Recently there have been a few games that have had elements of shocking excellence, things which make the players gape openly. These are not usually what you expect - not core game elements.
For example, Civ IV's theme music "Baba Yetu". Civ IV is the only game I've ever played that made me wish it took longer to load levels. Another musical example is "Still Alive" from Portal.
Not all of these superlative elements are music. Sometimes it's a breathtaking plot twist, as in Second Sight. Sometimes it's a level, like Lungfishopolis in Psychonauts. It can be a visual, or a character, or even just a sound.
As to music...
Listened to without their game, Baba Yetu and Still Alive are both quite good. But you don't get that jaw-dropping impressiveness.
What multiplied their effect was the expectation that came with them. The context.
Baba Yetu comes before you even get to your first turn in Civ IV. But you're all primed for Civ IV. You have a clear image in your head of what the game is going to be like, and it's significantly improved by the satellite view of the earth spinning gently beneath you. The song can be considered completely part of the pregame experience: there are no seams, nothing feels forced.
Still Alive comes after the game, and is almost exactly the opposite. You're coming down off of a huge high, and the song is perfectly suited for that gentle finish. Again, it is a flawlessly integrated element.
Lungfishopolis is so entertaining because it turns the normal situation on its head in a brilliant manner that fits in with the game so well that there are no seams.
It's not often that you hit one of these superlatives that isn't a seamless part of the game. I can't think of any examples. So I think it's pretty clear that being seamlessly integrated is one of the requirements to be superlative.
So far, I've used experiences that most gamers are familiar with. But this sort of thing is not limited to excellent games. Even poor or non-artistic games can have elements that surprise you with how catchy or insightful they are.
For example, the Bubble Bobble theme. The map scale of Sid Meier's Railroads. Shadow Watch's mission selection phase.
No matter what game I look at, I find some element that seems to be a flawless part of the main play. An element that just clicks, that enables the player to feel exactly what he is supposed to feel at this point in this game. It makes sense that there will always be one element that fits better than the rest.
It's just something I noticed. I think it might be possible to do this on purpose, or at least increase your chances of having it happen. It's sort of related to immersion, I think, but at this point I'm pretty much just feeling my way through the theory.
Any way you cut it, it is clear that a game is not simply gameplay. And, in fact, even gameplay is not a lump of rules, but a delicate ecology in which some elements tend to fit (be fit?) better than others at different times.
Look back at some games you have played recently. What elements seemed most flawlessly integrated? What elements made you feel exactly what you felt you should be feeling right then? On the other side, what elements broke your experience up a bit?
I have a sneaking suspicion that people will frequently post the same thing on both sides. I know some people really liked God of War's "open the door" mechanic, and I didn't. To me, it is flawed, to them, not so much. Perhaps because we expected different things...
Anyway, what do you see when you look at games?