It’s satisfying to beat a game. You’ve battled your way through overcoming every obstacle you come across and are rewarded with a cut-scene where you finally see your character standing victorious. Master Chief finally throws Bowser into that last bomb and saves Liberty City. And its about time too, those last few levels were really taxing. You weren’t playing for the fun of the game so much as just to finally say you beat the damn thing.
Slaves to Armok: God of Blood Chapter II Dwarf Fortress, hereafter referred to as Dwarf Fortress for the sake of my fingers, is a game where winning is impossible and losing is inevitable. That doesn’t sound like much fun. Luckily the readme is quick to remind you that “Losing is fun!”, and after your nth fortress has collapsed you’ll be inclined to agree.
The game plays like a mix of Sim City and Rogue. Each game takes place in a persistent, randomly generated world with its own kingdoms, legends, and history. You are tasked with guiding a group of 7 dwarfs into the wilderness(or into the center of an unsuspecting elven town if you so choose) to establish a prosperous fortress. You can form military squads and establish training schedules. You can designate tunnels to be dug and workshops to be set up and watch as your diligent dwarfs get to work. Or not. They might decide to throw a party celebrating that new well they built. You don’t get direct control over these dwarfs, you merely suggest things for them to do. Its up to them to want to do it.
The dwarfs are your main way of interacting with the world and they are an interesting bunch. Every dwarf has their own personality. A dwarf might be a modest dwarf who came to the fortress because he “admires tradition” and “doesn’t feel effective in life”. He’ll also have a religion he calls his own and a set of likes and dislikes. On their own these traits might not be very exciting, but they’ll impact how every dwarf gets on with its day and how it interacts with other dwarfs. And the dwarfs will remember all of those interactions and be affected accordingly.
Dwarf Fortress is full of those kinds of minute details. The health of every living thing is handled as the collective status of their various limbs and organs. Every thing is made up of a material with its own set of characteristics, and random generation of monsters can result in giant bat-things made of stone or golems made of lungs. Liquids flow and have pressure. Stockpiles of animal-fat will explode if a fire happens to ignite them. You can construct gears and levers and set up giant mechanical structures of your own design. The interaction of all the different systems in place results in exciting things happening on a continual basis.
Stories spring from this game with ease. With such an abundance of detail its easy to look for methods to Dwarf Fortress’ madness. Everything happens for a reason and if you look for these reasons the stories write themselves.
Defeat is always in sight. It can feel like trying to stop the tide coming in to erode your sandcastle. But any time the fortress falls its always an interesting story. Goblins siege the fortress with increasing frequency. Dragons and giants love eating dwarfs. Even if your dwarfs simply run out of food eventually the few that haven’t starved to death will lose their minds with grief and on go on a rampage.
All of this excitement is rendered in glorious ASCII tiles. Dwarfs are little color coded faces and everything else is some letter, number, punctuation mark, or anything else on an ASCII table. This is probably the largest hurdle to get over before one can enjoy Dwarf Fortress. To the uninitiated it looks like somebody’s Word file got corrupted. After you get used to it though the symbols become second nature and you feel like a character from The Matrix reading those falling green letters.
The interface is almost as troublesome. Interacting with the game is done almost exclusively with the keyboard. The only mouse interaction has to be enabled out of the program and all it does is allow you to draw zones that you want to designate with the mouse instead of with the arrow keys. Navigating the menus takes a while to get used to- especially the screens that can only be scrolled with the arrow keys and the others that can only be scrolled with the numpad arrows. However like the graphics, navigating the interface becomes second nature after a while.
Those two quibbles make Dwarf Fortress an acquired taste- but the payoff is completely worth it. Half the fun of the game is telling friends what exciting things happened in your last session. That’s a sure sign of a fun videogame, when it has a story worth telling. It’s even more exciting that Dwarf Fortress is able to weave such fantastic stories without someone programming them in explicitly- they just happen.
I’ll leave y’all with some links to some of the more popular Dwarf Fortress stories from around the internet
Boatmurdered – A group of dudes on the somethingawful.com forums played a game where they would play a year in game and then pass the save on to the next person. An epic tale that is full of naughty language and ruthless elephants.
Bronzemurder – An illustrated retelling of the story of a giant iguana-demon running loose in an unsuspecting fortress.