Let me start by saying I appreciate many games that try to tell a story. Many of them, especially those that come from studios that hire writers and narrative designers often try very hard to tell good stories. Many end up not telling great stories, or stories that we've heard half a hundred times before, or stories that really just to grab our attention, but I still appreciate games that successfully tell a story that keeps my attention and keeps me thinking after the game ends.
Unfortunately, If I were to come up with a list of games I have played, well, that list would be very long. And if I created a second list based on the first of games that had good, interesting stories that kept my attention and kept me invested in the game, well, that list would be really short. Now I should probably make a concession: I've read a lot of stories in my time. I studied literature in university and graduate school, so I've spent a lot of the last decade reading stories of all kinds. I love reading fiction outside of what I was assigned in school, so the list of short stories, novels, plays, poetry, comics, and stories in other genres is pretty large. This all to say that I've encountered a lot of stories, so when I come across narrative in a video game, unless it it particularly good, I'm likely to dismiss it. And there are a lot of mediocre-to-bad narrative to be had in video games.
Because of this, if I'm given the option, I'll likely skip or delay story content to explore those aspects of the game that let me do what I want and create the story I want to see. Maybe it's because I'm a more creative person or because many of my friends are highly creative people, but most of the time I don't want someone to tell me a story. I want to be a part of creating the story.
My favorite games are those that let you create a specific character but put no pressure on you to find that character's story in the world that has been created. Actually, my favorite games are those where players can create narrative together. Categorically, I guess this means I should really be into MMOs, and in some cases that's true. Despite its flaws, I really enjoyed Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning because it let me create stories with several of my Warhammer-loving friends. I played quite a bit of Guild Wars when it first released because there was no monthly subscription and I could have a character that developed along a progression scale with people I liked. If you asked me to tell you the "story" of Guild Wars, I could not do it. But I could tell you about the time my friend and I got lost up in the Shiverpeak Mountains with two other players and the only reason we survived is because I had just re-spec'd my monk to be a great healer.
Realistically I guess the most fun I have in games are with those that come close to providing the same experience of a tabletop RPG. In both instances, story is fine, but the memorable bits are the narrative that the players create through their actions. Sometimes this takes the story in wild, unexpected directions, but these directions lead to fond memories of collaboration. There's nothing more neat than when a world changes in some way because of the actions players take.
This is easier to do in a pen-and-paper tabletop game. After all, the person running the game is just running the game for a known number of players. Scaling this up to the level of a video game with tens of thousands of players--all of whom want something different out of their experience--is more challenging, but I have to believe it's possible.
The closes I've come in a game it probably XCOM. Even though there is an overarching narrative, the game doesn't really force you to engage with the story until you're ready. Until then you can create soldiers as you wish, and the routine encounters that have you securing different objectives provide interesting spaces for personal narratives to emerge. The fact that characters are completely customizable means that weird and wacky narratives can emerge.
Remember that time I saved the world with Danny Trejo, Lupita Nyong'o, Daniel Craig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Angela Merkel?
What about you? What games are best for creating those deeply personal narratives? What stories have come out of playing games that you didn't expect to see?