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Sanitarium. That game pulled me in thanks to it's bizarre world and decent voice acting.
AFnord: I'll partially have to say Spec Ops: the Line. The game made me feel like I was "in" the game enough for me to feel really bad about what was going on in it.

I also thought that Mass Effect 1 & 2 did a pretty good job. I genuinely cared about the characters in it. The main story itself was a bit "meh" but all the side stories engaged me like few other games.

And finally To the Moon. It might look simple, but the storytelling is so good that I really began to care about the characters. I could almost feel their sadness and that almost made me cry (several times).

I suspect that part of the reason why so many games fail to engage and immerse us is partially due to the fact that the protagonists are so unlikeable. The original Max Payne might have been a dark, gloomy character who for the most part was a real downer, but he had enough depth of personality for you to actually be able to understand why he was like that, and feel some sympathy for him. From what I've gathered the new Max is just a downer without the depth. The new Max is just "maturity" as in "mature game" all the way (note: Not actually played the game, just an observation from what others have told me).
Another reason is the game worlds, or rather how the developers expects us to interact with them. Here is a picture edited by someone else that clearly illustrates my point. See that arrow? That arrow gives me tunnel vision. I focus on the arrow, not the game world. I don't immerse myself in the game world because that arrow gives me so much clearer information. And thus I don't take in the game world. And I can not not focus on the arrow if the arrow is there. Thus I get far less immersed in the game world.
Brian Basco from the Runaway series takes the crown of most unlikable protagonist ever.
Thirty Flights Of Loving, although I'm not going to mention anything specific about the story because you should all play this game for yourselves. Do it!
Recently, the Mass Effect series. And now the Witcher 2, which I have almost finished (middle of last chapter).
gameon: Sanitarium. That game pulled me in thanks to it's bizarre world and decent voice acting.
Quite opposite for me. I expected something awesome, and it's just good game.
damn, almost forgot! Culpa Innata, now that was an awesome game!
Since 3 months ago: Star Wars KOTOR, The Witcher 2 and Planescape Torment.

I felt like I was the protagonist and my decisions were really mine. And then, after I stopped playing these epic games every day, I thought: "Real life is shit compared to these games, LOL."
To the Moon (AFnord & Leroux have mentioned it earlier). Clumsy, almost annoying gameplay, but a true, touching gem of a story. One of those stories that remain in your memory for a long, long time...

PS: Does your wife play any new videogames already, KneeTheCap? Just curious. ;)
PS2: NVM. I just read about it in your steamy giveaway. What a pity! ;)
Post edited November 26, 2012 by Thespian*
Thief 1. I couldn't stop thinking about the story and the next mission, I played it until I got a severe headache, vomited and dehydrated.
Baldurs Gate 2 for me. It was about more than just winning, but role playing. My characters couldn't just take the best option, but it also had to be the right option for them.
In the literary world, anyone writing a masterpiece before they're 40 is heralded as a genius. The video game industry sucks them in young and spits them out barely any older. Those who survive past 40 (and who can influence the story) are usually famous designers who are valued for their technical design and project management skills, despite how much they wax philosophical to the gaming press, and publisher execs.

Some studios have built a reputation around storytelling (looking at you, Bioware), but haven't actually produced an original story for years. To pick on Bioware again (they're a great example), they have become very, very slick at telling that story in lots of different settings. They've become very good at using a combination of cinematic direction and emotional attachment to draw you into the story. Technically, they're doing a good job of telling the story better. The story still stinks. I say that as a fan of the Mass Effect series.

I think it might seem like the story has gotten worse, but the truth is that it was always bad. A story always seems better the first time you hear it and, as we gain age and experience, we develop in our level of sophistication and appreciation. It's natural.

I'm not tarring every video game story with the same brush - there are some good ones out there. It's hard to find both an original story AND an original setting, though.

To answer the question: probably Grim Fandango. I have enjoyed several since then (notably The Witcher and Mafia), but Grim Fandango was simply unique (for me).
KneeTheCap: damn, almost forgot! Culpa Innata, now that was an awesome game!
I found the game part clumsy (as an adventure game fan), but the setting and story definitely drew me in. I managed to get within minutes of the ending only to have a bug stop me. In the first few hours of the game I didn't complete a neccessary task, but the game let me progress anyway. Still haven't seen the ending - maybe one day I'll have lost enough frustration to attempt another playthrough.

But yeah, good call!
Post edited November 26, 2012 by obscurelyric
The Mass Effect series.

And RoA (while old) STILL draws me in every time I play it ....
I dunno. I'm not sure I've ever been "truly immersed" in a videogame story. I've enjoyed some, appreciated fewer... I'm currently playing Gemini Rue and that's maybe the closest I've come to feeling emotionally involved with a videogame story in awhile. We'll see how it turns out.
The Mass Effect series is the last I can remember for sure. Deus Ex: Human Revolution got close. Other than those, I can't think of any games that I have played relatively recently that have immersed me.
Recently would be The Walking Dead, Spec Ops: The Line, the Imperial Agent story in The Old Republic and Mass Effect 3. StarCraft 2, which I replayed recently, also qualifies - best campaign ever, despite the zig-zagging quality of the story. Sometimes a mediocre story can be elevated by a great presentation.

I'm sure there are more games I played this year which count, but those are the ones that spring to mind.