What’s an item, anyways?

I’m currently working on a side project with friends, where you control a character in an apartment complex. It’s about the day-to-day lives of these other characters, and we were considering whether or not to include items in the game. This post is just some open, loose thinking about the topic of items in story-driven, single player games with more or less fixed stories.

Spoiler: the conclusion is that ‘should we include items’ depends on lots of other choices, so this post is mostly driving in circles… but anyways…

(If you have comments, thoughts or ideas that might be useful for a mostly linear, story-focused game set in an apartment, please let me know!)

History of Items?

This led me to think about the history of ‘items’ and games. The usage of items in games stems far before videogames existed in the mainstream – the earliest that I know of would be Dungeons and Dragons and early Interactive Fiction from the ‘70s. Of course, I could say that a football is an “item” in the game called “Football”, but I think at that point things are getting too abstract and I don’t really care.

So, for this post, let’s ignore games with ‘physical’-esque elements – combat, platforming challenges – games in which items change how big the numbers get when you slash a slime, or change your moveset. Let’s just talk about games where you can move around a space and talk to things – games that are closer to visual novels, or perhaps are visual novels.

Items as Currency?
In this case, items represent a type of ‘currency’ for the player that can be exchanged for narrative. For example, if Asako lends her hat to Kosuke, but you obtain the hat, you can then ’spend’ that hat by returning it to Kosuke, in order to receive narrative relating to Asako and Kosuke. In another way, it’s a way of the game shifting the game’s storytelling progress more towards the player, since the story doesn’t advance until the item is “spent”.

This can take various complexities: a common use is to make a puzzle out of figuring out what item to use. In a very boring context, this is a fetch quest: find 3 Apples for Asako. Neither the apples nor giving Asako the apples probably feels that significant. In a tightly designed context, this is something like presenting the correct court evidence with the correct chunk of a witness testimony in Phoenix Wright: the puzzle forces you to inhabit the role of the attorney more, pay attention to the mystery, and the puzzle also just makes sense with the context of the game.

One note is that when it comes to story-focused games, innovative uses of items seem to require very good writing! Which shouldn’t be a surprise, but it’s worth noting that I don’t think writing can really be an afterthought in a story-focused game that is using items. A simplification I wanted to consider for our game is to remove items. Which made me wonder: what are pros/cons of having/not having items?

Gathering Items can stand in for prose/dialogue

In a game where you talk to characters, if text is related to getting further in the overall story – that dialogue takes on significance more than flavor text (witty jokes on objects, or short lines by minor NPCs).

So, in story-driven games with items, the items are usually used to drive the story. Items are used as a type of currency to give you more story. But also, the process of finding an item – done by controlling a character – is part of the story/feel of the game. The way that the game deals with the abstraction between the concrete – players physically doing each thing – and the abstract – using text to describe stuff happening – builds the texture of the game.

The player’s focus shifts to the character who is finding these items. If you go around a community in a game, and talk to everyone, the story still filters through that controllable character’s personality. A designer can add cutscenes not featuring the controllable character, but these still have a lower level of precedence since you’re not controlling those characters. You could also allow multiple characters to be controlled, but the same idea around ‘focus’ still applies.

That is to say… it’s all in how a designer puts items to use, whether they end up irritating or interesting.

…Removing items?

Okay, so what if items are removed entirely? Well, there’s still a character to control. So I think the range of storytelling possibilities is not that different from a game with items. To me, what would change is what the designer might find themselves designing around. A game in which you’re not employing items would probably lead to complexity in some other system (unless the game is intentionally very straightforward.) For example, maybe talking to people has complex, state-tracking actions. Maybe information becomes a type of item. Maybe the characters have detailed schedules and move around. Maybe it’s like a JRPG, or a novel, – you have a cast of characters and you put them in different contexts (It looks like I have just defined what a story is… maybe this post is going nowhere…)

What about when focusing on a community?

Umm… so my initial question into thinking this is that the game I’m working on wants to represent the community and relations of people living in an apartment complex. I initially wondered if having items would make the game feel too ‘about’ the player character, but now that I look at this analysis, I think what I was worried about was a boring usage of items in which the character ferries items around for other characters: where “Here, take this package to Bob” becomes the driver of the story, versus any other game design system possibility or way of storytelling with a cast.

Complexity of items in the game’s design

With items, there’s a whole dimension of complexity added. In Point and Click adventures or games like Chulip, Giftpia or Moon, there’s often a lot of experimentation with using items with the right character at the right time. It can also be prone to frustration if a player gets stuck and experimentation is difficult (dying in Chulip is pretty rough…) or if there’s not a very good hint system available, or if there are just too many minor items that it’s hard to tell what items are important or not! Inventories can be powerful by creating a whole dimension of choice, but they also carry a lot of complexity if not carefully considered.

To bring up Phoenix Wright again, I like that game’s inventory since you only carry relevant items, and it’s a small enough space of items that you aren’t that confused. Moreover, the items aren’t used in a blatantly transactional quest-like exchange.

On the topic of confusion, I was also thinking about times after playing Ihatovo Monogatari, a minimal SNES no-combat RPG: it’s a game with a very simple inventory and quests, but you’re often at a loss as to who you need to talk to in order to progress the game. The game tries to conjure up a shared town community, which the game partially succeeds at, but your time there is mostly about seeking out the next person to get a key item from, and the frustration of trying to find where to go next takes away a player’s stamina towards interacting with the town more.

The presence of items in the game causes you to wonder if you might be missing something, instead of just knowing you haven’t talked to the right person yet. So… not knowing if there are items left increases the mystery of a game’s world, but it also has its downsides.

But if you do remove items, it means you do lose a layer of interaction with the world in finding stuff on objects or on the ground. But it does mean that now the game primarily has to be driven by conversations with characters, so that could be a good thing. Like I mentioned before, maybe items are just ‘unfulfilled wishes’ (like in Giftpia), or something else.

In Conclusion

Items seem to be like the color red. In the sense that there’s nothing inherently good or bad about it… it’s just something you can use. So I think in this case I was asking the totally wrong question.

What this sort of indicates to me is that there are unknowns elsewhere in the game’s design that need to be addressed. So far, we’ve decided to keep the game scale down by setting it over 5 days, focusing on the protagonist’s interactions with a particular apartment resident on each day. I guess the next thing is to try out some writing drafts, and hopefully that leads us to figuring out the best way for the characters to be shown and the stories to be told on each day.