Phil Hartup on videogames

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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.

This is a screenshot of a world map in Dwarf Fortress. No, it doesn't get simpler from here. Image: Tarn Adams
This is a screenshot of a world map in Dwarf Fortress. No, it doesn't get simpler from here. Image: Tarn Adams

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.

Tags:Gaming