The original Mass Effect struggled to make us empathise with a Commander Shepard whose cabin was so clinically featureless that not so much as a book troubled its sterile shelves. Because there is no faster way to learn about a person than to examine their personal space, the blankness of Shepherd's cabin quickly conveys a passionless character with no real loves, foibles or even preferences.
Fast-forward three years and the most welcome addition to the Normandy is not the plasma cannon, but Shepard's cozy cabin. Should Shepard have engaged in a romance in the previous game, a portrait of the lover in question rests on Shepherd's desk, only to be tactfully placed face down if a new romance blossoms. Alongside the very human signs of life in the cabin (amongst them: dirty glasses, a collection of model ships and a hamster), it is this small detail that gives Mass Effect 2's Shepherd a humanity not possessed in the earlier game.
Many of the missions are similarly crafted to make their completion a matter of personal interest rather than box-ticking. A loyalty mission requires Shepard to examine first the cluttered bedroom of a murdered girl before visiting the killer's glossy apartment. The contrast between these very personal dwellings tells us more about the relationship between the two than dialogue ever could.
Mass Effect 2 shows us that games need not sacrifice their scope - and their standard setting - for the poignancy afforded by personal details that are so often overlooked by vast games. Fallout 3 goes even further, telling us stories through the medium of living spaces alone.
The remains of post-apocalyptic Washington DC are littered with deserted homesteads that are all that remain of the lives claimed by the wastes. The player can scavenge power-ups from the empty dwellings of the less fortunate, rootling through derelict houses for something that might prove useful.
Buffout, for example, is an in-game steroid that increases the player's strength and endurance for a limited amount of time. It's also highly addictive, meaning that the careful player will weigh its short-term benefits against its long term risks. Like so many RPG items, Buffout could easily have been nothing more than a variable in a statistical balancing act, yet Fallout 3 manages to endow it with narrative power by carefully placing it among the domestic detritus of the dead. Often a player will enter a charred bedroom to find a stack of Buffout bottles and a quart of whiskey next to a soiled mattress. The placing of these power-ups within what was once someone's home tells a very human story of substance abuse and self-destruction without the need for a cutscene.
The use of domestic spaces in Fallout 3 not only elevates the ancient gaming convention of the power-up to something with emotional weight, but it also makes the story of The Wasteland far more interesting than that of Project Purity. Without this careful arrangement of deserted homesteads, the tragedy of a nuclear holocaust would be simply too large to have any emotional impact upon the player. Scattered medication, children's toys and useless crockery show the player that even though a country has been levelled, it is its citizens who suffer.