James Wallis levels with you

Rough Trade

You’re alone in a foreign country, on a mission of international security. Your police escort has been killed, and you’re in the middle of nowhere, armed only with a pistol and a few rounds of ammunition, most of which you’ve already had to use on malevolent locals. You’ve been captured and injected, you’re alone, no backup is coming, and the background music is really beginning to creep you out. And then, behind a building, you meet a cloaked figure.

“Got a selection of good things on sale, stranger,” he says, “heh heh heh,” and every shred of suspension of disbelief that Resident Evil 4 had built up flies up and away, disappearing like a startled crow.

There aren’t many games that handle traders and merchants well, but RE4 handles them astonishingly badly. For a start, what the hell are itinerant salespeople doing in a survival-horror game? Obviously, yes, there’s a market for high-powered weaponry in a section of Spanish countryside populated by zombies, but the risk-to-reward ratio has got to be higher than opening up a boutique by Seven Sisters tube. Plus, if you did decide to earn your living by selling weapons to passing US Secret Service agents (“enough weapons to start a small war” as the game says at one point), you would stock some ammunition as well. Mr “Heh heh heh” has apparently forgotten that. Or maybe it’s his way of making sure that you don’t buy a nice new gun and a clip of ammo, and then blow his fool head off with it and nick his stuff, T-800 style.

Of course, of course, that last point is for game balance: survival-horror is nothing without ammo shortages. But then why bother with power-up weapons at all? Make the player fight through the whole game with a small selection of guns, none appreciably better than another? I mean, if it’s good enough for the Master Chief…

But I’m digressing. The moment the merchant appears Resident Evil 4 stops being about surviving mad zombie attacks and saving the president’s magic football, and becomes about exploring the environment to find enough cash and things to sell in order to buy better kit. In other words, the presence of the merchant fundamentally changes the game. I’ll go further: it ruins the game.

Off the top of my head, I can think of three better ways to handle the character’s progression up the equipment tree:

  • Solve puzzles. Work out how to open a locked gun cabinet, for example. There are plenty of puzzly puzzles in RE4. It would make a lot more sense to have them protecting something of immediate game-value like a weapon, instead of a gem that needs to be fitted to another item and then sold to the merchant to buy that weapon.
  • Equipment drops. The character is in radio contact with base. They are in a position to send reinforcements and air-drop stuff. Instead they mostly supply obvious answers to your character’s asinine questions, and occasionally email you files telling you how to kick things.
  • Give it to enemies. Put a sniper at the top of the church tower. The player could dodge the sniper-fire and avoid the encounter, but if they choose they can climb the tower and kill the undead sod. If they do, they get its rifle.

(This last one gets more on my nerves every time it crops up. If I kill an enemy that’s been attacking me with item A, I want to be able to pick up item A and use it. I do not want it to disappear, or to lie on the ground but not let me grab it, or be mysteriously replaced by another item, usually a health potion that the enemy could have used to stay alive but didn’t. Please. How hard is this, really?)

Games in general have never handled the matter of traders convincingly. Many adventures for tabletop D&D featured poor farming communities in the deepest countryside that somehow supported not only a large tavern but also at least one shop filled with weapons, armour and adventuring supplies. Games like Moria and Angband continued that tradition (Angband starts in a town of eight buildings: three magic shops, two adventurer supply shops, a weaponsmith, an armourer, and your house). Now the twin principles that (a) there must be traders and (b) what they sell must be geared exclusively to the character’s needs (and (c) that they must also be willing to buy any old tat you want to sell them) are so thoroughly set into most games that experienced gamers don’t think twice about it and new players wander around thinking how completely unlike a real, believable town this is.

The Final Fantasy series is a good example of what I call the three-shop town rule (weaponsmith; armourer; magic and provisions), and usually there’s an inn as well for the supply of rumours and bedspace. Final Fantasy has never been about realism—the word ‘fantasy’ in the title is a bit of a give-away—but realism and believability are two different things. And if you don’t believe in a game-world on some level then basically you’re just twiddling your fingers.

I’m not saying, obviously, that every community in every game needs a corner shop, general hardware store, laundrette and Chinese take-away. On the other hand, shops in games shouldn’t just be places to buy and sell goods. Build them into the back story. Build their owners into the story. Ask yourself why they’re there in the first place. Some games do already. Other games just include traders because other games of the same genre include traders. The designers of the latter games need punching.

I will say, as kind of a footnote, that Fable gets it sort-of right. Although most of its towns do only have adventurer-centric shops they also have a feel of bustle and community, you can buy and sell trivialities. But you can also encounter merchants on the road and (this is cunning, so pay attention) they’re almost inevitably either selling hairstyles or tattoos. So if you kill them or if they die while in your company, you shouldn’t be disappointed when their wares aren’t scattered on the ground. That, I thought, showed intelligence and a degree of wit.

Though, on the other hand, an early mission in Fable involves escorting two merchants to Darkwood Camp. Darkwood is full of bandits and werewolves, not a regular trade route in a world that has teleport-gates, and yet when you finally reach it Darkwood Camp turns out to be a three-shop trading village… dependent for its market, one expects, on adventurers lured there by merchants hiring them as escorts. That was the moment I realised that Fable wasn’t a fable, it wasn’t even a good story, it was the usual fantasy hotch-potch nonsense written by someone who Hadn’t Thought It Through, and my heart sank another little bit. Not as far as it sank at the words “Got a selection of good things on sale, stranger”, though. Because there is only one instance where it’s permissible to mix shopping and zombie-horror, and that’s Dawn of the Dead.

I may at some point write up my theory that Fable is Moria with nicer graphics, and Fable 2—in which, as previously noted, you have a dog—will therefore be Nethack with nicer graphics. The theory is mostly balls but it generally gets a laugh and starts a decent pub-debate, and therefore serves its purpose.

Categorised as: game design


  1. Alan De Smet says:

    Resident Evil 4 is a pretty fun action game, but there are all sorts of things that trash the immersion. As you note, the merchants make no sense at all. You fail to mention my favorite bit; not only are there merchants in a land of insane cultists, but some of them run shooting galleries. Other things that trashed my immersion: You’re saving the daughter of the President of the US. I can understand that you start out basically alone as you don’t know if the daughter is there. But you have frequent readio contact to your support team and many, many hours, maybe even days pass during the game. Why isn’t there a Navy SEAL team present by the end of the game? You’ve also got cut-scene idiocy, where the hero has an easy opportunity to kill major villians, but you can’t because you’re stuck in a cut scene so they can chat. At least twice in the game cut scenes are used to take something away from the main character, things I think I could have successfully defended if I was still in control. On the up side, when the bad guys capture you at one point, they completely fail to disarm you of the pile of weapons you’re carrying. My full review has even more about all of the immersion shattering problems present. That said, I still appreciated and enjoy the game as fast paced action game with (for the time and system) exceptional graphics that managed to create a few moments of actual terror.

  2. Dan says:

    I’m in complete agreement with you here. At the very least item drops should make sense. I’m a big fan of rpgs and it’s got to the point when it’s only when showing someone else a game that you realise (through their response) that a dead wolf dropping a shiny pair of gauntlets is more than a tad odd.

    Diablo was one of my first loves (ah, Diablo) and as good as it was (I thought the atmosphere was bang on) it was very easy to turn it into a shopping game, running between town and the nearest dungeon entrance and simply going back and forward, back and forward in order to re-generate the shops contents.

    Half-Life and HL2 I found to be a better example. Ok you’ve not got the shopping aspect to contend with but at least ammo and weapons tended to balance out pretty well along the adventure. Whilst I hate certain weapons it’s a superb use of the game to force you to use all the different ones through lack of ammo for your favourite. This keeps the player far more engaged in my opinion.

  3. Lee Maguire says:

    In defence of the RE4 trader, he does provide some lightness in terms of being so completely inappropriate – English/Commonwealth accent in the middle of Spain, dealing in pesetas (apparently after 2002).

    And nicely quotable. I was in CeX a few weeks back trading in some discs and the guy behind the counter greeted me with “Greetings stranger. What’re you sellin’?”

  4. Jon says:

    Your points are valid certainly, but the whole game is clearly a Japanese idea of what an American team would do if they were writing a game set in eastern Europe. The eastern Europe this game portrays is no match to any part of eastern Europe that I can think of.

    The trader is pretty neat in my opinion and adds some important levity in a game that could otherwise be accused of taking itself too seriously.

    Resident Evil 4 is one of my favourite games though, so I guess I’m pretty biased on this, but having given all your points consideration I’d say it still represents an amazing step forward for the genre and games in general.

    Great piece though…

  5. james says:

    RE4 isn’t set in Eastern Europe, Jon, it’s set in Spain. The locals talk Spanish, with Spanish accents. The characters and bosses have Spanish names. The fact you didn’t get that makes me less inclined to take any of your other points seriously.

  6. Jon says:

    Granted that absolutely everyone in the game has a Spanish accent and/or name would suggest that it is set in Spain.

    However my dim and hazy (yet strangely rather strong) memory was that at some point the pre-amble mentions you being sent to eastern Europe. At the very least Europe, I can’t remember that it ever mentions Spain specifically.

    Trust me, I got the Spanish angle, it wasn’t exactly subtle (Lord Saaaadlerh! Cogedlo! etc.).

    I recall feeling curious about the games locale on my first play through in 2005 though, if had mentioned Spain specifically then all would have been hunky dory.

    However, given that all pointers indicate that it was set in Spain (including the use of Pesetas, so pre-2002 then!) I withdraw my previous comment regarding location. Apologies.

    I shall pay more attention in future, I’ve got the Wii version to plough through so that should set me straight…

  7. Fuzzy Gerdes says:

    In Puzzle Quest, which is a game with the lightest, least interactive veneer of an RPG story possible (and a battle mechanic completely divorced from realism) it was bugging the heck out me that I could ‘siege’ a city and add it to my ’empire’ and it wouldn’t affect my relationship with people in the city at all. Some king was being rude to me and sending me on a ridiculous quest before he’d even talk to me and I was thinking “Dude, I own your whole city! Be polite!”

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