This week in Video Game history is one of those you don’t see often. Like it or not, Starfield release is a significant milestone in the industry, not just for Bethesda and its players. It is the new IP from one of the biggest companies in the industry and some of the most beloved games in history.
One of the topics regarding this game is one that is part of every game Bethesda releases and is the mechanic of encumbrance.
Encumbrance is a game mechanic restricting the amount of loot/items a player can transport. It also, almost always, comes with capacity restrictions to storage containers and companions. Also, it usually comes with penalties to the player. For example, carrying heavy items or exceeding the encumbrance limit will cause penalties for your stamina or health.
More or less, this mechanic is hatted by every player in games like Starfield. So, why is it still a thing in most games? How does it work in Starfield as a study case?
Why is this mechanic still in video games since everyone seems to hate it?
There are several reasons why this mechanic exists and makes sense in some games. In my opinion, these are three of the main ones.
The most obvious reason is immersion, which is also the most subjective. But I’m sure we can all agree that having a character that can carry everything without restrictions sounds, at least, a bit weird. Notably, in survival or extraction games, this mechanic is an intrinsic part of the game.
Another reason is to limit the character arsenal, which is tied to the previous reason in a certain way. What I mean with this is don’t allow the player to be a wandering military arsenal with every possible gun needed for each situation. This encourages the player to think in advance of their loadout and what to bring on their missions. You can find yourself preparing for the next adventure with weapons that do more damage to robots if you are going to explore a robot research lab or have poison resistance items if you are about to enter a snake lair.
One other reason is the game economy. You can limit this in different more appropriate and valuable ways, but if you can carry everything and sell it, you will likely have a lot of money at early stages of the game. Adding encumbrance makes this process more tedious. It doesn’t stop you from doing it, but the process of moving things back and forth and then doing the same several times to sell them to a merchant (if they have enough money) makes it annoying and tedious.
Guaranteed there are more reasons why this mechanic exists, and probably some games I didn’t play make something extraordinary around this mechanic. Overall, we can agree that this mechanic, although annoying as it is, provides an opportunity for the developers to make the player make decisions. Choose which things to extract from a raid, what resources loot and which ones are left behind, select your loadout based on what you want to carry and even loot, etc.
How games improve the encumbrance mechanic
Usually, when the encumbrance mechanic is added to a game, the game designers provide other mechanics to improve the player experience. They decided that encumbrance is needed, but we don’t have to be utterly miserable as players because of this.
These are some of the most common ones I found in different games.
If the game has companions, they have their own storage that you can use to give them loot to carry. Some games even allow these companions to go directly to a merchant to sell the loot. Companions can be other characters in the universe that interact with you, fight or even take part in conversations, and others are just mules whose only purpose is to carry things for you.
Usually, in this type of game, you have a vehicle and/or bases where you have storage available. Some games allow you to move things directly from your inventory to these places, regardless of location. It could break immersion in some cases but it is still one of the best options for the player. Send to your camp whatever you want to store to check up later while finishing the current run.
Of course, there is always the option to make some items weightless. For example, quest items usually don’t impact encumbrance. The same goes with keys, notes, and small stuff that have no value and are only helpful for the player as lore or information.
There is one mechanic I never see in a game, and I would love to see it. Most of the reason players hoard items is because we want to have some kind of display of items. When you have a base, you want to put things in there for show, like armor sets, cool weapons, weapons, or items you had a history with, or just a collection of items based on eras. The reasons are endless, but the problem is that you have to carry those items around even if you will not use them. Why not give the players a mechanic to mark items as collectibles? With this, you remove the item’s weight, can’t change it back, and can even make it unwearable, but at least it will not impact my encumbrance. This scenario is pretty common to me in different games: I’m in a mission or dungeon and find some item that looks amazing, but I’m not going to use it; I just want to display it as part of your collection. Most of the time, I will not pick it up because it will impact the amount of items I can carry. If this option were available, that problem would be solved and the only impact is that I have one more item in my collection.
The problem with Starfield
This article was based on the release of Starfield, so it is appropriate to dig deeper into their implementation in this game. Note that these comments are based on version 1.0 of the game, which could change in future versions.
One of the reasons why the implementation of encumbrance in the game feels so bad is because of the effect it has on gameplay. The limitation is so impactful that you spend more time managing your inventory than anything else. And most likely, you start to not care about loot after some time because you can’t take it with you anyway.
Players have several ways to store things in the game. You own a ship, house, containers at Constellation, outposts, companions, and personal inventory. On paper, you have many options and space. The problem is that it doesn’t work mainly because of two things. Your character encumbrance permanently impairs you since you transport the items. And also because the mechanics of transferring items is almost nonexistent. Most of the time, if you want to take something to your ship, you have to go physically there. There is no option to send items remotely to it so that you can continue your run, for example. After that, you need space on your ship to store things. Let’s say you have an outpost where to keep things, or you decided to use the containers at The Lodge, you have to fly there. That seems fair, the problem is that you may be several jumps away from the location, and it could take some time to reach the destination.
The other big problem is that storage is too low and items weigh too much. Having these two restrictions together makes it all worse. If you duplicate the space for your ship and your inventory storage, the gameplay will be unaffected. On the contrary, it will improve considerably. The same goes if you reduce the weight of resources. Right now, you can fill your inventory so quickly with resources to the point you don’t carry resources anymore once you have enough money to buy what you want, which, by the way, doesn’t take long. The same happens with your ship. Getting more storage and its impact on how well you do in battles is so tricky that it is almost impossible to have a ship that can do both things.
So, why do they lean so hard on this? I feel it is because they want the player to explore and focus on tasks. Do you need iron? Well, go to a planet with iron and mine it. Do you want to make money? Enter a location and grab items that have a high cost. Are you looking for new gear or just exploring? They don’t allow you to have it all, you have to decide which loot you want on every run you make. Still, there are better ways to induce players into exploration and farming than encumbrance and limited storage.
Encumbrance will always be present in video games. It is an important part of most games and one that I like. How it is implemented and used to affect gameplay is another thing.
There are several options to make this mechanic fun while still affecting the gameplay in a way that leans the player to make decisions on loot and resource attrition.
Sadly, the implementation in Starfield is worse than previous titles. It will be easy to fix some of the problems, but knowing the history of Bethesda as a developer, we will rely on mods to fix these problems.
One of the games that handles this concept exceptionally well is Project Zomboid. As a survival game, this concept is central to the game but gives you many options to transport things. But, ultimately, you can’t haul everything and have to decide what to take with you. Maybe we can talk about it in a future article.