Could you carry this for me?
It's only small, it shouldn't take up much room; wait, have you checked you have the space? Do you need it for something else?
Nowhere does inventory space become more of a worry than in a good Survival Horror game that little bit of extra room can mean all the difference between clear sailing to the next objective and a risky backtrack to reach somewhere where you can drop off or swap what you're carrying at the moment and the possibility of being attacked on the way.
I want to talk a little about inventory systems today, I say a little because obviously inventory systems are so integral to gaming that you could literally write a book on how all sorts of different games handle them. I'm not going to, that would be time-consuming, and sort of boring to write, and maybe boring to read too, honestly. I do feel as though it's an important topic to tackle when discussing what makes for good horror though, even if it's not as obvious a one as say atmosphere or gameplay mechanics.
It's a topic that's been rolling around in my head for awhile now, and indeed I think I've touched on it when I've written before about the essentials to horror, but mostly in passing; what crystalised its importance for me was getting to play Cry of Fear. As something of a surprise to me, I found myself inextricably drawn to a lot of what defines the game, as in many respects I found what made the early Resident Evils and Silent Hill so enjoyable to me replicated again in Cry of Fear, and part of how it does that is the inventory system.
I haven't quite finished Cry of Fear yet but I've gotten far enough to find myself pretty enamoured by the inventory system in the game. I think the beauty of it is it's actually relatively simple it's a modified version of the grid inventory system we're used to in RPGs and adventure games for the most part. You have a series of boxes for items, where things you pick up go, key items fit in the same area as supplies and weapons, then to the right of that is some quick select slots.
I'm about half way through the game (I think) but so far there isn't really any body armour, protective clothing, or anything else you can equip on your body; it's all just hand items mostly weapons but also tools and healing supplies. You do have to juggle items at times, usually having to give up a weapon or leave a key item but there isn't really the same sort of constant backtracking as in the Resident Evil games - there is though a definite sense that you have very little space to spare in your inventory.
One of the most interesting aspects of the inventory system and indeed the game, is the ability to dual-wield items, using one hand to hold say a weapon like a knife, or a gun, and the other hand your phone (which acts both as a means of receiving progression-related messages early on in the game and as a directional light source when held.) This comes with it's own downside though since most items have more than one use when you dual-wield you give up that second use in order to use the two items' primary functions at once. For instance, your phone is a light source, but you can also club things with it, you can't do this when dual-wielding it; your gun... obviously fires bullets that hurt things, with only the gun equipped you can aim down the sights to aim more accurately or club attackers when out of bullets, you can't do either of these things when dual-wielding it.
What I really, really, like about the inventory system, and I think is the beauty of it (atleast so far) is the sense of control you have over everything you pick up. It's obviously not on par with real life in terms of how much you can do with each item but it does attempt to establish a sense that each item has multiple uses, like in real life, and then allows you to pick and choose what you think is most important. Your phone, for example, can be a directional light source when out, but when put away with the light on gives you a small area of effect light source, which is a nice touch. That way, you can choose to put the light away, whilst having a small circle of light around you and being able to fully use the pistol, OR dual-wield and be able to see what you're fighting but lose those useful secondary abilities of the pistol and phone and potentially complicate any sort of fight.
I like it because in some respects it emulates the versatility of how tools and objects work in real life, sure a gun fires bullets but it's also a solid object I can club stuff with, a phone can be a light aswell as a phone. On the other hand, sure my phone can be held out in one hand as a directional light but in real life couldn't I also put it in my top pocket or attach it to myself in some way so I can still use my gun at the same time? Ofcourse.
While Cry of Fear doesn't emulate just how versatile objects are in real life (you're going to use that gun to prop up the chair?!? WHAT?!) because obviously that would make for an incredibly complicated inventory system (hello, Arma!), it does go some way to making the player feel more in control of what they have on them between the quick slots which allow you to draw items quickly like in real life and the dual-wielding, which lets you do something we all kind of take for granted in real-life but most games overlook the fact we can actually do more than one thing at once, even if it might mean we don't really do either thing very well.
What it sort of made me realise is how much inventory systems as an aspect of gameplay have been overlooked as a key component of making the player immersed and really in control of their situation, even if weak. For the most part Horror games, and indeed games in general, have been designed around the philosophy of 'pick up, use and move on' - you start off with nothing, then you explore, find one item with a use, then another with a different use, and then there's some story, some more exploring, and the process repeats.
Items and weapons are usually designed to be singular in nature a gun is a gun, it's not a door prop or a club, it just fires bullets. You use it till you find the next weapon up, which is slightly more shiny, and this cycle continues to the end of the game. A key is just that, a key, you can't use it to hook an out of reach item behind a bookshelf or to scrape away dirt from a grave. In real life you could, however badly, but the idea of tools, weapons and items having more than one practical use has mostly fallen by the wayside in games, exactly because there's an emphasis on keeping the player stimulated and rewarded for their actions, rather than practically challenged within games.
Predominantly why you have different weapons is to give you a greater range of ways to kill things, so you don't have to see the same animations over and over again and because it makes the game more 'fun' to have variety. Then it's for these reasons rather than for any practical reason that you have the range of weapons you do obviously in real life there are practical reasons why soldiers may have a handgun and a larger rifle weapon of some sort a handgun is smaller, more compact, takes up less space, is easier to pull out and makes a good backup weapon; rifle weapons are usually more powerful, more accurate, and potentially more stable. Each has a separate use and reason for existing. As far as I know soldiering doesn't involve any one-uping in terms of weaponry you don't start with a handgun and by the time you're a colonel have worked your way upto a rocket launcher, and a Davy Crockett by general ...as far as I know.
I think this feeds into why inventory systems have become so neglected, or atleast sidelined in games, because it's more important to wow and visually impress the player than necessarily arm them with different tools for different situations. The inventory system is then just a place for things to be dumped and not a space for the player to sort of MacGyver some sort of item combination to solve their current situation.
One of the best examples of this sort of 'dumping space' principle that I can think of (and in a damn fine Survival Horror game I might add) is actually the Silent Hill inventory system. In the Silent Hill games (atleast the early ones) you don't really have a defined space for items, your inventory has no limits. It's just a system by which you can pick and choose from a (seemingly) infinite selection of items you've picked up. Now, this isn't necessarily a bad system for the games as the Silent Hill games do a lot of other things really well to create atmosphere and part of what defines the Silent Hill games is the pace, the constant momentum of the gameplay, as compared to say Resident Evil, where there's a lot of backtracking, so the infinite inventory/lack of magical item box aspect factors into that.
It is however a bad inventory system in the sense of creating pressure on the player, it doesn't, the inventory system barely factors into moment-to-moment decision making in the game; obviously because Silent Hill is the type of game that doesn't want to do this in the first place it's not such a big deal, but it shows how much in general that sort of 'pick up, use and move on' mentality is integral to some games. Now Silent Hill, like Resident Evil, does allow you to examine and combine some items, so you do have a certain degree of control over your inventory, but again, the inventory system remains largely flat because for the most part items have only one use, and once that function comes into use they then either disappear from the inventory to later be replaced by something else or just become relegated to the background of the inventory, items to be used over and over again but barely noticed otherwise.
Though it's not infinite I'd say the Siren games have a similar problem with their inventory, though again because of the type of game it doesn't matter so much. Siren works by the player working through various scenarios as various people, never being one person long enough for it to matter what they have in their inventory or worry about whether they're carrying too much. And again the game creates it's horror in other ways, and admittedly I'd say it does a really, really good job of that, but even so I do think that lack of pressure, that lack of added interactivity with the inventory does little to add tension. I'm hesitant to say 'subtracts' but it's definitely not contributing anything.
The elephant in the room throughout all of this discussion is ofcourse the Resident Evil series, speaking mainly of the early numbered iterations (1, 2, 3, and ok, Code Veronica too) I think the series did a really good job of keeping a tension between having to achieve a goal and progress and forcing very real space limitations on the player. You do have to think about what you take with you, you do have to consider the merits of every item. You become a scavenger of sorts and have to carefully consider how much use every item you come across is going to give you.
Admittedly, I'm a little biased, as it was Resident Evil 2 that pretty much introduced me to inventory systems, so that's kind of my base point, but still, I think the Resident Evil games did do a really good job of forcing that pressure of limited space on the player, creating a tension between goal and inventory management, and limiting their power: - Sure, you can carry that grenade launcher and take down that Tyrant! But you don't have enough space for that tiny keycard if you're carrying all those herbs, you think you need, at the same time. That sort of compromise between the big and the essentially trivial is I think essential to good horror it's like the zombie film equivalent of characters squabbling over something as petty as who gets the last can of beans when outside the whole world is going to shit.
Ofcourse, the system wasn't without it's flaws why should a herb take up as much space as a handgun? Why are two herbs the same size as a shotgun? That's stupid. The system in the early Resident Evils was good (I like it anyway) but it was too simple. 4 had something a bit better in the attachι case, but really that was kind of stupid too where exactly did super agent Leon put that bloody thing? Hm?
A much more modern example, though a less directly Horror-driven game and more like Adventure Horror, is the Last of Us. The Last of Us does something between Silent Hill's infinite inventory system and Resident Evil's magical box system, like with Silent Hill the game is based around a pretty much relentless pace - even more so given the design brief of modern AAA games, but it stills confines you in some respects. You have specific weapon and item slots, maximum capacities for each weapon... but you do still carry (in a very unrealistic way) multiple weapons at once multiple handguns, a rifle, a shotgun, a bow, etc, etc. You just can't access them as easily as the stuff in your direct/immediate inventory because Joel has to root around in his backpack for them. I like the way this constricts the player whilst still giving them plenty of options, it too though stresses the unrealistic side a bit too much for my liking atleast for Survival Horror to borrow from it in the future.
I think if Survival Horror is going to become a powerhouse of creativity again then it has to step out from the crowd a bit more, even though inventory systems are generally unrealistic go for something a bit more realistic. Either give your character very limited space or give them a (visible) backpack of some sort. A character in loose jeans and a top could probably carry a rifle (with a sling) and a handgun, and ofcourse a few supplies, but much more than that and it starts to become silly.
Personally I'm kind of leaning towards something somewhere between the Resident Evil block inventory and the more RPG-style 'body outline' inventory system where you have an inventory based off the parts of the body where items of certain sizes could be carried or stored (well, in the clothes, I guess you could stick stuff up your nose or ass, but probably not much.) I'm not keen on overly stringent or stat-led inventories in Survival Horror but I do think there has to be some pressure on the player to manage their inventory, and future Survival Horror games also have to avoid the pitfall of a system like the early Resident Evils' where two herbs can be the same size as a rocket launcher... that's just silly.
What I don't want is full-on, realistic inventory replication, games like Arma do that; it's not a horror game (well... it is a type
of horror, just not the intentional kind), but it does try to realistically replicate how much space a person has on them. I think that would be too complicated. Like I say, we want something vaguely realistic, but not so realistic you need a keyboard or a controller with 30 buttons on just to use it properly it needs to be complicated enough to realistically reflect space but at the same time simple enough that your Survival Horror game doesn't become a pen and paper RPG.
Maybe something more akin to the system in the Last of Us but with a proper inventory screen? You have a slot for a rifle, a hand weapon, and some easy-access supplies and you arrange what you want where yourself, with those slots acting as quick access slots. Then the rest of your supplies go in a limited area in a backpack of some sort (if you have one); maybe the backpack itself could be a bonus find, like the sidepack in Resident Evil 2? I'd definitely like to see more realism like that in Survival Horror games, atleast if one can pull it off, I think as well there has to be a shift in general away from seeing guns as shiny toys in games and more towards tools to handle difficult situations just like medkits or keys or any sort of item.
While I'm doubtful over the certainty as to which system is really 'perfect', since it does depend a lot on the game, I do think the future of Survival Horror, good Survival Horror, will in part be reliant upon games that consider the inventory system just as important a factor of a game's 'punch' as atmosphere or tension. After all, if a game makes you worry about whether you should lug the shotgun or the rifle around with you, because of how much space they each take up, then it's already a step ahead of the game that just lets you carry both, without worrying about it, in terms of crafting good horror, because it's already making you worry.
And if anything defines really good horror its being able to create tension and anxiety before you've even seen your first monster.