Mass Effect 2’s Secret Shame

This has bugged for a long time now.

Mass Effect 2 is a pinnacle of cinematic science fiction gaming with a level of polish that immediately impressed me. I spent hours soaking up the world and building relationships with characters as I explored (and saved) the galaxy.

You venture out on missions, selecting your most elite squad of human and alien buddies, stomp a bunch of bad dudes and at the end of the mission you’re awarded with…… this.

Mass Effect 2 (2010)

Mass Effect 2 (2010)

Every time I saw this screen I would cringe a little bit.

At the end of each mission the game has a bunch of stuff it wants to tell you: here’s a text summary of why the stuff you just did mattered, a few weapons or upgrades that you unlocked and, oh yeah, you got some credits or raw materials.

They use an array of vertical tabs along the left side to organize this information, which you can toggle through using the left stick. The information associated with each tab is displayed in the boxes at the far right side of the screen, visually disconnected. There’s an awkward static illustration of the Illusive Man that sandwiched in the middle; the static image is emphasized by subtle, elegant animation of the sun in the background, pulsing with little solar flares.

Sometimes (often) the text is too long to fit inside that fixed-height box, so you have to scroll, using the right stick. The negative space immediately underneath the box could’ve accommodated longer text, reducing the need for scrolling.

Mass Effect 2 (2010)

Mass Effect 2 (2010)

Side note: Bioware uses similar text boxes that require scrolling in the recent Dragon Age: Inquisition. The text is cramped with uncomfortably short line lengths and the all-caps typeface selected is more difficult to read than the humanist sans-serif (Myriad) in Mass Effect’s UI. But that’s for another article…

Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014)

Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014)

Some of the lower tabs, like “Credits” or “Element Zero” barely have any text at all, and probably don’t warrant having their own dedicated tabs. That information could have been displayed at the top or bottom of the screen where it would be persistently visible.

Mass Effect 2 (2010)

Mass Effect 2 (2010)

Notice that there’s also a “Close Report” tab here with the same visual weight as the others. At a glance it may not stand out but its contents are completely different from the others.

Also note that to exit this screen you press the B button, as indicated by the callout at the bottom. But if you select that “Close Report” tab apparently you can also press A to exit (but only when that tab is selected)!

Mass Effect 2 (2010)

Mass Effect 2 (2010)

I suppose it was included for the players that will systematically go through each tab one-by-one until they reach the bottom of the list but it’s a strange inclusion and potentially confusing.

Room for improvement

Compare this to Assassin’s Creed Freedom Cry, which has an equivalent screen at the end of every mission:

Assassin's Creed Freedom Cry (2013)

Assassin’s Creed Freedom Cry (2013)

At the end of a mission the game pauses in a cinematic freeze frame and this UI appears, giving you a good overview of the mission. The different types of information (objectives, percentage of completion, etc.) are presented in graphically different ways instead of being lumped into the same visual format. This makes it easier to quickly scan the screen and digest this information.

They also hide information which may not be relevant or critical to the player. You can “view details” by hitting the Options button, which provides a brief textual story snippet, similar to Mass Effect 2’s “Mission Summary” tab.

Why this matters

This isn’t meant to be a tirade against Bioware; this screen didn’t ruin my time with Mass Effect 2 (which was fantastic). I also have no insight into the design constraints (probably considerable) that the development team had to work with in order to implement this UI across multiple consoles and screen resolutions.

But it is worth thinking about how cohesion within a game’s UI can contribute to the overall experience. We can always learn from design of the past and approach new design challenges with greater insight in the future.

Did anyone else have a similar reaction when playing Mass Effect 2? Are there other games where a particular piece of UI felt jarring or out of place? Let us know!