The Obsessive Complexity of Dwarf Fortress
The strange and amazing freeware title Dwarf Fortress will be installed as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s upcoming exhibit on video games soon, and the reaction to it on the part of most of the public will probably be similar to when an obscure Russian Dadaist is presented.
Even among people who have heard of Dwarf Fortress, there’s but a small group actually willing to play it. It’s presented in colorized ASCII graphics, the interface is Byzantine, and the baseline difficulty level (control issues aside) is astoundingly high. It’s been called “the most complex video game ever made.”
Give the game a couple hours, however, and you begin to realize why it’s become an underground phenom. Dwarf Fortress is an exercise in obsessively-detailed world modeling, from watersheds created by mountains and the effects they have on valley forests, to the states of each creature’s limbs and internal organs. Economies, politics, and histories are created each time the game generates a new world. The titular dwarfs have memories and states of mind ranging from ecstatic to miserable, and they will sometimes go into fugue states when a fey mood of artistry strikes them. The masterpieces they create can be examined individually and will often depict scenes from your fortress’s history.
But we’re putting the cart before the horse here. For the uninitiated, what is Dwarf Fortress? The game demands comparison to Minecraft in its procedural generation of entire worlds that can be mined for minerals and farmed for food. But Dwarf Fortress also has strong elements of The Sims, Dungeon Keeper, and the classic Rogue-likes such as Angband.
The first thing that happens when starting a game is that a world is generated. Once you pick out a good-looking site, you can select an expeditionary team of dwarfs, who are plunked down into the world along with their few belongings. You’re given no direct control over your team of dwarfs – instead, you play as a disembodied overseer creating tasks you need to be done and assigning dwarfs to particular jobs based on their skills. The game unfolds in real time (although you can pause to create tasks and mark zones), so after issuing some orders, you can watch as your little ASCII dwarfs busy themselves with doing their jobs.
In Maslowian fashion, the first concerns are finding shelter and setting up food production. The dwarfs will have brought some provisions, but these will run out quickly. Constructing farms for mushrooms (“plump helmets” are one variety) and pasture areas for yak is one immediate task, as is creating storage areas for food and items. Once a wood storage area is established, your woodcutting dwarfs can begin harvesting trees, and others will pitch in to haul the logs back to your fledgling fort where they can be used in a workshop to create tools and furniture. Similarly, the stone mined as your dwarfs tunnel into the ground can be collected, stored, and carved into useful items and crafts.
Before long, the dwarfs’ pitch-in attitude will fade, and they’ll start wanting things, such as bedrooms and dining halls. And then there are kobold thieves and goblin raids to worry about…
But describing the game’s mechanics doesn’t do justice to the experience. Each Dwarf Fortress game is different and, due to the fine-grained modeling of each element in the environment, creates its own set of stories. During the early days of one of my first games, I was able to set up a nice living area for my dwarfs in the side of a mountain. A dining hall had been carved out, which also served as a meeting area. Some of my dwarfs took a liking to the stray dogs that had been wandering around, and these were (without my orders) moved into the dining hall, where they had puppies and sat on the tables. This didn’t seem to bother the dwarfs at all, but I was concerned about the fact that I’d apparently adopted a tribe of animal hoarders.
Later I learned that you can assign tame animals to certain areas, and large packs of dogs are helpful in keeping kobold thieves away from the fort.
When the first migrants arrived to the fort, they brought a pair of guinea hens with them. These were beloved enough for the dwarfs to give them (very dwarf-like) names, and when I moved the burgeoning pack of dogs outside to guard the entrance, a dwarf took one of the hens to his room and kept it there, apparently out of fear that I’d banish it from the dining room like the dogs.
An early goblin raid not long after left several dwarfs and many of the dogs dead, which upset the rest of the clan. I had no idea how to establish tombs at that point, so the bodies were hauled outside and left in a refuse pile. This upset the living dwarfs a bit, but it really upset the dead ones, some of whom returned to haunt their friends as ghosts. I had my stonecutter carve memorial slabs to the fallen, and once these were put up, the ghosts left – but only after driving one of my miners stark raving mad.
Later on in the game, “noble” dwarfs will fill administrative roles such as mayor or manager, and these dwarfs will require offices and higher-end furniture. You can decree a more capitalist system and charge dwarfs rent for their quarters, meaning dwarfs doing jobs in higher demand will be able to afford more luxurious apartments, while laborers will have to make do in a dormitory. This will create some social tension but keep the noble dwarfs who show up happier.
There’s no “win” state for Dwarf Fortress. You just attempt to grow your settlement into a large, sustainable community where the people – I mean, dwarfs – are happy and can fend off attacks from the outside.
Given its complexity, it’s amazing to learn that Dwarf Fortress was completely created by two brothers. Tarn Adams programmed the entire game with Zach Adams providing input. Tarn, who has a Ph.D. from Stanford and did postdoctoral work at Texas A&M, has said that Dwarf Fortress – which is only about 30 percent complete – is his life’s work.
Dwarf Fortress might not settle the “can games be art” question, but it’s certainly a demonstration of how games can move beyond what have traditionally been considered their limits. You can download it from the Adams’ Bay 12 Games here, but I highly recommend watching some YouTube tutorial videos before embarking on your first adventure.