"Sandbox" games are a kind of thing that are quite en vogue recently, fuelled by the increasing hardware capabilities of computers and video-game consoles, and by the success of games like the Grand Theft Auto series and so on. In theory, and in our imaginations, it seems like the best thing on Earth: have an entire world, or an entire universe, entirely to your disposal, free from the shackles of what the game WANTS or EXPECTS you to do. You just do what you want: try things, see the consequences, try again, have fun. Awesome, isn't it? It's no longer "no, you CAN'T go over this tiny fence because you HAVE to stay inside this building and complete the boring mission you don't care about". Now it's "oh, if you don't want to do the mission, it's up to you. Come back later if you wish".
There are problems, though -- and I think it's very hard to determine how much of those problems are in the games themselves instead of in the heads of the gamers. As a "case study" of sorts, I bring my experience with Slaves to Armok: Good of Blood, part II: Dwarf Fortress (phew!), a game that is... how can I say it? So huge, so massive, so unbelievably detailed and meticulous that it got me wondering how much human interaction a person must have avoided in order to do it (sorry, I don't want to be offensive, but I have to be honest!). It was programmed by a single person. The game generates a world, with all its biomes, villages, rivers, mountains, aquifers and lava pools, simulates erosion, and presents it entirely to you to select a place and build a fortress, construct living spaces, workshops, collect food and water, build farms, produce valuable items, choose dwarf professions, keep track of their health (including which limbs and internal organs are damaged -- no, I'm not exaggerating), construct machines and contraptions, make trade -- all that without any objective. And you see all that happening in real time, in ASCII art, a la Rogue and Nethack.
First: there are so many things this game controls, keeps track of, lets you choose and decide, that not only it raises questions of how the hell one single guy was able to do it, but if it's all necessary. It's a basic fact of game designing: you'll never make something 100% accurate and correct, so there has to be a limit -- both theoretical and practical -- to the level of detail you're willing to descend to. How does one determine that? It's mostly up to what the game intends to be; and Dwarf Fortress intends to be EVERYTHING: no stone left unturned, no detail left unchecked, no variable unconsidered, no consequence ignored. And yet, the game throws you headfirst into it and lets you figure it out yourself.
Okay, so some people like that; They like challenge. Also, they have TIME start 200 games until they start getting the hang of the basics. The game's motto says: Losing is fun. That to me sounds like a way for the game's developer to ignore completely the fact that he's making, you know, a GAME, something to be PLAYED. Dwarf Fortress sets out to be a real universe, however, something to be LIVED, not played; it overloads you with possibilities and details, makes you feel like you're dealing with something savage, uncontrollable, that has your entire existence on its hands. And the rewards? Oh, they are many! They are... um... well, you... uh... oh, you know? YOU play the game 200 times before you figure out if the game is worth playing or not, AFTER you wasted all your time in it.
Second: ... ASCII art? In a real time game?... okay, so you can pause the game and take your time to make all the vital decisions. But, really?... Yeah, so some people say that the ASCII art HELPS the experience, because if forces you to visualise the world yourself and get immersed in it. I say: elitist garbage, just like when people once said that cinema was an "inferior" art because it gave you all the images, ready and done, while in books you had to use your own imagination. Those people didn't realise two things: cinema isn't there to replace the imagery suggested by books, but to push art forwards even further, present even more questions and suggest even more interesting possibilities; also, cinema CAN let many things to the viewer's imagination, and the more skilled film-makers know that and know how to use it (tell me 2001: A Space Odyssey DOESN'T leave a lot to your own imagination and prepare to duck the tomatoes). Cinema is just a different form of art, as valid and noble as literature.
So you see: computer games have been investing in graphics and visuals, realistic representation of objects, realistic simulation of physics and other real life concepts, and so on. This DOES NOT MEAN that the games are losing immersion. A game, even made in pure ASCII, can be every bit as shallow and lifeless as yesterday's generic FPS shooter. Bioshock, however -- at least in my opinion -- created an amazing experience due to the atmospheres, the environment and settings, the characters and the objectives. It didn't even need much of a "storyline": the basic concept is sufficient, and the visuals and physics help to enhance those characteristics. You see? It's not the visuals themselves, but the fact that they're working in favour of the game's design ideas. Now, imagine Bioshock done entirely in ASCII. Maybe the most hardcore gamers (by the way: "hardcore" is a class of gamer that I dismiss entirely) would love it, but think about how you'd miss the hilarious 50's style cartoon advertisements to the power of setting people on fire, the radio tunes merrily playing along to brutal battles with deformed freaks, and so on. When it comes to games, interaction is the key; and the difference between the "textual" and the "visuals" are not equivalent to the difference between reading the book and watching the film, but far closer to the difference between reading a textual description of a breathtaking landscape and BEING THERE, or the reading a technical review of von Karajan's recording of Beethoven's symphonies and LISTENING to them on excellent equipment. The final point is: in Dwarf Fortress, it's impossible (to me, at least) to truly see what's going on. I've played Rogue-like games, and the descriptions and ASCII maps mostly work because the games are turn-based, and the interaction with the world is done through the eyes of an adventurer; in Dwarf Fortress, the game is in real-time, and you're just watching things happening to their own will, and mostly trying to change its course. In the end, you're only watching ASCII characters flashing about -- the most you can do is pause the game, look closely at some of the elements and read the cold, precise, lifeless descriptions of what they are. What kind of immersion is that? With time you may be able to naturally associate the ASCII characters to the objects they represent, but you still will miss all the tiniest details -- which are CRUCIAL to the game. If you're into the game simply for the pleasure of abstraction, why not choose a text adventure then? At least you won't need to play 200 times before you realise you can't put too much salt on the food, or else you'll die of intoxication 40 days later. And if "losing is fun", just play I Wanna Be the Guy -- that one will knock your socks off. Dwarf Fortress, as it is, is the prime example that the difference between everything and nothing is minimal, when in fact it's the difference between something and everything that counts. The skill and effort put into the game are undoubtedly impressive and deserving of praise, but that alone doesn't make a good game. Still, it doesn't mean you shouldn't try it, though. If you're a hardcore gamer, you'll probably love it; and in that case, stay away from me.