What's the best story a game has ever told?
Perhaps it's Final Fantasy VII's emotional epic, or Planescape: Torment's dense tangle. Or maybe it's the self-referential yarn spun by BioShock, or the original Metal Gear Solid's surprisingly affecting tale, delivered before the series took on one twist too many and collapsed under the weight of its own self-importance.
Actually, for me it's none of those. The greatest story ever told for me by a game came from the PlayStation 2's Pro Evolution Soccer 6.
It was the tale of Deptford Wednesday, the newly formed club in the South East of London that, over the course of six seasons, would go on to dominate the world of football.
In that grand arc, and in between the drama of late equalisers and the heartbreak of cup finals lost on penalties, were a hundred smaller stories, all of them making every play more real and more exhilarating than anything I've ever seen played out on a Saturday afternoon on Sky Sports.
Admittedly, it wasn't Konami's development team telling these tales, though they certainly provided the stage and many of the tools. For one long summer spent in the blissful limbo between University and any gainful employment, PES6 was a constant for myself and a couple of friends. Truthfully, it ran close to an obsession.
Between the three of us we'd take turns playing a half, while the inactive players would add layer after layer of backstory. Games were played on Evelyn Road stadium, a humble 10,000 seater that shook with the sound of the SE8 faithful. It even had a generous ticketing system that saw those that manned the stalls of Deptford junk market get first choice on the prime seats.
And what a team they had to cheer on. I was there myself as a holding midfielder, displaying the kind of co-ordination and composure I could only dream of possessing in real life (last time I tried to play football, I went to kick a dead ball, missed and spun myself round so fast I landed on my chin and knocked myself out cold).
One friend manned the wing while the other led the front line, and the rest of the line-up was filled with superstars and rising talent. There was Shimizu, the stunning striker we 'discovered' playing keep-ups as he worked his day job in the fish stall opposite my flat, and he was tutored by a Joe Cole who was then in his prime.
So real was the world of Deptford Wednesday to me that when I went for an afternoon stroll down the high street I half expected to bump into Cole as he took his puppies for a walk. At the point when one of us rang Adidas to enquire how much it would cost to make some replicas of Deptford Wednesday's shirts - a stunning spin on Athletico Madrid's home kit, proudly carrying the name of our local off-licence Shital - we realised it had all perhaps gone a little too far.
Much of this came back to me when reading Tom's recent Soapbox that touched on the difference between readable and writable games - and, as my experience attests, PES6 was an eminently writable game.
PES6 was a fantastic stage for the increasingly elaborate theatre laid on by my friends and I, and there was a sparseness to the game that made it all possible. In the gaps between the minimal in-game commentary and equally threadbare presentation there was space begging to be filled by our hungry imaginations as we threaded a grand narrative in-between the on-pitch action.
It's a story that's unique to PES6 in many ways, and attempts to recreate it in more recent games, such as the increasingly excellent FIFA series, have fallen flat, the slick presentation, pervasive commentary and insistence on licences obscuring the tale in its telling.
It's those spaces in-between that often enable the best video game stories, whether that's the void that hosts a score attack in Geometry Wars or in the blank canvas presented by Minecraft.
It's a point that can be illuminated by comparing two very similar games, one that happily lets the player indulge and create their own fantasy while the other imposes its own narrative on them.
Realtime World's Crackdown was strikingly skinny in many regards, throwing the player into its own toybox with little context or backstory. All it did was provide the player with an exquisite set of tools and the gentlest of shoves in the right direction, and the adventures that followed were often deeply personal, crafted as they were from your decisions.
Grand Theft Auto IV, on the other hand, had an equally exquisite sandbox, but it was tempered by the spectre of Niko Bellic's tale, a story that often overshadowed the player's own. It's been well-documented how there's a disparity between the Niko that's coming to terms with his violent past, struggling to find peace, and the player who's striving to cause as much destruction as possible. GTA IV's a brilliant game nonetheless, but this central friction works against it.
It's a problem that's arisen again in Eidos Montreal's exquisite Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and its promise of untold player choice rubs up against its desire to tell its own story. Those much-maligned boss fights are one source of conflict, but the problem's pervasive throughout Deus Ex's world.
I admit I enjoy being spun around on Deus Ex's grand conspiracy waltzer, but when the cut-scenes kick in they star a character that's drifted in from another game entirely. In my hands, Jensen's an idiot voyeur, a man who likes nothing more then to break into people's flats, rearrange their furniture and then rifle through their personal belongings.
When caught, he stroppily kills his way out of trouble until there's no one left alive who'll dare question him, and then it's back to the important business of reading through a stranger's email account. It's a world away from the gruff, suave cyborg that shows up every time the control is wrestled away from my hands.
Telling a great story, then, demands a compromise that very few games have been able to make. Leave some space for the player, a little stage for them to act out their own fantasies rather than imposing your own on them, and the results can be magical - because often the best stories are the ones that we tell ourselves.