I've been reading lots of reviews and blog posts certifying Mass Effect 2 as the future of RPGs. It fixes what's wrong with the genre and sends designers of backward-looking games scrambling to the drawing board. It represents, as several notable outlets have noted, the future of storytelling in games and a lesson in how to do narrative games right.
I'm going to play contrarian here, but first let me say I think Mass Effect 2 largely earns the lavish praise heaped upon it. It's an exceptionally fine game with fabulous production values, and I've enjoyed just about every minute I've spent playing it. I'm not quibbling with the hype. Not much anyway.
I'm troubled by the mentality that games exist to invalidate other games; that the most effective measure of a game's value is its ability to surpass or trump other games that preceded it. Among its many praiseworthy aspects, Mass Effect 2's success as a kind of refutation of other games is considered an especially noteworthy achievement.
The problem with this line of reasoning is that it mistakes streamlining for refinement. It assumes the fiddly RPG elements the game eliminates are vestiges of outmoded design. It presumes that frequent skirmishes and action-based gameplay are more fun or engaging than the strategic RPG elements they replace. It assumes that a dialogue-tree system of interactions enables a more sophisticated form of player agency. None of these assumptions are incontestably true.
I'm not suggesting ME2 lacks refinements. As an iteration on the original game, ME2 is chock-full of mechanical, interface, and visual upgrades. As many have noted, its shooting and cover system is vastly improved from ME1, and Bioware seems to have learned from its mistakes in this regard. ME2 improves on ME1 in all sorts of useful ways, and that's a good and praiseworthy thing.
But when we discuss Mass Effect 2 as the game to finally shatter RPG genre limits and chart a new narrative path, I think we project too much on a game that exchanges some limits for others. I want meaningful interactions with my environment, not pop-up notices for glowing blue frames. I want dialogue unbound by a nice/naughty/neutral triad. I want to do trivial things. I want lower stakes. I want to play a game that doesn't insist the future depends on me. I want a game that defines role-playing more broadly than dialogue choices. I want a game that won't insist my actions and movements (what I do, not what I say) are merely bridges to the next fight.
I'm not suggesting ME2 is a bad game because it fails to meet those expectations. On the contrary, I think it's a terrific game. I'm merely pointing out that while ME2 is unquestionably a high peak, there are plenty of other mountains worth climbing.
It's useful to consider how ME2 succeeds as a well produced RPG that elevates certain genre elements, and de-emphasizes others. But Bioware is up to more than simply rearranging the RPG furniture here. ME2 is a canny scramble of storytelling and game design highlights from previous Bioware games, Gears of War, Star Trek/Wars/Galactica, and The Magnificent Seven, among other influences.
What Bioware has accomplished with ME2 is less about refining the RPG or blazing a new narrative trail than about distilling and mashing up stuff that works from other sources. ME2 is a tantalizing cocktail of action, adventure, sci-fi, RPG, and shooter ingredients, poured into in a big cinematic shaker.
Bioware knows what we who write about games ought to know better. Genre classifications are essentially meaningless, and it's time to drop them and move on. Three of the best games I've played in the last year - Mass Effect 2, Demon's Souls, and Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor are all classified as RPGs, even though they actually have very little in common. On the other hand, IGN may classify MLB 09 as a "sports game," but I say it has more in common with Mass Effect 2 than Mario Baseball. More than ever, genre categories seem like arbitrary labels we apply to games so they can be properly shelved.
And, of course, the scramble extends beyond games. It's the Judd Apatow Effect. Inject moribund romantic comedy genre with lowbrow buddy-movie humor to create slacker-striver films with male and female box office appeal. It's Robert Plant and Alison Krauss; it's MMA; it's the Subaru Outback; it's Elton John and whatever flavor-of-the-week artist the Grammys pair him with.
It's the inevitable trajectory. For better or worse, we like our entertainment scrambled. Sometimes it doesn't work, and sometimes - as Mass Effect 2 skillfully illustrates - it does.