In tough economic times, it doesn't hurt to have a game that encourages a mindset of frugality and efficiency in terms of our relation to material goods. Using what you have as efficiently as possible and only clinging on to the most useful and valuable stuff isn't a bad attitude to perpetuate even in a pre-apocalyptic American wasteland.
In most games, inventory management is unlikely to be seen as a form of pleasure. Utilitarian and, perhaps, a necessary evil? Maybe. But fun? Not so much.
While inventory management seems a kind of compliment to the style of play of games like RPGs -- after all, a large component of the RPG is collecting bigger and better weapons to compliment one's steadily increasing power -- it tends to be an element of gameplay largely included as a means of creating boundaries for characters (the player shouldn't have access to everything and anything during their adventure) and authenticity (nor would they literally be able to). Basically, inventory management forces the player to make choices but very often not especially interesting ones. Since I have limited room to carry stuff around, should I take the +4 STR sword or the +5 STR sword? Not the trickiest of puzzles to solve in a gameplay environment.
Admittedly, there have been minor “puzzle-like” qualities introduced in the “game” of inventory management before. I have always derived a very weird pleasure from sorting weapons, armor, and rings on the original inventory screen in Diablo. Since much of the loot found throughout the dungeon of Diablo is more likely to be sold than saved, figuring out what items sell for the best prices while also managing to use the least amount of space in the limited area of the grid that Diablo provides the player to arrange items in has a certain kind of appeal for someone like myself that appreciates efficiency and simplicity while dungeon delving.
However, such a diversion is merely that, a very mild diversion, in what is otherwise a fundamentally different sort of game. Certainly, one of Diablo's chief appeals is its loot collection mechanic, which contributes one of its more traditional RPG elements in what is otherwise a pretty straightforward hack and slash action game. This form of a very light spatial puzzle though, really has little to do with the overall plotline and atmosphere of the main game though, barring its function as adding a mild degree of authenticity to the idea of an adventurer having to make some choices about the treasure that he hauls back to town intermittently throughout his quest.
Such a mild diversion is much more centralized in Bethesda's two newest Fallout games, both Fallout 3 and New Vegas. Inventory management becomes not only much more central to gameplay, given that nearly everything in these Fallout wastelands can be picked up, examined, and ultimately dragged along with an adventurer, but it is also an occupation that is especially evocative of the theme of the Fallout universe, meagerly surviving in a hostile and ruined landscape.
Eschewing the more overt spatial concerns of a game like Diablo, Fallout 3 and New Vegas feature inventory management systems that are exclusively about weight. Exploring a wasteland in these games makes thinking about that inventory management screen essential even while viewing the world in a direct way. Picking through a burnout house or truck along a highway becomes a matter of sizing up objects and largely considering their weight to bottle cap ratio, so that one does not have problems later in organizing useful and less useful items on the inventory management screen. Early on, items whose value is at least two to one might seem worth picking up to swap later at a wasteland store or with a traveling merchant, but as the player ventures further and longer into the wasteland, more thoughtful decisions need to be made in order to travel light and lean in a universe where most other wanderers are more likely interested in picking over your corpse than not. Cartons of cigarettes, light and fetching high prices, become a more sensible addition to an inventory than a bulkier and scantier valued items like toy cars or scarp metal.
This system becomes less like a metagame as it does in games like Diablo, as it reinforces the atmosphere in the game and is especially effective at getting the player to naturally get into the role that this role playing game would have him play. Thinking in terms of survival and scrounging becomes second nature if the player wants to be able to purchase new ammo or armor along his route and not slow himself down by over-encumbering himself. Even the skills system in the game contributes to this kind of naturalistic role play. The Repair skill allows the player to take similar items and cannibalize them for parts. One item is destroyed while the other is made stronger and more valuable. Thus, the player who has truly given in to the impetus of the wasteland for promoting frugality and efficiency often is swapping into the inventory screen to repair and maintain weapons, not merely to improve them, but to provide more space and room to gather additionally valuable and useful items. The sound of a piece of duct tape being torn from a roll accompanies the otherwise invisible activity of repair, but it is just enough sensorial data to make the action seem relevant to the experience of playing the scrounger. The player's avatar is making due with what he finds, patching together odds and ends in order to remain on the move and continue traveling as efficiently as possible. What is accomplished on the inventory management screen is evidently valuable in relation to play in the “actual game” itself.
A similarly subtle but effective decision in the game to provide a trade screen that includes the contents of the player's inventory and contents of a store with an arrow in between that points at either one (depending on who is buying and who is selling at any given time) also adds to the whole “road warrior” mentality that the game places the player in. While the arrow indicates whether the player owes the store any bottle caps for the purchase of an item or that the store owes the player bottle caps for purchasing one of the players scavenged goods, adding items from either list diminishes the total owed. In other words, while there is a form of money in the Fallout games, the trade screen makes it feel like what the player is doing is bartering and trading more than buying something in the more familiar sense. Sure, you might purchase fuel for your flamethrower and that might cost a couple hundred bottle caps, but once you offer the merchant a few teddy bears, several pounds of meat from bloatflies that you have killed, and toss in a vacuum cleaner and a firehouse nozzle, you will find the price greatly reduced. Toss in enough interesting scavenged items and you may just get away with a straight up swap. Embedded in such bartering is the same old survivalist inventory management mindset, given that if you can trade away the heaviest items in your inventory for what you need (especially if those items are much less heavy than what you get rid of), then a successful trade often gives a more important sense of victory than an encounter with a pack of mutated radscorpions might. You find yourself in possession of better weapons and stronger armor and traveling ever lighter. This is about the best that a scrounger can hope for in a wastleland.
Too often in video games the “bookkeeping” elements that surround gameplay, things like menus, submenus, and maps, serve an important role in the game but feel intrusive to the experience, making play seem, well, like bookkeeping. One of the successes of the Fallout series is not necessarily to make such elements invisible but to actually allow those elements to do service to the plot, atmosphere, and even, in a sense, the characterization of the world that the player wants to play in.
The economics of Fallout seem especially apt and timely. In tough economic times, it doesn't hurt to have a game that encourages a mindset of frugality in terms of our relation to material goods. Using what you have as efficiently as possible and only clinging on to the most useful and valuable stuff isn't a bad attitude to perpetuate even in a pre-apocalyptic American wasteland.