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TheManchild avatar 9:40 AM on 05.08.2012
Dwarf Fortress

It's funny; in all the times I have written something about the game Dwarf Fortress, not once have I actually sat down and really talked about the game itself, why it is so addicting, and why you should stop reading this immediately and go check it out - for better, or probably worse.

If you have heard about Minecraft, there is a good chance you have heard about DF. Minecraft seems to be a stepping stone, a gateway drug into the most complex game ever conceived due to the fact that Notch has cited the game as a direct influence for his masterpiece, just as much as the almost identical Infiniminer it was modeled after. Dwarf Fortress was fairly quietly sitting in the background before that and a Reddit post put it into the spotlight, its fifteen minutes of fame culminating in a New York Times article about Dwarf Fortress and its creator, Tarn "ToadyOne" Adams, a man who eats handfuls of cereal and popsicles for sustenance, works all night on his magnum opus along with the help of his brother Zach, and who survives exclusively on fan donations and endless two liter bottles of Cola.

Dwarf Fortress is actually a sequel, and its full title is "Slaves to Armok: God of Blood, Chapter 2: Dwarf Fortress". In development since 2002 by just one man, Dwarf Fortress captured attention for its archaic ASCII "roguelike" graphical style, it's incredibly complex simulation gameplay, and ridiculous sheer face learning curve which keeps all but the most dedicated players from experiencing the unique and endlessly rich experiences which it provides. The premise is deceptively simple; you take seven dwarves and a wagon full of provisions out into the world (where everything is randomly generated, and where hundreds of years of changes are simulated before you even set foot there) and try to find a suitable location to build a sustainable fortress where you will eventually mine into the great depths below, with the ultimate goal of survival; something which is impossible to maintain forever due to the constant, unpredictable hurdles you must jump over including lava floods, goblin attacks, and even invaders from hell itself.

The first thing most people will notice upon downloading the game, which is available absolutely free here, (near the end of this article is a better link for newbs, however.) is that the interface is about as unfriendly as an Apple II dungeon crawler. Being modeled after an entire genre of games, roguelikes, which are modeled after text based RPG fare from the eighties, Dwarf Fortress is an aesthetically revolting mess to all but the most tolerant of gamers, ones who are generally already used to looking at a screen full of @ signs and apostrophes, as those are the people who will usually hear about it first. It has been said that such a simplistic graphical representation helps to aid the imagination of the player, to immerse them further in the experience. This would not be true if ALL DF accomplished was bringing a low-fi Minecraft experience to the table, since a world in two dimensions deals with 3D very poorly, which is what is happening here. But when you fire up the game for the first time, create your world and hop in, it quickly becomes clear just why the game looks so damned ugly.

It is because of the sheer number of simulations alone that Dwarf Fortress would run at a slogging pace if it were to have the production values of most current games. The game is incredibly processor intensive, with Tarn professing that the simulations taking place under the hood are more complex than those used to determine the aerodynamics of an airplane wing. That sounds very impressive from the layman perspective, but all you need to know is this; DF can slow to a snails pace even on the most beefy of machines depending on what is taking place on screen, making an already intimidating game even more unappealing to the casual user. There is so much going on at any given time that it can be very tough to process it all, and this speaks volumes about the level of depth inherent in the simulation, one that becomes readily apparent once you start digging into the interface of the game and really start seeing everything the game is accounting for on a regular basis.

So let's say it if your very first time launching the game. You went to the website, found the latest build, and ran it with building anticipation; everyone has been talking about it in your circle, whether that is a forum or a Cblog like this one, and you are excited to see what all the fuss is about. To you, it all sounds impressive, a challenge you just can't wait to accept. There is definitely an elitist appeal to the whole thing; a game nobody can play? I'll prove them wrong you think to yourself as you select create a new world. So far so good, right?

You become instantly befuddled at the world building options available to you. Aquifers? Available metals? Temperature? Well, it can't be so bad; you kind of understand what these things are, and how they might affect the game. You have played other sim games after all, and you understand the basic concepts of how the game plays. You decide to go with the defaults, generate a new world, and after a few minutes of waiting for erosion, civilizations, and history to run, you have a lived in world at your disposal. Time to go explore it!

You spend a few minutes, much longer than you would have liked selecting a plot of land to embark upon. Soil, metals, and forests all sounds like useful things to have. Aquifers are dangerous you are warned, so you try to find a spot without one. Eventually you stumble across a temperate zone with moderate trees on the side of a mountain right near a rushing river, luckily, with plenty of metals and no aquifer. Done. You go to embark before being informed that you need to outfit your seven dwarves for the journey ahead. You go to customize them yourself but with a labyrinthine list of available provisions to bring, skills for your dwarves to learn, all with a limited amount of points attributed to each for you to distribute among your A-Team of little people, you start to feel exhausted already. And this is only the beginning.

Eventually, you settle for what seems reasonable, or if you aren't quite as ambitious, pick a prebuilt option. If you were perhaps a little more observant, you may have discovered the DF forums, and found a thread about the Lazy Newb Pack, a launcher designed to make the experience as straightforward as possible, also packing in extra goodies such as graphical tiles, 3D visualizers, and even management programs to keep track of your dwarves and their professions as the fortress begins to expand. Either way, you eventually come to the moment of truth when you are forced to hit e to "embark!", and after a short text introduction and some rolling acoustic arpeggios (played by Tarn himself, of course) begin playing the background, you find yourself in a field, with little symbols (or pictures, if you were smart enough to choose a tileset beforehand) representing your dwarves, any animals you decided to bring with you, and what is supposed to be your wagon full of provisions.

And then it finally hits you as the blood drains from your face and you come to the realization of just how titanic the game really is; you look upon the sparse interface to find many options with little help, and realize you have no idea what the hell you're doing.

At this point, you have come upon a crossroad that will change your gaming life for the next several months - or not at all. You will either immediately turn the game off, never to touch it again, or if you are curious and slightly masochistic, you will start perusing the internet for some semblance of direction. You may eventually find yourself on the DF wiki, on YouTube, on blogs, all searching for a tutorial which will outline the basics of the game for you.

"It's not difficult to start a fortress" most of these will announce, somewhat smugly as you sit cross legged and try to absorb the influx of information coming your way. First, you will be directed to start digging a hole in the mountain. You do this by hitting d and then m, which stand for "designations" and "mine" respectively. So far, so good. You will use the num pad to move your cursor around the map, and find a suitable digging spot; the up arrows surrounding a black mass indicate that you are looking at a mountain, the arrows signifying an upward slope. The game is in 3D even though it is presented from a two dimensional overtop perspective, and by hitting shift and > or < you will be able to move up or down through each layer, with each layer being one "block" in width, an easily digestible piece of information if you have played Minecraft, wherein the entire world is represented in blocks. As you go up, you start to notice that black mass becoming smaller, which indicates that you are moving up through the layers of a mountain. You lose your way but discover that hitting F1 will bring you back to your starting point, and that is when you dig a long tunnel into the side of the mountain, the initial spark of what you are sure will be the greatest fortress ever conceived in the world you just created.

You make a few rooms, you learn how to build a Carpenters Workshop, one of the many different workshops in the game, and you figure out how to command your dwarves to chop down trees. All you are doing is designating tasks, however; hit the space bar, and the game will unpause, hopefully sending your dwarves to immediately go to work on whatever task you have assigned the collective to do. A dwarf will only undertake tasks you have assigned to it, so every now and again you might find your colony is lazy, and simple doesn't do what you ask of them. By changing the available tasks a dwarf is capable of, you figure out how to solve this problem, but you do notice that some dwarves are faster than others at certain tasks because they have the required skills to be proficient, where others do not.

You use that wood you were chopping to start making beds; your dwarves will need a place to sleep. You go down one Z level to the layer beneath your current set of rooms, your dwarves build a set of stairs down there at your command, and start making a hallway full of tiny bedrooms. After producing beds at your Carpenters Workshop and doors at your Masons Workshop, you tell your dwarves where to place all of this new furniture and they quickly get to work, picking up the completed items and bringing them downstairs, placing them where you command until you have seven tiny bedrooms. The dwarves don't seem to use them at first, but by hitting q for query, you select one of the beds and hit r to "make bedroom". Now the dwarves know this is a bedroom where they can sleep, and they will automatically claim rooms for themselves.

Pretty soon you might figure out that you can view the thoughts of every individual dwarf in your fortress. Glomdring, your Farmer, apparently can't seem to find a comfortable place to sit. So you make a new room, a meeting hall, full of tables and chairs where all your dwarves will get together, drink, and eat merrily. Of course, you are starting to run out of liquor, dwarves first choice in drink, because the barrels you brought are running dry. Luckily you have some Plump Helmet seeds with you, which can be planted in the ground to grow mushrooms which can be brewed into cheap moonshine. Unfortunately, you can't seem to plot a farm anywhere so you go on the wiki and discover irrigation, running water over the ground to make it damp and useable. You dig a channel from beneath a lake into an underground room which then flows down another Z level into a giant pool, and voila, you can now make a farm!

It is around this time when the breadth of the game really starts to dawn on you. Finding consistent ways to constantly produce food and drink is not hard, but eventually, more dwarves start to migrate to your fortress. Now you need more food, more drink, more rooms, and eventually, some entertainment. You will need to produce clothes once the dwarves wear through theirs. An animal might die in the fort and start producing miasma, a purple gas which makes your dwarves suicidal. Traders will eventually come, so you will need to have an ample supply of high quality goods, created in your dwarves spare time, to trade with them. You'll get an anvil perhaps through trade, and eventually start learning what all the many types of stone in the game are, and how they are to be used. You might suffer a small but concerted goblin attack early on, prompting you to create a hospital, and start producing weapons. Eventually you will need a broker and a manager to start bookkeeping for your fortress, which will give you a much more detailed idea of what kind of goods you have on hand. As more immigrants pour in, you will start digging further down until eventually you find out how to smelter that ore and start making better goods. You will learn to make traps to defend your fortress as dangerous enemies in outlying lands start to learn of your wealth and begin to want what you have.

Eventually, the inevitable decline of your dwarven empire will become frightfully clear to you; maintaining such an unwieldy fortress will become to overwhelming, and out of a little bit of random chaos, perhaps a bar brawl in the recesses of your fort, or maybe something as dangerous as a demon attack after you dig too far down, the world will begin to collapse around you, and you will realize the ultimate fate you were destined to suffer as soon as you hit the e key; defeat. Because in DF, losing is something that is celebrated, expected, inevitable. But the stories your fortress will have left behind will keep you talking, will inspire others, and eventually, even if you give up after that fort you worked so hard on becomes hopelessly lost, you will come back to do it all over again, with completely different results each time.

People talk a lot about the learning curve DF has, how massively out of proportion it is to other games, and the most common question players who have an understanding of the basics will eventually ask is " what?" Strangely enough, there is no answer to this question because the only real "goal", if you could call it that, is to get as big as you possibly can before something eventually comes along to stomp you into the mud. This makes DF unique for the sole reason that it is one of the only games in existence where the learning curve itself, the trial and error and hopefully, eventual intimacy with the mechanics, is a key part of the appeal, of the gameplay itself.

Most games expect you to understand how they work before going in, and once you have the revelation of "oh, I get it." that it when you can really expect to begin enjoying the game. With DF, you will have a limited understanding going in, and even spending hours and days in the wiki or on YouTube, you won't get a real sense of understanding for anything until you take the plunge and start experimenting, and most importantly, failing. Dwarf Fortress for that reason is not really a "game" at all; it is a trial and error simulation of the highest degree, an electronic science experiment, one where you could spend a lifetime and not see everything there is to see. When a game is so detailed it simulates everything right down to broken bones on your dwarves after they have been engaged in combat, nothing is static or predictable, and consistent results are difficult to achieve by design. When you play Dwarf Fortress, you are not a god; you are simply a hands on observer whose relatively limited involvement in the hostile, living world on the computer screen will eventually boil down to that of a bewildered onlooker as the environment you have helped to sustain eventually becomes to sprawling for you to properly micromanage, as the in game logic, nature if you will, eventually triumphs and civilization crumbles, becoming nothing more than a small page in the generated worlds own recorded history.

You will feel overwhelmed. You will feel emasculated. You will be crushed by an intimidating, monolithic slab of difficulty and required learning. Only those with true gaming grit, with perseverance, with patience, and with intelligence are allowed to survive and thrive within the brutal landscape of Dwarf Fortress, but those who do will also flourish; they will have found an experience unmatched by any other, because even within the excessive emulations which exist, none can even come close to replicating the unique, bewildering, awe-inspiring, and brilliant experience which DF provides.

This is a game that is very close to my heart, one which I have spent many dozens of hours exploring, only to barely scratch the surface of. So for the bold, for the brave, for those pioneers whose only reward will be inescapable doom should they choose to venture into that minimalist landscape and to see what lies in wait; good luck.

You are truly going to need it.

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