Internally, games are no more than computer algorithms for manipulating numbers. While you can have fun manipulating numbers and abstract symbols, most games go further and invent fictional labels for the numbers in the game.
In Medieval: Total War, individual nobles are given named traits which affect their abilities. For example, being Slow to Trust gives +1 to Personal Security, which makes it more difficult to assassinate the noble. Slow to Trust is increased by assassination attempts, becoming Overly Suspicious, then Paranoid, then Completely Paranoid as more assassination attempts are made. At high levels, being paranoid improves a general’s Personal Security a lot, but also reduces his ability to command troops.
Internally, all that is changing when Slow to Trust is applied is the Personal Security value. The game makes it more interesting by attaching a label to this numerical property. The label makes it easy for the player to spin a whole story out of the general’s personality. There are some legendary examples of these types of player-generated stories written online. I highly recommend checking out Boatmurdered for an example of this.
Familiarity of the subject matter is also very important in fictionalizing part of the game. With a bit of prodding, you can extract a story from almost anything if the subject matter is meaningful to you. This happens best when the game events echo familiar interactions from other sources or real life. The simple game event is imbued with the meaning of the real-life event after which it is modeled.
The Sims, for example, references real experiences which we all understand, and draws meaning from those external sources. Thus when Biff McStupid, your favourite Sim, cheats on his wife and she displays a primitive “anger” reaction, we perceive far more than what is on the screen. All the game did was run some canned character animations. Meanwhile, we imagine angry emotional outbursts, tears, screaming, gossip, mistrust, or the development of long-term personality scars. None of this stuff is actually in the game. The game just plants a seed in your mind. If you’re familiar with the subject matter, the seed will grow.
So try labeling your numbers with something that people will understand and relate to. It’s amazing how austere a game can be while still creating incredible stories if this is done intelligently.