How ‘Resident Evil 4’ Perfected the Inventory System [Resident Evil at 25]

Horror

As a general rule of thumb, inventory management is a necessary evil for video games, there only to prevent you from accumulating too much power at once. It’s not really intended to be fun in and of itself, unless you happen to derive great pleasure from sifting through long menus or calculating weight thresholds. Rather, the mechanic is just something that we all have to put up with.  

Which is a bit annoying, when you consider how much of our time in virtual worlds is taken up by this administrative drudgery. Indeed, Mass Effect, Skyrim, and Fallout are all very immersive experiences, right up until you acquire one-too-many screws and then discover that your character is unaccountably rooted to the floor. When this happens, the action inevitably grinds to a halt whilst you determine what you can afford to offload and what to do with all your duplicated loot. 

At its best, this is a quick detour. At its worst, it’s the equivalent of painstakingly checking your airline luggage, to make certain that it doesn’t exceed the maximum flight allowance. You know, something that you have to go along with to get to the part that you’re actually looking forward to. 

Granted, imposing some kind of limitation on how much we can carry is a rational move (otherwise things wouldn’t be very challenging), but getting us to laboriously whittle down our haul like this, just to shed a few ounces of junk, utterly kills the momentum for me. And even in titles that don’t rely on these encumberment systems, inventory management is rarely something that I anticipate with bated breath. Whether I’m robotically deconstructing weapon mods in Control, restocking my troops’ gadgets in XCOM, or trying to navigate the Kafkaesque menus of Cyberpunk 2077, I’m seldom enjoying myself here. 

That is with the exception of Resident Evil 4, which takes the obligatory chore of organizing your crap and turns it into a fulfilling minigame in its own right. To be fair, the legendary horror series tends to handle this aspect better than most franchises, because the developers understand how to make it feel like a tactical consideration. Rather than an obtrusive declutter session that totally interrupts the flow of gameplay.

For example, in the original PSOne installments, it behooved you to plan ahead when leaving a safe room, so that you could get the utmost utility out of a finite number of item slots. As such, you were forced to make excruciating compromises whenever you headed out into the fray, not knowing if you were right to pack that shotgun, or if it would have been wiser to take extra healing supplies instead.

The point is, inventory management always felt it was deliberately baked into Resident Evil from the very beginning, serving to heighten the tension, as opposed to breaking it. The fourth entry had a particularly strong iteration of this mechanic with its attaché case: a 6×10 grid (later upgraded to double its original size) that held as much equipment as you were feasibly able to cram into it. The catch is that, if you wanted to efficiently optimize this storage, you had to put your Tetris skills to good use and arrange your possessions as neatly as possible. 

In a nutshell, the objective here was to methodically tidy your loadout so that there was minimal negative space. You could do this by laterally moving things along a vertical or horizontal axis, and by rotating them to fit into empty squares. If you did it with precision and regularly kept on top of things, then you were able to cart around whatever you conceivable needed. 

What made the system work so well was that objects were proportionally scaled, meaning that a gun and its bullets no longer had identical dimensions. Whereas in previous games those two things would have filled the exact same area, this was a little more grounded in reality. It just made logical sense that the bigger items were, well, bigger. 

Flash forward a few years to Resident Evil 5 (which reverted to a traditional pouch-based model) and it feels like we suddenly took a huge step backwards. You once again had this bizarre situation whereby an egg inexplicably took up as much room as a rocket launcher. Capcom obviously made that decision to better accommodate online play – as it wouldn’t have been practical to sort out your briefcase in real-time, not if you didn’t want to severely irritate your partner anyway – yet it nevertheless felt like a bit of a downgrade. 

This brings me to another positive of the attaché: it was the perfect countermeasure for RE4’s more relentless pace. For those weaned on classic survival horror, the game’s frenetic encounters could have proved quite overwhelming, were it not for how opening up your case froze the action and gave you a much-appreciated timeout. It was a valuable opportunity to collect your thoughts and assess the situation at hand. You didn’t need the quickest reflexes in the world to switch guns, nor did you have to memorize various button inputs. You just had to stop and think for a second. 

Again, if we compare this approach with the later co-op offerings, you really come to appreciate the benefits. After all, Resi 6 demonstrates just how much of a fucking hassle real-time inventory management can be when it’s over-complicated, or if you’re lugging around too much gear. Hence why FPS releases like Call of Duty often restrict you to cycling between just a primary and a secondary firearm. Yet by giving you that moment to breathe, RE4 mitigates against this problem and makes the combat feel uniquely strategic, instead of like a chaotic nightmare. 

Of course, the main reason everyone loves the attaché is not that it’s more realistic, or that it gives you respite from peril, but that it’s so damn satisfying to maintain. Though it may sound impossibly prosaic, doing things like: color coordinating your grenades; setting aside distinct rows just for mine darts; keeping the rifle paired with its scope; and finding the ideal spot for a freshwater bass are all weirdly rewarding. Not to mention it’s way more aesthetically pleasing than the ugly lists most inventories take after. So much so that you can go down an entire YouTube rabbit hole filled with people customizing their layouts, and ASMR videos dedicated to renovating disorderly cases.  

If you haven’t tried it yourself then it will be hard to understand the appeal. However, in the same way that people like to customise their appearance in Fortnite and furnish their homes in Animal Crossing, it can develop into a serious compulsion. Especially as your armory grows and grows over the course of a playthrough. In fact, it’s on those grounds that I usually avoid doing a New Game +, because unlocking the OP weapons and unlimited ammo perks ends up trivialising the briefcase, rendering it almost irrelevant. 

On that note, I can’t think of another inventory management system that I would genuinely miss if it was removed wholesale, and it’s baffling to me that the series dropped it after a single outing. After all, whilst this might not be the sexiest or most exciting element of game design, it is a major part of nearly everything that we play. So, if you can make it simpler, more intuitive, easier on the eyes and, crucially, fun then why wouldn’t you? Resi 4 managed it over 15 years ago and it still holds up today. 

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