And I think I’m in love…
There are a handful of times in my life when I have found a video game so compelling that I became obsessed, and the hours slip away. Dwarf Fortress is quickly becoming one of those games. After a weekend spent doing little else besides setting up my seven dwarfs in a nice set of rooms only to watch as they were slowly destroyed by thirst, hunger, goblins, enraged badgers, or even one of their own dwarfs gone berserk, four drafty bone cluttered halls are all that remain. Oh – and a fifth one is just getting started. The official motto of this game is “Losing is Fun” so I guess I am doing something right.
My latest dwarf fortress seemed to start so well. Situated near the peak of a towering range of mountains, these dwarfs were in a perfectly secluded spot, with the natural protection of a small mountain valley. They had everything they needed to survive, except for mushroom caves. This led to a lack of dwarf beer right as winter set in, which led to my first dwarf champion Thob something or other, renowned for slaughtering 7 of his fellows with a copper axe after becoming berserk with hunger and thirst. It was a nasty end to the clan of Beardyes (pronounced Beard-YES!) but beautiful to watch as Thob single handedly painted the tunnels red with the blood of his brothers.
The first foray was even more macabre. The fortress of Minesport seemed to be going so well. 42 dwarves called the place home; it had farms indoors and out, running water, and a healthy trade established with some nearby elves. I was surprised to see I had done so well. Then the goblin raiders attacked. The dwarves had nothing to defend themselves except 2 copper picks, and the devastation was remarkable. This fortress was built so that all the farming and animal handling was near the front, or out in the open, and this led to the dwarves defending their farms, kennels, and outdoor buildings almost to the last man, while the goblins never even bothered to enter the fortress proper. The mountainside was slick with blood, organs, teeth and dwarf parts by the time the dwarfs finally drove the goblins away. That was only the beginning of their downfall. The aftermath included the attempted cannibalism of a surviving dwarf child, which led to internecine warfare which, again, painted the halls red.
The second and third abandoned fortresses hinged upon miniscule details, such as a lack of barrels leading to the loss of a bountiful harvest. Starvation and madness ensues. Losing is fun.
What is this game?
I read a quote somewhere that the creator of this game said they intend to set up a world generation program down to the molecular level. The game is very detailed. And complicated. And confusing. It is these three elements, turned up to max, and then one step beyond, that makes the game so compelling.
The basic premise of Dwarf fortress is to build a dwarf civilization that can stand the test of time. There are no win conditions, only losing conditions (such as all your dwarves starving) so that, eventually all empires will crumble. Losing is fun. (The game is fun; there is no way to win; i.e. losing must be fun.)
There are two other modes of play, Adventure and Legends, that offer different experiences, that I won’t go into detail about, since I am afraid to even try them out yet. Perhaps in the future, after my latest stronghold, Stasisgem, crumbles.
In short, adventure mode is a turn based RPG like exploration mode where you control an adventurer or a party of adventurers out in the world. You can even explore your previous fortress attempts. I hope to one day recover Thob’s legendary copper axe. The other mode, Legends, is a way to explore the history of the world, from its creation up to and including any history generated through play, such as my first (anti-) hero Thob the brother butcher.
One of the unique things about Dwarf Fortress – and really everything is pretty unique – is the system of world generation it uses. The games creator adds a knowledge of fractals, tectonics, and natural erosion into the game to generate a world model, then adds flora and fauna. Next come 250 years of world history, in which civilizations rise, go to war, and fall. Any number of things can happen during this phase, such as a race becoming dominant, or a fearsome dragon rampaging across a continent. At the end of this process, a full rendered world is ready for abuse. This process can take a few seconds to a few hours, depending on the parameters of the world and the power of the pc. This game is surprisingly power hungry, for a game that arguably is text based. I assume there is some serious math calculation happening.
Once the world is generated – and in theory you only have to do this once, and can play a lifetime’s worth of games, it is time for the most critical choice in the game – selecting your starting area. Let’s just say that this is difficult, confusing, and more than once I ended up in a completely uninhabitable zone and had to immediately abandon. The interface is a series of three maps, each at a higher zoom level, and maneuvering a cursor around until you find an area that looks promising. There is a chart of each area, called a Biome, and by reading the data for each biome, in theory you can find a perfect spot. An incomplete understanding of this segment of the game has led me to end up on a mountain peak, in the middle of a desert or on a glacier, and once next to a huge mountain sized pile of wet unmineable mud. There are online tutorials, videos, and tips to help with this process, but many of them echo the complexity of the game itself in their explanations. In the long run, I have found accepting where it puts me as better then my own half-baked attempts at finding the perfect spot.
Are we ready to play yet? Not quite, there is one more pre-fortress step to get started. The expedition must be equipped. I have no understanding of the relative importance of this step, and there is a “screw-it play now!” option that gives a preconfigured expedition, but I understand it to be sub-par. During the set-up, points are available to be spent on the skills of the starting seven dwarfs, and the equipment they bring.
While I still have an incomplete knowledge of this part of the game, my gut is telling me to stock up on supplies with the points, since the dwarfs will gain on the job training later. On the other hand, I have read that the skills chosen for the starting seven dwarfs will affect starting supplies, so it might be more cost effective to choose a dwarf with say metal crafting skill, and end up with an anvil, than to start without one and have to buy it later at a higher expense. That said, when my dwarfs ran out of alcohol that first winter and went on a berserk killing spree, the anvil was a luxury that would have been better spent on beer. Ain’t it always the case.
A Note on Graphics and Design
Or the lack thereof. A year or more back I wound up downloading and trying out this game – for less than five minutes before giving up in disgust. The screen was a tiny DOS looking window with weird patterns of characters. The second time around, I have discovered the glory of the modding community, and my copy of Dwarf Fortress is more decked out with bells and whistles than a dwarf on parade. The Lazy Newb pack is a great mod for the game which packages a bunch of individual mods into one over-all package. The graphics mod I use, called Ironhand, adds just enough visually appealing sprite-style graphics to the game where I can now play without the continual horror of an ASCII screen. The mod, or perhaps the game itself, has advanced to the level where I can go full screen rather than play in the tiny window it used to have.
The game is not about graphics, and at a casual glance, even with the fanciest graphics, the game looks less advanced visually than an Atari 2600. The fact that I can become this obsessed about a game with such laughable graphics is a testament to just how amazing this game really is. For years I eagerly sucked at the teat of “bigger, better, faster, more graphics” but with this game, the visuals all take place in echoing chambers of my skull, and it is grand. Watching a wounded dwarf crawl along the hallway, painting the pixels red as he goes, is enough to get my imagination to fill in the rest. It is somehow freeing to release the reliance on high end graphics.
This game is the brain child of one man, Tarn Adams, with help from his brother. It is continually in development, since its first public release in 2006. It is still considered in an Alpha state, and major and minor updates are continuing. The game is free, and has a robust community of supporters, modders, and fans. They are all a little bit crazy.
Join me as I recount tales and legends of the hardy dwarfs who call the dwarf fortress Stasisgem home in a series of gameplay posts on this most addictive game.