Mass Effect is an ambitious game, and an admirable one in many respects. Its conversation system--which combines unusually well-done superficial cinematic presentational elements, branching options, and clever "pre-selection" of dialogue allowing for realistic flow--is probably the best I have ever seen in a game.
The combat, on the other hand, does nothing for me. Our own Nick Breckon reviewed Mass Effect, and I agree with his judgment, that the narrative systems of Mass Effect are fantastic but the combat ranges from unremarkable to poor.
That's just giving some context, though. It isn't what I want to talk about here. Some of you may agree regarding the combat, and some may think it's fantastic; that isn't the point of this post, and I hope the comment thread isn't dominated by it.
Mass Effect makes me long for a game that simply eschews combat and instead relies entirely, or almost entirely, on less outwardly violent human interaction as its basic gameplay mechanics. BioWare already seems to have figured out how to do this, and Mass Effect is the company's latest example of it. BioWare, you could make this! You might have to be a bit deceptive when pitching to your EA overlords, but you have plenty of experience writing double-crosses into your games so I'm sure you'll figure it out.
Being able to double-cross webs of NPCs is one of the most satisfying character interactions I've had in a game lately, and Mass Effect is full of such opportunities. Agreeing to spy on one character, only to screw both your target and your employer at once--with that being only one possible direction--is a great feeling.
That's what would make such a game different from the traditional graphic adventures of yore, the Monkey Islands and Gabriel Knights and Full Throttles and Grim Fandangos, or even the modern-day Phoenix Wrights. Those are all brilliant games, but they are linear narratives, not fully interactive experiences. The type of game Mass Effect makes me want could still have RPG-like skills and points, but rather than just Intimidation and Charm it could have a whole range of conversation-oriented options--say, Diplomacy, Deception, and so on--with dialogue options and ramifications to match.
I know full well that voice is expensive to record, but surely such a focused game would save greatly on its development budget by needing less expense in other areas.
I mentioned this to a game designer friend earlier today, and he responded, "Well, wouldn't you want a game that has both, that has a great dialogue system and a great combat system?"
Yes! That would be rad too! However, what would be even more exciting to me would be a game that realizes it is possible to have a character- and story-driven game with intricate gameplay systems that doesn't rely on fighting and killing hundreds upon hundreds of enemies. Even if combat was reduced to a few particularly crucial encounters (you know, like in the actual films and novels by which games like Mass Effect are directly inspired), that would be enough for me.
Mass Effect isn't the only game that has made me want this. Ubisoft Montreal's Prince of Persia: Sands of Time's brilliant take on platforming could easily have sustained an entire game on its own. Irrational Games' BioShock wouldn't have been much of a game with no combat, but I'm sure some kind of gameplay could have been designed for the world of Rapture that would have resulted in fewer waves of Splicers--I think the game could have worked with just Big Daddies and additional non-combat mechanics.
I would be curious to hear from others who would be willing to try a game with Mass Effect's take on personal interaction, but little actual fighting. I'm not calling for removal of combat in games in general--most of my favorite games have plenty of combat--but games should be and are a rich, diverse medium. Surely we don't have to keep hitting the same notes.
(Upon reading this post, Nick pointed out to me the utter financial impracticality of what I propose. To that I say: fuck off. I'm not drawing up plans for my fiscal quarter here, I'm talking about what might be cool.
Plus, there has to be some way to tap into the audience of people who bought millions of adventure games in the 1990s. Most of my friends who were into adventure games back then no longer play games at all--how can we reach those people, who might not be interested in killing things virtually but are still interested in experiencing a more interactive narrative? There must be a way.)