Four walls and a roof can go a surprisingly long way to giving a game some real emotional weight.
They say that a tidy desk equals a tidy mind, but does it also equal an empty history? Real people surround themselves with artifacts of their lives, whereas a quick look around most videogame environments reveals places almost devoid of personality. It's easy to overlook seemingly insignificant details like pictures on a character's wall or rugs on his floors, but in Issue 281 of The Escapist, Mary Goodden discusses how - if used properly - locations, and specifically homes, can say more about a character then any cut scene ever could.
Mass Effect 2 is an example of the kind of ripping space yarn that should reinforce the case for more "standard" settings (space stations, alien planets) over the mundane and the homely alternative. But a closer look shows us the aspects of the game that make it truly special are not those that soar through the stars, but those that nestle on the sofa.
The original Mass Effect struggled to make us empathize 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 Shepard'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 Shepard'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 Shepard a humanity not possessed in the earlier game.
It's not about building grand palaces for characters to live in, it's about making the space actually look like a person lives there, and not just a collection of ones and zeroes. You can read more about it in Goodden's article, "Home, Sweet Home."