Sometimes we use vague and not well defined words, such as gameplay: what is it? Is it synonymous with interactivity? Does it define the ways and the complexity of interaction? Has to be intended as global in-game experience? If so, it would be the main feature, it would not make sense to speak of videogames art without it. Or are we using the more restrictive meaning of game mechanics? In this case, it has a more limited relevance.
I’m giving you one practical example of the second and more common meaning.
In The Talos Principle you face a series of extraordinary philosophical and existential conversations with an artificial intelligence. It ‘s an amazing example of interactivity and in-game immersion, but you hardly would call it gameplay. The Talos Principle gameplay is usually identified with puzzles solving. You would say that The Talos Principle shows a valuable and original interactive experience with an evolved AI, it has a compelling storytelling and a good but not so original gameplay.
This distinction does not satisfy me, although it is the most popular.
I’m more inclined to the “holistic” definition coming from italian wikipedia:
<< Gameplay is a fundamental characteristic of video games that describes the experience and the quality of interaction of the player with the game as a whole. It is also used as synonim of playability, but the gameplay is a broader concept that also includes the plot of the game and everything that involves the player. >>.
In this case gameplay defines the gaming experience as a whole. Games have to be intended as virtual interactive experiences, and gameplay identifies the kind and quality of such experiences.
In this broader sense we can appreciate the gameplay even in titles that are usually (and wrongly) criticized for poor game mechanics, like Dear Esther, The Path, Beyond Eyes, Heavy Rain, Firewatch, What Remains of Edith Finch, The Town of Light, etc..
Wrong approach towards gameplay valuation is widespread. It seems you have to judge gameplay focusing on the number of clicks for second, on gymnastic tricks with your gamepad, on number and quality of challenges (fighting, shooting, jumping, solving puzzles, etc.) Today, these are to be considered traditional game mechanics. Video Games need to evolve their gameplays in order to gain artistic recognition! For this reason I prefer the broader definition that puts no limits to the interactive experience, going beyond the traditional game mechanics and demanding for interactive stories, deep contents to be involved with, characters psychologies, dialogues, feelings and relationships, new forms of interactive aesthetics, etc. Crucial factors to ensure that video games can be considered a sublime form of art. I think the so called Walking Sims (wrong definition indeed) have an evolved and more compelling gameplay than most of traditional games; e.g. gameplay of most of FPS, such as Gears of War, is really reductive. Walking Sims focus on metaphorical existential exploration, immersion in storytelling and contents, interactive and contemplative aesthetics, literary quality of texts and dialogues, new forms of interaction, etc.
In conlcusion, referring to previous examples, The Talos Principle has an innovative and engaging gameplay because of the philosophical and existential experience with an evolved AI; its puzzles based game mechanics are compelling but traditional and not so original. Just to make a counterexample, Gears of War has old, really reductive and poor gameplay focused on click-shoot-fight game mechanics, while storytelling and contents are really poor and completely detached from gameplay and confined in cut scenes. On the contrary, What Remains of Edith Finch has a better and more complex gameplay; it gives you an immersive virtual experience through deep contents and engaging storytelling well embedded in gameplay thanks to new forms of interaction.
I definitely prefer this approach!