Friday, October 10, 2014

To Inventory or Not?

One of the staples of the roguelike genre is what I will affectionately term crazy levels of inventory management.  In some ways, it doesn't really feel like a roguelike unless you're walking around juggling a bunch of mysterious potions and scrolls which could just as likely kill you as save you.

Screenshot from the excellent Brogue
Lone Spelunker has never been a traditional roguelike, but that doesn't necessarily mean that all conventions of the genre are to be checked at the door before coming inside.  I want to carefully choose what conventions of the genre I support, and how I support them, to support the experience that the game provides.

So, when it came to the question of inventory management, I had a lot of thinking to do.  Although it's mostly about exploration, you do use equipment in the game - hammers, pitons, nylon ropes, carabiners, scuba tanks, lights, glow markers, cameras, maps, etc.  So the question eventually had to be answered: Should I make the player directly manage the equipment in the game?

It would certainly feel roguelike-ish to have a screen pop up, showing the list of equipment you have.
You are carrying in your backpack:
(a) 57m nylon rope
(b) 27 steel pitons
(c) 1 piton hammer (slightly damaged)
(d) 1 scuba tank (157 turns of oxygen left)
 But that begs the question: to what purpose?

In traditional roguelikes, inventory management brings several things to the table, but almost none of those benefits apply to Lone Spelunker.  There are no enemies in the game, so you don't need to carry around different types of weapons to respond to different enemy types, nor do you need to build up better and better armor.  There are no "damage points" or status effects that need to be guarded against.  No hunger to track.  No complex interactions between the various tools.  No crafting.  No treasure to carry out.

About the only thing that inventory management would bring to the table is a sense of scarcity.  "Uh, oh, I'd better conserve my rope - I've only got 12 meters left!"  This sort of mechanic would strongly encourage players to conserve every little scrap of rope and to free-climb everywhere they go.  In other words, it would add challenge.

I thought pretty long about this, and what I realized, though, is that even if I give players unlimited rope and pitons, people are likely to set that style of exploration as a goal for themselves as they start gaining mastery of the game anyway.  By not introducing a mechanic that ramps up the challenge, I can essentially get two levels of challenge for free.  This is something unique to this particular brand of "experiential" roguelike I'm developing, because the goals for play are (largely) intrinsic.  Why would you free-climb when you could throw a rope and go down that chimney safely?  Because it's fun to free-climb it.  You feel like a badass when you do it.  I don't have to prod players into doing it, because it's already fun.

There's also the issue of removing cruft.  We all love finding that awesome new pair of enchanted boots, but it's considerably less fun to then go twiddling through your inventory to make room for those new boots, unequip the old boots, equip the new boots, put the old boots in the backpack, pull them out and sell them to a merchant later, etc.  If there's nothing to find (that you can carry), there's really little value in seeing and managing what you are carrying.

So you won't be seeing much in the way of inventory management in Lone Spelunker.  You'll never run out of rope, you'll never run out of pitons, you'll never run out of markers, you'll never run out of storage space in your camera.  By not making you manage those things, climbing and exploring can be streamlined.  You just hammer in a piton, and throw a rope to attach to it, with no need to open up any inventory panels, no need to dole out rope meter by meter.  You just go.

The only exception to the above is oxygen.  You can run out of oxygen, and there is some management associated with it.  But that is necessary to be able to tell the stories I want players to be able to tell.  "I got lost in the underwater caves, with my oxygen running out!  Finally, at the last moment, I found the tiny crawlspace I'd squeezed through before, and found my way to the surface!  I learned my lesson - always leave markers leading back to the surface behind you when exploring underwater!"

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