Disclaimer: my mother tongue is Dutch, so if some grammar faults are present, feedback is always appreciated.
What are Videogames? Many words are being written over this subject ranging from the next narrative medium to social consequences from playing them. I would like to present three levels that a Videogame can represent, not only from a Design standpoint but also from a customer experience. I will also use these layers as an analytical starting point or use it to explain certain behavior gamers, developers or the entire market manifests. From now on a Video game can be divided in these three layers:
1) A Digital Playing Field
2) A Universe
3) A Story
The order is intended as this is probably the order of the average customer experience from a videogame. They first experience the game as a Digital Playfield with its set of specific rules and mechanics. From a design-point this means the gameplay mechanics. Sociologically speaking it implies all the functions of play: from escapism, an abstract reflection of life, educative functions and so forth. Yes, the Story can be introduced first, plunging a player head-first into its Universe but what good is this all if the player stops after 5 minutes because the Playfield is dull or uninteresting? Not much. Also, this layer-system is also not meant to be taken chronologically but in the a complete scheme-like sense.
This layer is so basic that more seasoned gamers aren't even aware of it and sometimes even skip it in judging a game. But this level is not where "The Fun" from a Videogame is distilled from, only partly. The real "Fun" from a Videogame is derived from the combination of the first and second level: the Universe layer.
A Universe in a game is not only the world the story takes place (the narratology view) but also comprises the actual content of the game (levels, design, art-assets, sound and so forth) that meshes together to create a coherent game-world. Some would say that the former should be split from the latter (especially narratologists or writers) but I would counter this with two examples: "The Legend of Zelda" and "Metroid" series. These series excel at making the actual game-world (the levels, art assets, enemies and so forth) also the actual "narrative" world you're playing in by interacting with you on a very basic but powerful level: your imagination.
The synergy these first two levels create, Playfield + Universe, is what actually creates "The Fun" behind videogames. This is concept explains why some games with great new ideas don't deliver, because of a lacking Universe (being it badly implemented in the levels, shallow use of the idea or others). On the other side it also explains why some games who just copy everything (Halo series, any Insomniac game, New Super Mario Bros Wii in lesser extent) are so damn fun to play: they provide a very solid and functioning Playfield and a well fleshed out, imaginative and/or recognizable Universe, creating a synergy that just clicks with people.
How about games like Tetris or Bejeweled? They don't really have a Universe going on... well yes and no. First of, both games have an incredible simple, solid and pure Playfield which helps both games a lot. The Universe is of the same kind being...Math! Geometric-based math off course playing on certain part of brain that Plato very clearly described in his theory of the "Shapes-world". Tetris and the like actually trigger a constructive/structuring part of our brains, transporting us to the cave where we only see shadows of what is moving behind us. Tetris thus creates a incredible simple but extremely powerful synergy between its Playfield and Universe levels.
Bringing us finally to the third level: Story. In a lot of cases this level isn't even applicable or hardly the worth (example: every major Super Mario game). Nonetheless, some game-makers do put in a lot of effort to implement stories into their games. Seasoned gamers sometimes even play games just for the story despite the game having having a lacking Playfield or Universe (most recent: Heavy Rain, yes I did!!!). The reason why, I'll keep for a different Blog.
The Story level is the less important part about a Videogame and is in a certain way only a series of events happening in the Universe. Now don't get me wrong, I like stories in Videogames, but I like them to have a certain level of interactivity since, well, games are first a Interactive medium, not a story-telling medium. That said, I do believe Videogames to be the story-telling medium of the 21ste Century, again Story-telling medium...not narrative medium. A story can be interactive (kids asking why Cinderella didn't just tell the prince the truth when it was almost 12), a narrative can't and is set from beforehand.
Despite this lower level of importance, a good story can add to the synergy of the first two levels. Or can distract. Recent example: Metal Gear Solid 4. Somewhat archaic but still decent Play, really good Universe, Story tries to overpower the former two and is told in a very customer-unfriendly way (does the guy that is basically the game's shop really need that kind of long intro...really?). My best friend, who loves anything Metal Gear, put MGS4 on his Best Movies list on FaceBook as a joke.
That said, the last word hasn't been said about Stories in videogames and I believe that Videogames have a unique position as a story-telling medium that almost all narratologists missed...simply because they don't know or are thaught in this form of story-telling. But I'll keep that for a next Blog also.
In reality, a two-layered system (Playfield and Universe) is enough to analyze games and their impact on gamers as an expercience, but that's not really the point. The real problem is analyzing the "Synergy" coming from all the layers because it is not the sum of its components but also involves that complicated squishy pink blob: our brains. Knowing Videogames (and Literature, Movies and Music) is knowing humanity.