The Distinction Between Great Games and Great Facades

The Mass Effect series is arguably one of the best gaming sagas ever published. I’m definitely a fan. But the more I ponder its greatness, the more I believe that the interactive portions of Mass Effect have nothing to do with how awesome it is.

Crazy? Maybe so, but hear me out. When you strip away the epic, cut-scene-driven story; the lovable and distasteful characters; and the fresh coat of graphical paint, all you’re left with is a third-person shooter that is average at best. The first two installments feature a middling implementation of a shooting mechanic and laughable enemy intelligence. They also employ parochial role-playing elements and excessively linear combat environments.

In addition, they both have deceptively little exploration. In Mass Effect, you get to jump into horribly designed Mako missions and find minerals for yourself, and in Mass Effect 2, you can fly around in a boring spaceship and scan boring planets for resources instead. Neither really features much of a sense of discovery.

Mass Effect 2’s level-up system makes the same mistake many that modern RPGs do: heavily scripted character paths. By not providing enough enemies or data stations, you cannot gain experience at your leisure. In order to make Commander Shepard and his friends stronger, you have to advance the story. If that’s the case, why have leveling at all? The skimpy number of skill points I earn throughout the adventure aren’t really necessary. The game might as well auto-level my characters.

That said, I absolutely enjoyed my time in the Mass Effect universe. They are two of my favorite games from this generation, and the reason for that was the story-driven experience. It is, in a word, epic. I remember going into the final battle of Mass Effect 2 shaking as if I was actually going into combat with my friends. (I’ve been in real-life combat, so I know the feeling.)

Developer BioWare did such an outstanding job of developing the characters that I felt responsible for them and dreaded the possibility of losing a team member. I remember hearing Tali yell at me over the comm to hurry. I felt the genuine sense of urgency while I fought my way to her side. It was awesome!

Generally speaking, I’m not a huge fan of iPhone gaming. My mainstays are RPGs, Madden, the occasional tactical shooter, and retro kart titles like Sonic and Sega All-stars Racing. The iPhone doesn’t handle any of these types of games particularly well.

But oddly enough, I recently got hip to the whole SuperBrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP phenomenon that all the major sites seemed so hyped about. I’m still playing through it, but I can see why so many people have been taken in by it. It has a novel art style, and the first boss battle definitely got my blood pumping. But much like Mass Effect, if you stripped these things away, you’d have a very tedious and boring game.

This idea isn’t new. Old-school adventure developer Sierra did something similar with its Space Quest and King’s Quest series. Neither of them were really “games” as we think of them in the contemporary sense. They were all about experience and discovery.

But where do we draw the line? How do we discern the difference between a game that actually features compelling design and a game the presents an appealing package? If I had my way, I would marry the world-building of Mass Effect with the free exploration and customizable leveling of the Elder Scrolls series.

In the future, I hope developers can stop using pretty window dressing to cover up a game I would never play based solely on the elements that make it distinct from other media. I don’t want developers to let time and budget constraints hold them back from bringing us the best of both worlds.