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Help, I can't stop hoarding ammo in games

(Image credit: Capcom)

You probably have a junk drawer at home. In it you’ll find jars of foriegn currency, keys for unknown locks, and phone chargers for long-lost handsets. It’s the tat that gets ditched in a KonMari cleanup, but, until that point, it can be difficult to discard. A small voice in the cautious recesses of your mind tells you, ‘written correspondence still exists—better keep that Flamberge letter opener from Warwick Castle’. And it’s this urge that keeps my gaming inventory overflowing with ammo I’m afraid to use and armour I’ll never wear.

Resident Evil games are an example of the best and worst bits of this compulsion. The allure of a well-stocked inventory erodes any element of reason from my brain. I’d rather die in the same section six times rather than risk wasting a single Magnum round on a hunter. To me, the prospect of J-Volt saving me some rounds in the Plant-42 fight is like a thirsty Victorian gadabout drooling over an uncovered table leg. 

My kink is thriftiness. During the opening four hours of the original Resident Evil I refused to put the knife into storage in case I ran out of ammo. As well as being an unbearably stupid foible in a game that only gives you six inventory slots as Chris, it was pointless. I barely used it. It was like a risk assessor taking shark repellent to their Luxembourg office. But nothing compares to the feeling of peering inside Resi’s spatially-challenged Item Boxes and seeing neatly-ordered stacks of munitions for weapons I haven’t even found. Fresh, unsullied, blissfully-superfluous acid rounds. Magnum bullets without a chamber to warm them.

And, like all damaging obsessions, I don’t regret it. At the time, the inconvenience of losing inventory space was outweighed by the warm, weighted blanket of ‘what if?’ It was insurance against the unspeakable. Although I eventually relinquished the knife to Resi’s retirement home for items—left to sleep alongside cranks and valve wheels and engraved lighters—I spectacularly failed to learn my lesson: Resident Evil 2 was more difficult because I collected ammo the game expressly told me I should leave for Claire. It was a tomorrow problem. 

Luckily, the series has become more measured and intelligent with its ammo distribution, even if I haven’t. The remake of Resident Evil 2 strikes a perfect balance, to the point that it feels the game is toying with my urge to overload my inventory. There’s a trade-off between types of pistol, gun parts, and rounds that means you can never truly relax.

(Image credit: Capcom)

There’s no ‘correct’ weapon. Latter stages of the game funnel you into narrow spaces with bulky, impassable enemies, forcing you to fight back. And being able to make new rounds by combining gunpowder pushes crucial decisions back on the player: do you want to hold on and hope you get the stuff to make shotgun shells? Or allow yourself the gossamer safety net of a fat stack of handgun bullets? By the time I reached the finale I had just enough ammo to finish off the final boss, like mopping up gravy with your one remaining chunk of bread. For me, it’s as much an exercise in behavioural therapy as it is a piece of game design. 

It’s a foible that extends beyond ammunition. Sit me in front of an Elder Scrolls game and I’ll show you a man happy to dance on the fence between ‘well supplied’ and ‘living cabinet’.  Weapons and armour are less of an issue here. Instead, books and potions are my problem. I was able to solve the former issue in Morrowind when I found an abandoned fishing shack near Gnaar Mok, which quickly became the Bitter Coast’s premiere repository of probably-stolen tomes. 

Potions, however, speak to the same compulsion that makes my Resi bags an embarrassment of firearms. Who knows when I might need that Spoiled SlowFall Potion? If I discard all 16 bottles of Telvanni Bug Musk, am I even me anymore? These questions remain unanswered as I clink into battle with 63 potions in my backpack, like a drinks trolley in Ebony armour. I’m Vvardenfell’s only combat pharmacist.

(Image credit: Bethesda Softworks)

But here's the thing. I’m not alone. Hoarding items in games is enough of an issue that game developers have a term for it—pack ratting—and there are numerous Gamasutra articles dedicated to finding the balance between players freedom and items retaining a sense of purpose. The desire to hold onto stuff can actually make a game harder for a player, because we ignore items intended for immediate use. Developers must find ways to encourage us to use the stuff we pick up, lest we waste weeks of our fertile youth getting beheaded by naked lizard-apes because we refuse to ‘waste’ Magnum rounds. 

An article by Jeremy Dandeneau, for example, suggests two ways Elder Scrolls games deal with our desire to grab spoons, napkins, sload soap, netch leather, crockery, candelabras, and kwama eggs at every turn. Firstly, there’s encumbrance. Nothing says, ‘put that shit down’ like the inability to move. But the second, more interesting, trick is a throwback to my library hovel in Morrowind. Bethesda give us a place to store all our junk by letting us purchase homes. We don’t have to carry it around, but we don’t feel like we’ve lost it, either. It’s still ours, even if it’s stashed away in a place we’ll never visit. 

Sadly, there’s no equivalent of this in Resident Evil. Sooner or later, I’ll have to step out of the safe room and break into the acid rounds I’ve been saving. But, until then, I’ll enjoy the moments of pristine over-preparedness with my ammunition arranged by scarcity as a fleeting contribution to order and composure.