Dwarf Fortress

There are games that are considered complete and final upon shipping but, in this internet age, I’ve largely been drawn to games of another classification, ones in a state of perpetual development. I go in, completely unrealistically, seeing games like this not so much for how they are, but for how they could be with enough time and the right development. Like a battered lover, a glutton for punishment, I keep returning to games of this type after being disappointed so many times before. My best example of this is Infantry, which met many of my expectations but fulfilled almost none of my dreams. I could spin similar tales of games like Graal and EUO. Wesnoth happens to be the only real success story, but something about Dwarf Fortress make it seem like it really will deliver.

Dwarf Fortress is a game about 7 dwarves in a high fantasy setting who leave the comfort of their civilization to pioneer a new dwarven city. With a wagon carrying supplies, like plenty of alcohol to see them through the working day, the dwarves make their way to a new and savage land, carving a fortress into the ground or into the side of a mountain. The player assigns tasks for the dwarves to accomplish, exploring and reacting to the environment. The goal of the game is to gain wealth, attract immigrants and build a massive city while managing to protect it from outside (or inside) forces.

In that sense, it is simply a civilization sim. Where it diverges from the beaten path is its grand scale of complexity. I can’t begin the explain the sandbox feel that comes from this. Right at a game’s start, players will want to juggle tasks such as masonry, carpentry, woodcutting, farming, making crafts from stone, mining, and brewing, just to name the basics. And, rather than being able to say “I want some platinum; you dwarves go find it for me,” the player must be smart and hunt it out him/herself. Are there some igneous layers below? Where will I most likely find a layer of olivine (which is where you’ll find platinum)?

Not only are there the details of hundreds of animals, minerals and vegetables to deal with, but it also simulates individual psyches. Each dwarf has preferences, moods and relationships, which are all in a constant state of flux. A dwarf that sees success, stays busy with work and gets his/her fill of alcohol is bound to be happy, while a dwarf that loses family, pets and long-time friends to tragedy is going to be distraught.

And, it’s a world sim. Before you can start a game, you have to generate a world (which takes at least a few minutes). Hundreds of years of civilizations are procedurally generated as back-story to your game. When your dwarves engrave a mural into the walls of your great hall, it could be of the legendary heroes, kings and monsters unique to your game.

The designers have really done less with more. You might be expecting a huge program. Here’s actually how the game looks:

dwarf fort

The game is just 5 megabites large, yet the sheer number of calculations made every second can tax even a decent computer’s CPU from the start. From what I understand, there’s a cap on the number of dwarves, because over 200 and it is just going to run too slow on anyone’s machine.

Now, all that plus the lack of decent graphics might be daunting, and this game is legendary over the internet for having a steep learning curve. I’ve got a few mantras for game design, and Dwarf Fortress definitely lives up to two of them: do more with less and complexity is fine if it’s intuitive. And, it really is rather intuitive. Yes, you’re going to definitely need a start up guide, such as the Your first fortress guide, and will want to constantly reference the Dwarf Fortress wiki. However, it all plays out more or less like you think it should.

Another advantage over normal roguelikes is the usage of more than just the standard keyboard characters. Those Æs you see in the image above are chests. While it might still be confusing for anyone who hasn’t played with ASCII characters, it’s still more graphically representative than most roguelikes.

While the game is perfectly playable right now, it is under heavy development. It will, one day, have decent graphics and a more-intuitive GUI, complete with mouse support. I believe this, because the main developer quit his day job as a math professor at Texas A&M University and now depends on donations from the fan base to support himself. How well do you think this could ever work? It seems to me like he’s making plenty from it.

As long as this post is turning out to be, it doesn’t do half justice to Dwarf Fortress. There’s so much more to be mentioned, including sieges, Adventure and Legends modes, traps, levers, magma-forging, trading and the fact that the game plays out in 3D (you can dig down something like 20 levels).

I was introduced to this game back in late 2006. I decided I didn’t have the time to get into it, but last week I found that it isn’t as confusing or time-consuming as I thought it would be. I’m not saying it won’t take you plenty of time to get rolling, just that you can have your first fort up and running just fine within the first hour while following the guide I mentioned. I don’t know probably half there is to know about the game, but I have survived sieges and built a fortress that is home to over 100 dwarven men, women and children.

Still, no game is very serious. No fort lasts forever and the sandbox appeal to the game means the fun comes from watching the story unfold, not necessarily from winning. There’s a certain philosophy to the game contained in their wiki entry for “fun”: http://dwarffortresswiki.net/index.php/Fun

It’s also multi-platform. However, a keypad is essential. When the game asks for the input of +, – and *, it doesn’t mean the ones on the top row. For the newer MacBooks, you might have to use alternate key bindings.

If you’re still not convinced, give it another couple months, because a big release is on its way, as there hasn’t been a release in over a year.

3 thoughts on “Dwarf Fortress

  1. Looks like a cool game. I downloaded it but haven’t really given it a spin yet.

    As much as I like nethack’s graphics, this does look a bit schizo.

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