It seems to me that the distinction here between the “big” and the “small” is one of focus. And I think that’s what made me think of B-games.
Silent Hill 2, Ico, and Shenmue are all very small games in the sense that they each consist of really one key theme, or concept — with maybe a related secondary theme, that helps to flesh out and color the primary one.
Further, each game is mechanically, substantially, practically designed so as to illustrate the theme at hand as well as possible. The games don’t always succeed; there are often silly elements present for no good reason. Some of the mechanics aren’t thought-through or implemented as well as they might be. The intent is there, though.
Ico is about Yorda, and the intent to create affection, a protective impulse for her. The game is designed in order to do that, without any distraction. There is no life meter because it’s not about life and death. You can die if you do something retarded, like jump from ten stories up, but that’s just there to keep the player from doing something retarded and to make the world feel more believable. What genius there is in the game is in what it chooses to omit, in order to make its point.
Silent Hill 2 is about James’s emotional state; the entire game is a dive into his subconscious, into his guilt and sorrow and his inability to let go. Everything — well, nearly everything — exists as an ingredient for exploring this: the monsters, the level construction, the imagery. Even the way the game determines the ending is tied into what the player focuses on; how he or she has, intentionally or not, chosen to narrate the game and thereby illustrate the details of James’s condition, through his or her behaviour. There are a bunch of issues with the practical implementation (particularly in the actual moment-to-moment details of gameplay), that threaten to get in the way. Ultimately they don’t occlude the underlying design, though.
Shenmue exists to illustrate the mundane beauty of Being. That life is in the moments, not in the goals. Some people complain that the game is boring; those same people probably wouldn’t think of staying up all night just to watch a sunrise. It’s almost Hitchcockian in the way that, right from the start, implicit in the gameplay, the game lets the player in on something that the main character can’t even see, to try to make its point. In a way, Ryo himself is kind of a caricature of the average singleminded teenager who would likely play Shenmue, and thereby a perfect tool for the game’s purposes. Everything in the game exists either in attempt to illustrate the simple beauties of life, or to support the plot and characters which wind through this mission — in time, perhaps, to get to the point of seeing what the game has been trying to show the player from the outset, and thereby clearly state its case.
The games feel small in the same sense that a good movie will always be too short, and a bad movie will always be too long.
Same deal with B-games. Often as not, they exist to illustrate one concept. That concept might be philosophical or emotional; mostly it has to do with a unique idea for a play mechanic, or some other gimmick. Anyway, these games don’t mess around; for well or ill, the entire game exists to try to get that central idea across. See Gyromite or Pikmin — which I do consider a B-game. Heck, see Katamari Damacy. It is effective because in the end, its entire being is focused on getting one thing across.
In contrast, games which try to please everyone (like, say, Final Fantasy) try to include something to please everyone. So they come off as unfocused. Expansive. Big. Games which exist solely to reflect some outside idea (like, say, the games based on the Lord of the Rings movies) by nature don’t really have a focal point of their own. So regardless of their craft, they tend to feel empty.