Fantasy Round 29: Dwarf Fortress
It is a truly notoriously challenging computer game. And, once you get past the steep learning curve (which generally requires looking at the extensive wiki) very addictive.
It’s even been notable enough to go on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in a video game exhibition, right next to SimCity.
So, let’s have a look.
What did I just blunder into?
This is not SimCity.
Right from the start, you can tell the game is likely to be trouble.
ASCII graphics. No tutorial.
It’s almost impossible to play without assistance from the extensive wiki — I’m not sure what the early players did.
Just learning how to switch between levels (hit “>” or “<“), or dig out a selected region (hit d, then maybe d again, select the area…) is tricky, and setting up your military defenses is worse.
Oh, and don’t forget to make enough food and booze for your dwarves, or they’ll starve.
And make sure the animals that graze are pastured, or they’ll starve.
And… well, ignore the little happy faces that represent your dwarves. They demand your attention constantly.
Worst of all, it’s really hard to figure out any of that just getting started — or any of the complex things you need to do to make sure your dwarves can find the seeds they need to plant, and so on.
Simulating Physics… and Dwarven Stupidity
The dwarves are really stupid, but the game does pretty well on the realism front.
According to various articles (such as here, and also here), Tarn Adams has put a lot of effort into making the game realistic in a procedural way. When generating a world, he’s disappointed he hasn’t been able to add plate techtonics yet. But I’ve learned a distressing amount about geology and minerals just by digging around to build my fortress and trying to figure out what, say, tetrahedrite ore is.
You can also set up assorted devices — to make leather items, you need a leatherworker, but first you must tan the hides, and before that, butcher an animal that a dwarf has hunted down or raised for the purpose. To build a well, you need not only the materials but a suitable clean water source, which you may have to build yourself with a byzantine system of pumps connected to an underground aquifer. Or, if you make a mistake in your digging, use to flood your fortress. It’s a game of details.
Every single dwarf has their own name, skills, personality, thoughts, likes and dislikes. Their descriptions are jarringly cute relative to the harsh world they live in. They can also react badly to circumstances — losing friends and family to death and other deprivations will make your dwarves unhappy, they’ll start fighting with each other, and down your fortress goes.
Of course, the realism only goes so far — you’re still going to have to defend against horrible fell beasts (which have their own fun descriptions) if you happen to dig into their caverns. Or if you dig too deep looking for adamantine… well, Dwarf Fortress has the unofficial motto “losing is fun” for good reason. But if you can survive long enough, you can check out…
The Wonders Of Emergent Properties
There are all sorts of “Stupid Dwarf Tricks” that the complexity of the game allows you to pull off, once you’ve mastered feeding your dwarves. Giant magma trap for killing invaders? Check. Complex trap room for convincing an untamed Giant Cave Spider to spit webs so you can make epic cloth from the silken strands? Check. Build an elaborate system of minecarts or waterways or other things to make a simple computer inside Dwarf Fortress? Check.
Yes, someone has actually created a Turing-complete computational device in Dwarf Fortress.
You can redirect rivers and make obsidian by pouring them onto magma, and then using the resulting obsidian for various valuable things. You can (attempt to) tame dragons.
And the list goes on, with occasional unexpected emergent results. For instance: swimming, like in real life, trains up things like “endurance” and “strength” very rapidly. In an earlier version of game, this applied to swimming creatures as much as it did to dwarves, with the consequence that carnivorous carp could do a lot of swimming and, eventually, ate some dwarves. The game has been tweaked so that no longer occurs, but there are other interesting combinations — including perpetual motion machines.
The game is also complex and entertaining enough that assorted art has been made to accompany it — such as this comic, which exemplifies a typical game of Dwarf Fortress.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to build an aqueduct and some fortifications against the next goblin seige…