This is a screenshot of a world map in Dwarf Fortress. No, it doesn't get simpler from here. Image: Tarn Adams
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Way down in the hole: getting to grips with Dwarf Fortress

If you love Minecraft, you'll possibly also love Dwarf Fortress - a game with a famously complex-yet-simple graphical and gameplay style that sees the player try to mine out and secure a home for dwarfs beneath the ground of a procedurally-generated world.

Dwarf Fortress is a mixture of classic turn-based fantasy adventure games and sophisticated city building that has been confounding observers since 2006. With its apparently incomprehensible visuals and its learning curve that appears to be not just steep and unending, but slippery and sometimes electrified, it has no doubt repelled the vast majority of people who have ever attempted to play it. Yet many still do. Eight years since it first appeared the game is stilled played, and loved, by a legion of diehard fans. It has achieved an enduring cult status in a way that only the truly great games ever can.

The game is free to play - in theory you can just download it, unzip the files and get started - although this direct approach isn’t always the wisest and we’ll see why later on. The creators of Dwarf Fortress, brothers Tarn and Zach Adams, distribute their work freely and finance their continued support for the project with voluntary donations from the players.

The goal of Dwarf Fortress, at least in the standard ‘Fortress’ mode, varies from player to player. For some the challenge lies in creating a happy and successful dwarf hold that doesn’t get overrun or destroyed by any of the horrible creatures and things in the world that might seek to overrun or destroy it. More experienced players might attempt to establish their communities in more dangerous regions - like a haunted glacier, or a volcano - and see if they can survive long enough to unpack their cart. Doom is not inevitable in Dwarf Fortress, but it is certainly always possible due to the sheer number of things that can potentially go wrong. Death and disaster have a special place in the hearts of the Dwarf Fortress player base, and the spectacular ways that an apparently promising situation can slide into horror are the stuff of legend.

I had not played Dwarf Fortress until recently, and then not successfully. Early attempts have always ended the same way. I’d download it, create a world, pick a starting location, stare in bewilderment at the jumble of letters and numbers amid a sea of other seemingly unrelated symbols which apparently constituted my starting group, and give up. Dwarf Fortress has a way of making you feel very small in those first few minutes. It looms over you with what seems to be an utterly inscrutable user interface, daring you to make that first move, if you can work out how. The game's reputation for being unforgiving and lethal adds menace to its mystery - you begin to suspect that if you mess up your first few moves, everything might just come crashing down around you later.

Looking back, my mistake with the game was to approach it almost as I would any other - to dive right in. Diving right into a game has been my preferred plan for years, and barring the odd overly-detailed simulator where you can spend a couple of hours trying to turn on the vehicle being simulated there normally isn’t too much that can go wrong. Try, fail, try again, learn by doing and soon enough you’ll be figure out how to get by. Games have been designed to accommodate this approach for years, to the point where many are happy to hold your hand all the way from the start of the game to the end. Even more esoteric games will typically offer up their mysteries after being strategically monkeyed around with for an hour or two. We have learned to view the ability for a game to be picked up and played as a positive trait.

This would never work with Dwarf Fortress however, or at least not for me. The problem with Dwarf Fortress is that, to the utterly initiated, there is very little by way of actual points of contact. The game world at first looks like somebody loaded the contents of a Scrabble bag into a blunderbuss and fired it at the monitor screen. There is a user interface, but very little of what is displayed has any real immediate connection with the alphabet soup that contains the characters, objects and topography. Without points of contact, without any sense of cause and effect, you’re barely able to interact with the game, much less draw educated conclusions about what your experimental keyboard mashing has accomplished.

For me to get into Dwarf Fortress a more old-fashioned approach was required. I was going to have to read the manual. Dwarf Fortress conveniently has a manual built into the game and it covers much, though being as it is a part of the game itself it feels awkward to use and isn’t the most readable of documents. Hoping to find something better I sought help from other sources and this prompted my first encounter with the Dwarf Fortress community.

This community, I soon discovered, contains some of the most determinedly helpful people you could ever hope to find when playing a game. The resources assembled by the various members of this community are nothing short of spectacular. There is a wiki, which would soon become a sort of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for me as I delved into the game. There are tutorials of a depth and intricacy that they could pass for Open University study courses, my particular favourites being those of Matt Thornberry and CaptnDuck. It is perhaps thanks to CaptnDuck’s tutorial that I am forever going to imagine that dwarfs in Dwarf Fortress have Dutch accents. These tutorials are both for older versions of the game - at the time of writing the current build is 40.05 - but they cover the principles of the game in enough detail for you to figure out the basic concepts.

Lastly, as well as providing copious amounts of information, the community around Dwarf Fortress has also produced modifications, tweaks and third party programs to augment the game in order to make it easier to get to grips with. In some communities the idea of making a game easier for new players would be considered sacrilege. Like the Monty Python Four Yorkshiremen sketch, players like to wear the difficulty of a game as a badge of honour. Unusually, the community of Dwarf Fortress seems to know that nothing they can really do will save new players from the horrors that the game might unleash upon them, and as such they have no qualms about easing players into the game.

With that in mind they have created starter packs (one of which is available here), made and compiled by Peridexis Errant. This starter pack provides the game, some additional utilities, some alternative tilesets and a simple yet functional launcher to allow you to change some of the settings in the game as well as implement the utilities and tileset options. The different between approaching Dwarf Fortress directly from the source and acquiring it as a part of a starter pack is huge, if only because of the option to change the tileset.

A screenshot from a game of Dwarf Fortress. Image: Tarn Adams

Dwarf Fortress does not have graphics in the way that a conventional game has graphics - instead the game is displayed using a tileset. Letters, numbers, punctuation and other symbols are used to represent objects and creatures. At a basic level it is like playing chess using different coloured scrabble letters, ‘P’ for a pawn, ‘K’ for a King, a lowercase ‘k’ for a Knight, and so on with colours to represent the factions. In the context of a game as comparatively simple as chess this system of representation can be fairly intuitive and the small number of different elements in play can be easily understood, but when you extend that kind of system that to a game which has as many different objects, characters, creatures and topographical elements as Dwarf Fortress has then you’re dealing with a system that won’t make much sense at first.

As such replacing the default tileset of the game with a new one that is purpose built for the task means that instead of being presented with the standard ASCII characters you can instead start to see symbols that are more representative of their subject. For example a goblin invasion suddenly becomes a flurry of little goblin markers, rather than a simple scattering of multi-coloured lowercase letter g’s, moving across the map.

Armed with a hefty stockpile of knowledge in the theory of dwarf fortress architecture and aided by a less cryptic tileset I approached the game anew, and it took my breath away.

To look at Dwarf Fortress it is easy to imagine it as an anachronistic throwback to the likes of Rogue and Nethack, a cute little sort of retro tribute. However the truth of the matter, which becomes rapidly more apparent as you learn exactly what is being done within the game, is that this is not a primitive or old fashioned game. Dwarf Fortress is spectacularly sophisticated. The world that the game generates for you is created in the sort of meticulous detail that would typically demand several hundred pages of appendices at the end of a JRR Tolkien novel. Each created world has a history, legendary figures, towns, cities and people. You can create a world that is artificially aged up to a thousand years, or you can start with a younger world, either approach bringing with it different challenges. A new world might be untamed when a more established one might be home to established communities of potential foes such as goblins.

The characters in the game are similarly detailed. Examine one of your dwarfs and you’ll be told what they look like, whether they are healthy, what experiences might have affected them recently, what they aspire to do, what their personality is like, what their character flaws are, who their friends are and how they get along with all the other dwarfs they have contact with. Every dwarf is fleshed out in this much depth and these character elements draw themselves out into an almost immediate narrative. You can root for the dwarf who is not the most socially adroit yet who dreams of becoming a master sculptor and you can sympathise for a dwarf who feels despondent at the disappearance of his best friend. Bereft of graphics and voice actors the game takes on a literary quality.

This quality is further served by the consistency of the world of Dwarf Fortress. The disconnect between the setting and the systems and the events within the game is minimal, so despite the fantasy elements and magic in-game you are seldom left scratching your head as to why somebody is reacting the way that they are. This means that the narratives that the game creates as events unfold feel compelling and true to the characters. This perhaps is the root of why Dwarf Fortress players embrace the eventual collapse of their settlements as part of the fun of the game, because without that protective layer, that ability to laugh it off, losing your town in Dwarf Fortress would be a singularly horrible experience. When goblins are stealing children, lost miners are starving to death and indescribable monsters are tearing through first your soldiers then your townspeople, perhaps it is better that their graphic representation not be too realistic.

The realisation of just how deep the Dwarf Fortress rabbit-hole goes is part of the learning process, that moment when you comprehend just what this game is capable of and you have to stop and contemplate just what you’ve stumbled into. After learning those first few concepts, seeing what you can do in the game, seeing the scope of the systems, the capabilities of the creatures under your command, suddenly the staggering and (I suspect) unparalleled possibilities of the game become apparent. Compared to games like the classic Dungeon Keeper, or more recently Prison Architect and Banished, the sheer scale of the game becomes apparent. In other games you have only a tiny fraction of the options for what you can do, what you can build and who can inhabit your world. This isn't even to mention that everything in those games is happening on maps with a single level - your mega-prison is a giant bungalow, your dungeon complex essentially a cellar. In Dwarf Fortress the world goes a long way up, and - more importantly for your pickaxe-wielding populace - it goes a long, long way down too.

The start of a game of Dwarf Fortress involves creating a world (or using one you’ve made earlier), and picking a place to embark your dwarf group. Choosing the location is a challenge because there are so many considerations and pitfalls, that, on your first try, you might forget one of them and make things that much more difficult for yourself. For example my first few attempts all hit fatal drawbacks due to my inexperience with understanding the map. A seemingly-ideal start point at the bottom of a mountain was marred by a lack of nearby fresh water to drink. The next time I thought I’d opt for a marsh, thinking that at least I’d have plenty of water. This was true, but given the lack of anything solid to build a home on, or in, the expedition was abandoned. My next start ran into an aquifer layer where I learned a short, painful lesson about the dwarfish lack of prowess at swimming in enclosed spaces, and also that water pressure is a thing in Dwarf Fortress.

As well as choosing the where of your starting location, you have to choose who or what is loaded into the wagon. Supplies are vital, as are dwarfs with useful skills, and while the default group will usually have sufficient equipment and ability to survive more or less anywhere it never hurts to tailor it to suit your style once you begin to understand what that style might be. Your first dwarfs are effectively the advance party - migrants and trade caravans will follow them, as will children eventually, but the first task is to prepare the ground. So far my efforts have seldom reached much past this point: I set up a rudimentary settlement, something large and carnivorous gets a whiff of it, and things take a terminal turn for the worse. For the sake of my next fortress I am studying the art of trap building and controlled cave-ins.

Ultimately, not to put too fine a point on it, everybody should at least try to play Dwarf Fortress. Not everybody can or will of course, but everybody should try because you don’t know if you’ll like it until you do. It is a magnificent and unique game. I don’t describe it in such glowing terms because I see it as a whimsical underdog, powered by good vibrations and fairy farts while it competes against the products of faceless corporations, but because, contrary to appearances, it is as good as it is said to be.

We live in a world where the games hype is about generations and budgets, about teraflops of graphics processing and always online multiplayer experiences with new content and bonuses for this year’s pre-order of last year’s must have franchise remade in HD exclusive for a console you probably didn’t want to buy anyway. And in that world, unlikely as it sounds, the most complex and compelling city building game ever made was created by two people, costs nothing and looks like a system crash in MS DOS. Having accepted this, all there is left to do is play it.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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The non-fiction novel that takes readers inside the head of Raoul Moat

Andrew Hankinson’s depiction of Moat’s unravelling is being marketed as biography/true crime, but its semi-fictional world is something more complex.

In July 2010, just weeks after becoming Prime Minister, David Cameron expanded upon his vision for the “Big Society” that he had first unveiled at the 2009 party conference. It promised a “big advance for people power”, in which individuals would be responsible for their actions. “To be British is to be sceptical of authority and the powers that be,” he told conference. “There is a ‘we’ in politics, and not just a ‘me’.”

That same month, just two days after being released from HMP Durham for the assault of a child, the self-employed gardener and former doorman Raoul Moat shot and injured his ex-girlfriend Samantha Stobbart and killed her boyfriend Chris Brown, who he wrongly believed to be a policeman. Moat went on the run, shooting a policeman at point-blank range, then fleeing to the rural Northumberland town of Rothbury. For a week, the story of this exotically named, delusional man who left behind a wealth of material, including letters and four-hour-long Dictaphone recordings, was given joint top billing with Cameron’s “Big Society” – soon to be as dead and buried as Moat, who, cornered by police after a seven-day hunt, killed himself.

The journalist Andrew Hankinson’s depiction of Moat’s unravelling is being marketed as biography/true crime, yet really is a non-fiction novel, in which writer and reader squat inside a mind that moves from irrational anger and self-pity to despondency. Moat’s is a solipsistic narration, in which he is the perennial victim – of circumstance, enemies, authoritarian bureaucracy, police harassment and past lovers. There is little room here for the outside world. Like most outlaws, Moat believed that everyone had failed him. “All my life I wanted death,” he laments.

The real-life Moat story, however, was more than that of a lone fugitive. It was also about rolling news coverage and Facebook groups, some of which celebrated Moat as a Ned Kelly-type folk hero – a “#ledge”. When Cameron denounced him in parliament he inadvertently elevated Moat to a clearer anti-authoritarian position: the antithesis of a “Big Society” citizen, in fact. It is also the story of the Northumbria Police force, which did its very best to show that it had everything under control when it really didn’t.

And, bringing an element of farce to a tragedy, it featured the subplot of a thoroughly leathered Paul Gascoigne – the most exciting and idiosyncratic footballer of his generation – tearing through the countryside in a taxi with a fishing rod, a dressing gown and a rotisserie chicken in an attempt to bring a sense of calm to the situation. “All I want to do is shout, ‘Moaty, it’s  Gazza! Where are you?’” he explained en route during a live radio phone-in. “And I guarantee he will shout his name out: ‘I’m here.’” Gascoigne’s pantomime intervention added to the chaos: now another disenfranchised northern male was running amok. The parallels were evident: Gazza’s career had been beset by injury and alcoholism, Moat’s bodybuilder’s physique was no longer in prime condition after weight loss in prison. Both were separated from their families and prone to self-examination. Onlookers knew it could quite easily have been Gazza holed up in those woods.

Other exponents of the non-fiction novel such as Norman Mailer and Gordon Burn would surely have put all this in, yet Hankinson chooses not to cover any of the peripheral subplots, instead using a second-person narrative to burrow deep into Moat’s paranoia, sourcing all his text from real material. This narrative sacrifice in favour of a singular voice gives the book thrust and authenticity of voice, and manages to show the nuances of a man who was articulate and often capable, and had reached out to social services on many occasions for help. None of which excuses Moat’s action – but it does explain his choices. Where the tabloids favoured the simplicity of the textbook “cold-blooded killer”, Hankinson’s portrait lets the reader make his or her own judgement. Clearly Moat was a bully, and yet he was not born that way. Few are. “There’ll be books written about all this, and you’ll be made out to be some crazed fucking maniac,” he says to himself, with both foresight and grim resignation.

Elsewhere the semi-fictional Moat brushes over past transgressions and labours over the tiniest slights in such repetitive, droning detail that the reader’s sympathy soon wanes. The book’s strength lies in the real-life Moat’s keenness to confess – to be heard, finally, beyond death – through these nocturnal monologues, recorded in his tent after yet another meal of charred burgers. From these remnants, Hankinson deftly assembles the man’s inner workings, lending credibility to his portrait while, beyond the myopic commentary, we know, although we don’t see it, that the outside world is closing in. Critics might ask: why give voice to a loser? Perhaps because in the right hands any real-life story is worth telling, and history should never just record the heroes and victors. The losers play their part, too.

Ben Myers’s novel “Beastings” recently won the Portico Prize for Literature

You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat] by Andrew Hankinson is published by Scribe (211pp, £12.99)

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war