks from the mold of established norms, and changes the way many think about inventory systems today.
At their core, inventory systems are just convenient ways of categorizing the stuff a player accumulates throughout their journey. Different types of games lend themselves to a certain type of item management system, to fit with the flow of the game. Modern shooters are very fast paced, action heavy ordeals, with players being whisked from one combat zone to another. If a player had to stop this intense flow every few minutes to change weapons or equip grenades, it would break the cycle of action, and remove the player from the immersion of the game. To deal with this problem, action games generally employ an “invisible” inventory, with limited space for items. Rarely is a player show all the items they are carrying, but rather have various choices mapped to specific buttons. One button might switch the player’s currently equipped primary weapon, while another might cycle through various grenade choices. Since there are only a few options for each button, it is easy to remember what they are, and quickly select the correct one for the current situation.
Role-playing and fantasy style games often rely on a menu based system of item storage, with different panes displaying various categories of items, i.e. weapons, potions, etc. This system lends itself to the slower, more methodical pacing of a RPG, and allows for a deeper interaction and appreciation of the items gathered. RPGs also have a wider range of items available to the player when compared to action games, too many to have a button for each. Finally, this system also allows for easier party level item management, which is often important in these types of games, where a player is tasked with completely outfitting a group of companions, as well as themselves.
Some games require a combination of the two previous systems, usually those that contain elements of both styles of games. These action/RPG hybrids often move between action and exploration very quickly, and require a storage solution that works with both. By providing customizable buttons to store the most frequently used items on, players can easily react to situations that arise suddenly (the “action” portions), while also allowing for deeper inventory management in a safer environment (the “exploration” portions). As genres continue to fuse, it seems this system is becoming more and more popular, since it fits a variety of play styles.
Resident Evil 4, however, chooses none of these. The game itself is a third-person shooter, with a focus on action and horror, driven by a compelling story. It uses a combination of beautifully terrifying environments, disturbing enemies, and limited resources to truly scare the player like never before. It is only fitting that the inventory system adds to the terror created by the game. It consists of a grid of squares (graphically overlaid as a briefcase), onto which items are placed once picked up. Each item is itself divided into squares, based on its approximate size. For reference, a healing item is made up of a 1×2 rectangle, while a magnum is made up of a 2×4 rectangle. The base size of the player’s “briefcase” is 10×6, leaving the player with fairly limited storage early on. As the player acquires more and more items, the challenge becomes one of maximization of space. Though the briefcase’s size can be upgraded, it is constantly a struggle to fit everything the player needs into the inventory. The very fact that the player cannot pick up every item in the game forces them to make tough choices about what to bring along on their journey. This constant weighing of options is a very interesting way to keep the player concerned with their wellbeing. Every bullet suddenly becomes a valuable commodity, and each health item a rare treasure. Items found in the environment, once discovered, bring feelings of relief, or even joy, to the player, since they are now more prepared for the immediate challenge the game provides. The constant need to replenish their dwindling cache of items also encourages complete exploration of the environment, which gives the player a greater appreciation of the setting. The player often becomes more reliant on their skills than their items, which are usually in short supply. Another interesting side effect of this system is a greater need to organize the contents of the inventory, which are usually awkwardly placed once picked up. To truly utilize the space’s potential, one must constantly move their items around into some sort of order, removing empty space between items. This consistent need to reorganize the inventory becomes a minigame of sorts, creating order out of chaos, in an environment safer than the world outside the briefcase.
Though awkward at first, Resident Evil’s inventory system carries with it many interesting qualities, which turn a task usually handled by the game’s hidden code into an experience all its own. This experience really adds to the terror of the situation in several meaningful ways, and is a great way to do something radical with a traditionally unchanged system.