Many moons ago, when I was younger and cuter and a little bit nicer, I streamed games on Twitch. The games I played most frequently were Wisdom Tree’s niche biblical titles, dating simulators modified to serve as one-woman Tuesday night drinking games, and an ARPG that has cemented itself as one of my all-time favorite games, Grim Dawn.
I think it would be fair to estimate that 50% or more of my 628.8 hours playing Grim Dawn, both on and off stream, was dedicated to sorting and resorting my inventory obsessively. I would sort by item type, and then within such sorting I would further sort by size and then color. Inventory management, in itself, is a charming game and has become the system that I hold most valuable in any title that I play. But not all inventory systems are created equal.
Encumbrance is a persevering game mechanic that is near and dear to my gag reflex. Immersion and a commitment to mirroring realism are the most frequently cited arguments of the Pro Encumbrance Agenda™, despite the fact that you’re typically able to carry a dozen or more weapons and tools without so much as a fanny pack to your name. But should you happen upon a feather too many, you find yourself trodding along like the mob has started to encase your body in cement but was called away before finishing the job to bear witness to Bobby Three Finger’s daughter’s First Holy Communion.
RPGs and survival games are, deep down, about management. You manage quests, rations, time, and, yes, your inventory. Weight is one such item of management, and at face value, I can easily wrap my head around the logic of it. But the idea of my virtual hero hauling 12 metal swords that he stashes… somewhere… yet finding himself overwhelmingly burdened by an ethereal trinket of no obvious mass is rooted in neither realism nor immersion.
An unencumbered player is typically able to fight and navigate just as well, just as efficiently, and just as quickly as a player that is carrying nothing at all. Your carry weight rarely affects your stamina drain, stamina regeneration, or run speed unless you are encumbered. You can’t reasonably argue that a system encompasses a sense of realism when you’re flitting around like Margot Fonteyn at 59 lbs but suddenly quivering under the weight of your bounty at 60 lbs.
Encumbrance is a major factor in breakout Viking indie sensation Valheim, which sold 5 million copies in its first month of early access. The inventory is laid out grid-style, allowing for players to carry a limited number of different items, but the accompanying weight limit is much more restrictive than the number of inventory slots allotted to your virtual Leif Erikson.
Should you find yourself lucky enough to encounter a randomly spawned NPC in one of the many forested areas somewhere between your spawn and the literal edge of the world, you can receive a one-time increase in weight by purchasing the Megingjord belt. Because a magical belt that lets you carry buckets of items without limiting you at all until you reach an arbitrary stat is, apparently, the hallmark of a game rooted in realism. But I digress. This reward feels much more like a temporary pacification than a true reward, as the weight is still deeply restrictive when coupled with other mechanics designed to limit item gathering.
Ore deposits don’t respawn, nor do cores within Burial Chambers. This means that, should you fall prey to the hordes of enemies swarming in the regions where the scarcest and most valuable of resources lie and find yourself unable to fetch your precious cargo from your corpse for whatever reason, those items may be lost to you forever. Only your most recent death is marked on your map, so if you find yourself doing a naked death run to your corpse and fall at the hands of a rogue tree or particularly aggressive boar, you’ve lost your ability to locate your prior corpse and the loot contained within unless you took the time to manually add an indicator on your map. Since these resources cannot be carried through portals, you’re further shafted, especially if you respawn islands away with your boat docked by your distant grave.
The most frustrating part about encumbrance in Valheim is the fact that what you’re wearing and currently holding not only takes up slots in your inventory but also actively contributes to your overall weight allowance. Should you find yourself with medium-ish leather armor and a cape, you can expect to knock about 15 off your weight allowance of 300 before counting in your equipped weapon and shield. If you’ve crafted yourself some Wolf Armor, which is needed to survive for any period of time in the freezing Mountain regions, you can up that to 37 pre-weapon. This may not sound like much, until you consider that a single stack of 30 copper ore weighs 300.
Games with hundreds, or even thousands, of objects to pick up and interact with often turn to encumbrance as the solution to managing a player’s ability to carry more than is reasonable at a given time. And don’t get me wrong, I get it. You have to draw the line somewhere, particularly in survival games that are, to their very core, designed to be challenging. But there comes a point where challenge turns to tedium, transitioning the game experience from something fun to a stressful chore.
Encumbrance stands in direct opposition to fun like a bouncer at a seedy bar on the outskirts of town who didn’t like that you smiled politely at his bartender ex-girlfriend when ordering your whiskey sour and potato skins. It is an archaic, joyless mechanic to use when superior alternatives, like a pure grid inventory system and the subsequent Tetris-ing of your loot, are available. If you have a game where items matter, and managing items matters, then the management of those items should at least be a little bit fun.