I like equipment in games. There’s a thrill to finding a new, better sword, that looks cooler and does more damage. But it seems to me that more and more games are somehow getting equipment… wrong. Everything seems to have less value, everything seems more disposable. There’s no thrill anymore, just a treadmill of incremental but almost invisible advances.
I don’t want this.
The Devaluation of Items
It begins with Pillars of Eternity, as my most recent experience of an equipment-heavy RPG.
Each character in Pillars has, much like Baldur’s Gate, a 2×8 grid of slots that can be filled with any item type, either an individual large item or a stack of up to 5 of a smaller item. Seems reasonable enough.
Except then there is the Stash. Where all items that don’t fit in your characters’ inventories go. It is infinite. This infinity renders the character invetories pointless — why not just have the shared sack front and centre, why differentiate between stuff that you’re carrying and stuff that you’re… sort-of carrying?
There seem to be some half-hearted mechanics around only being able to pass items from containers and corpses to nearby characters, but I can only see this mattering in combat — when you’re presumably too busy to be picking things up. Otherwise, items go into the stash: which is infinite and omnipresent. Just takes a couple more clicks to retrieve things from it.
This is Pillars‘ first devaluation because there is no cost to gathering, and therefore selling, everything.
In Baldur’s Gate, you might begin by collecting all the junk items but you’ll soon get over it when you keep maxing out your characters’ weight limits and have no space left to carry things of actual utility. It wasn’t even worth it — most loot in Baldur’s Gate is bog-standard, unenchanted swords and armour that barely sell for 5 gold apiece.
So you learn to pick up only the items that you know will give you a good return. That makes them special.
In Pillars it takes no effort to put a hundred crap swords and shields into your stash — select a corpse, Take All, job done. It doesn’t matter how little these items are worth, because the only cost is clicking them into the shop. You don’t give it any more thought than that immediate decision of whether or not it supersedes something you’re already wearing. Usually it doesn’t and you can go on your merry way.
Mass Effect had a bit of this too — so many weapons, with such tiny differences between them, and barely an inventory limit to make you discard a few along the way. Funnily enough, Mass Effect 2 had the opposite problem: there were so few weapons in each category that were so distinct that you tended to pick one and never change it, making only the static categories relevant and not the actual weapons in each slot. ME3 struck a better balance, luckily.
I also remember when I saw the first enchanted weapons in Baldur’s Gate. They were on sale in Teirom Fuirim’s Thunderhammer Smithy and I couldn’t even dream of affording them. They weren’t highlighted in any special way — I could just tell they were good from their icons, which illustrated things just a little bit fancier than the bog-standard versions. It took ages before I looted anything equivalent in my travels (while, ironically, saving my money for the unenchanted Full Plate Mail.)
I tripped over my first “fine” weapon in Pillars of Eternity within the first couple hours of playing. Its icon was marked with a blue highlight but it otherwise looked like… well, all the other swords. It had +2 accuracy from being a Fine weapon — seeing even a +1 at the same point in Baldur’s Gate would have had me falling off my chair with delight (I think with high charisma you can actually get a +1 dagger as a quest reward from somebody in Candlekeep, but daggers suck).
There’s something even more pervasive, though, and which probably explains why enchanted weapons are everywhere — crafting. Crafting unbounded by skill choice. Crafting barely bounded by current level. Ingredients everywhere. Combine all of that with an infinite inventory, so there is no cost to lugging around your ingredients, and even enchantment isn’t special.
Let’s not rag on Pillars of Eternity too much, though — Skyrim had problems as well. The Blacksmithing and Enchanting skills allowing you to manufacture equipment far superior to even the unique, legendary Daedric artefacts. At least Skyrim offers some cost to the process, in the transport of ingredients (heavy lumps of ore) and tethering you to forges and workbenches that you just can’t find in the wild. Despite that cost, though, enchanted items are still not special anymore — the momentary thrill of finding an enchanted item only comes when you realise you can break it down to learn how to apply that enchantment for yourself… but better.
Divinity: Original Sin has perhaps a better balance because signing up for Blacksmithing comes at the cost of putting those skill points elsewhere — in which case, I suppose being able to produce bangin’ loot is to balance out the fact that you’re too weak to kill anything. Further to that, though, blacksmithing does let you improve items in the world — so even if you can build a sword to match a unique legendary, that unique legendary can probably be buffed up a bit further on top with some time at the whetstone.
All in all, I’m beginning to wonder if Baldur’s Gate‘s level cap of a seemingly hideously low 7 actually shaped my preferences a lot more than I would like to let on. As you spend so much of the game not levelling up (6 increments over the course of 60-odd hours? Ouch!) then skill and equipment must play a much larger role in progress — you’re far more likely to find a special item in some dank corner of a dungeon than you are you to gain a level from clearing out its denizens. Despite being the most RPG of RPGs, it seems like Baldur’s Gate nonetheless instilled in me the more diegetic, in-world approach that guides me now. Don’t get better by incrementing disconnected numbers, get better by finding objects in the universe that are better than your current objects.
Even then, fancier items were still rare — meaning each one held so much more significance. In Pillars of Eternity, even early-game unique items with their own special histories offer nothing that I can’t add to a basic piece of equipment. Aren’t unique items supposed to be treasured, to be held onto at least for a while before they are bettered? If a unique item is just as disposable, is no better than a standard slightly-enchanted piece, then what’s the point?