When you break most games down to their most fundamental frame, games consist of these five elements:
The visible, graphic world - the level.
This is true for both board games and video games. Let’s break down a few board games.
Chess. The level here is the checkerboard, the characters are the pieces, the gameplay is moving your characters around according to the rules in order to put your opponent into check mate, the peril and motivation is the danger of being put in check mate by your opponent, and the reward is defeating your opponent and the smug, good feeling of being super good at chess.
Or Risk. The level here is the map of the world. The characters are the little pieces representing your soldiers, the gameplay is achieving the mission you were given at the beginning of the game by conquering the other player armies and gaining new territories. The peril and motivation is the other players fighting you while trying to fulfil their mission before you. The reward is, again, winning. Is there anything we like better than being better than our friends? For the looser, I suppose, the reward lies in playing the game itself, for the fun of it.
Now let’s look at video games.
The game Portal featured quite innovative gameplay while, in essence, being quite a simple game. The visible, graphic world of Portal is the Aperture labs; you venture trough several white, sterile test chambers. Sometimes you break out of the test chambers and explore the other parts of the world, parts that are able to tell you something about the story of the world. But Glados always ropes you back.
There are only two characters in the game; there’s the silent protagnist and player avatar, and there’s the antagonist, the vicious computer Glados. Glados is an omnipotent force in the game. She sees everything and is able to control everything. Trough most of the game she is only a voice telling you what to do, until the player rebels against her and defeats her.
The gameplay in Portal is essentially shooting holes functioning as doorways you can walk trough, and using these to solve puzzles, sometimes with the help of carrying around cubes and placing them on buttons. You have no weapons, only the portal gun and the ability to safely jump from tall heights without being crushed by gravity.
In the beginning you are motivated by the rewarding feeling of being able to solve the puzzles, gently progressing trough safe challenges while Glados’s voice promises you cake for completing the Aperture Science Enrichment Program. The voice of Glados gradually grows less robotic, more human, and more twisted and the motivation becomes peril as the challenges become deadly, and Glados introduces turrets in her puzzles. It becomes quite obvious that this machine is out to get you; you need to get out of here.
At the end of the game the ultimate reward is defeating Glados, escaping Aperture and obtaining freedom for the player character. Troughout the game you also have the lesser rewards in the satisfactory feeling of being able to complete the puzzles, as well as uncovering bits and pieces of the secrets of the Aperture Science. And then there’s the good fun in tossing yourself trough portal holes at high velocity.
Simple, brilliantly executed and highly replayable. To me, Valve is definitely one of the leading torches in the industry, both in how they market their games and in what they contain.