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Review – Dwarf Fortress

posted on April 9th, 2009 by jake

Freedom, sweet freedom. Hours disappear, days melt away, weeks pass in a blur.

Having returned to a society that is busy imploding into an apocalyptic mess that any supervillain would be proud to have caused, I find myself spending my few sober hours preparing for the end of the world. And also playing video games.

I have been busy stockpiling bottlecaps, because we all know that bottlecaps are the currency of a world gone wrong. My stupid neighbor downstairs has taken a lesson from my fevered preparations and has begun to create his own stash of pop can tabs, but this is wrong. He will be penniless and alone in the wastelands of the near future while I will be king of all I survey. There will be no shotgun ammo that I cannot buy, no can of beans out of my reach. I stare into the face of reality with a sense of hope and excitement.

Even I need breaks from my search for bottlecaps and cheap canned goods. Welding heavy metal plates onto the car I stole is tiring work, but it will be worth it when I drive roughshod over the wandering unprepared masses. And unfortunately, my dealers cannot keep up with my habit, so I find myself searching for other ways to enjoy myself.

Video games, like the hard drugs that I abuse to no end, are a great escape from reality. Writing about them kind of sucks. It will be totally worth it though when I finally get my sweet paycheck. I mean, video games are about to overtake movies as the most lucrative entertainment business in America. This must mean that my opinions on the internet are worth their weight in gold.

So despair not, oh faithful fan. My need to repay the dozens of loansharks that I have met and upset over the years means that I will be studious in my article writing for videolamer. Today I write about a game that can help all of us prepare for the dark ages that are just around the corner. Today I write about Dwarf Fortress.

I will be debuting my new rating system for video games in this article, I hope it turns you on. I spent the last week half-asleep and half-engrossed in making the best rating system ever seen on the internet, and I feel good about it.

The game: Dwarf Fortress

The Publisher: Two brothers who really love the game they created.

The Reason You Should Care: Dwarf Fortress was first released in 2006. It is currently still in Alpha stages and is undergoing constant revisions and additions. In spite of this, it is one of the deeper strategic games ever made. It sports wicked ASCII graphics ala Rogue and is all but impossible to play as a new user due to its cumbersome text-based user interface. It has no built-in tutorial system; everything about it has been learned through hundreds of hours of painstaking trial and error by its devoted fanbase.

Burial Receptacle should obviously be “n” but “u” for Channel is just insanity.

There is a wealth of information about Dwarf Fortress available on the web. After Action Reporter’s Complete Newbie Tutorial is an invaluable resource for new players, explaining in detail many of the common commands and problems encountered during gameplay. Mike May’s compilation Mayday tileset increases the graphical level somewhat. The Dwarf Fortress Wiki is an invaluable tool for all things DF-related, with articles covering everything from military tactics to the deep geology simulator built into the game.

First things first. Dwarf Fortress is unforgiving in its treatment of mistakes and it is easy to make them when the functionality is as difficult as it is. Some menus use the numpad to scroll up and down. Some use the + and – keys. There is no rhyme or reason as to which menu uses what and the results of hitting the wrong button can be frustrating. Sometimes area marking is done by pressing enter, moving the cursor and pressing enter again to signify the space to be used. Other times, the player must use the ‘u’ and the ‘k’ keys to increase the size of a box that will be used to designate an area. Again, no explanation as to why one function uses a certain command and another similar function uses a different command. On some menus, designating a statue is done by pressing ‘s’. On another menu, it is the ‘u’ key. These things are difficult to get past, to be honest, and many players will give up well before they reach the fun parts of the game. Hopefully, as the game’s builds move forward, some of these issues will be addressed.

Underneath the daunting front presented by Dwarf Fortress is something worth experiencing. Indeed, the stories of other players’ experiences are well worth reading, regardless of whether you have any interest in playing yourself. Take, for instance, the tale of Boatmurdered, a game where a different player played each successive year. It is a tale of rampaging elephants, of ingenious dwarven defenses that use magma to scorch the earth and of a dwarf going insane and killing others with a hammer while on fire. There is also a story told by Chris Dahlen of the Onion’s AV Club during his coverage of the GDC this year. It is the third comment in the Comments section of the article, and I will quote the important part here:

“One player’s dwarves accidentally made a mistake in their mining, which led to total disaster. Every single dwarf died – except for one of the baby dwarves. This baby dwarf, which was extremely sad, crawled around the screen, past its dead mother and father, and then finally found a pond, where it decided to drown itself out of sorrow.

The game has an algorithm that made a baby commit suicide. Emergent narrative FTW!”

Indeed, Chris, indeed. In fact, it was this comment that made me look into this game, and in the field of emergent narrative it does not disappoint.

Here is my best story from my gameplay adventures so far: My Fortress’s mayor meets with diplomats from a local human community to discuss trading details for the upcoming year. During the middle of the meeting, in gloriously dwarven fashion, the mayor decides that she needs to make a legendary artifact that will stand the tests of time.

Perhaps the humans said something about turtle shells and larch wood that sparked her imagination. Perhaps she had spent months pondering how to make the perfect dwarven stone drum and finally figured out the missing ingredient needed for perfection while dining with the befuddled humans. Regardless, she stormed out of the meeting with a sudden urgency and locked herself in a workshop. This upset the human diplomats greatly and they stormed out of the fortress in a rage. They have not returned since, and when they do I am not so sure how things will go. The mayor did not care, she was on a mission.

Unfortunately, I lacked all of the materials she needed to complete her masterpiece. Having read up on what happens after dwarves fail at such things, I had no choice. I locked her into her workshop, alone. She failed at her task and she sank into a deep melancholy. She refused to eat anything or drink anything, and after many hours of painful watching, she starved to death. After her unsuccessful attempt to succeed at her life’s dream, the rest of the pragmatic and somewhat cold-hearted dwarves elected a new mayor while she slowly died a painful death inside her prison of failure. To make up for my failure, I built her a gigantic mausoleum, where she still rests.

It is the moments of despair and failure that drive the game forward, and the collapse of a once-functional fortress full of dwarves is just as worthwhile as all of the moments of normalcy that proceed it. I cared about the mayor because of all she had done for my fortress before she went insane, but I was just as interested to watch her fall apart as I would have been so see her continue living. I could not make her eat. I could not make her give up her dreams. While she was happy she listened to my commands. Once she was depressed she was beyond my control. But she didn’t just cease to exist in game terms. Her friends were affected by her death, her actions pissed off the humans who live near me and my artisan dwarfs spend a lot of time depicting her short, painful life on the walls of the fortress.

The unofficial motto of Dwarf Fortress is “losing is fun!” This is very true. The game is also fun when you are thriving. Behind the terrible graphics and clunky interface is a powerful engine. It can take even a high-end machine ten minutes to build the game world due to the complex algorithms that lead to the world as you, the player know it. Rules of physics are followed. Rules of geology are strictly adhered to. My fortress is on a mountain of igneous rock, which directly affects the types of stone I dig up. Rivers supply endless water, but lakes can be depleted by overuse. Valleys flood during heavy rainstorms. Volcanoes are laced with magma channels that can both hurt and help.

Some areas of the map have aquifers, causing potential problems when trying to build a proper dwarf fortress. Building a proper millstone does not just require the manufacture of a millstone. The player must also build complex machines that can power the millstone. Overmining of an underground area without proper construction of support columns can lead to cave-ins. When cave-ins occur and dwarfs die, the surviving dwarfs must be tasked to dig up the rubble. If they do not, the dwarfs trapped under the mounds of stone begin to rot and cause pockets of stench that sicken and anger passersby. Dwarfs can be injured in a myriad of ways, as the game keeps track of a variety of external limbs and internal organs that can be hurt in varying levels.

There are other modes beyond the main “Fortress Mode.” There is “Adventurer Mode,” which basically turns the world created in Fortress mode into a gigantic game of Rogue, player-created fortresses included. “Legends mode” allows the player to explore the history books created during the long and detailed world creation. It is a fully fleshed out timeline of the world, allowing the curious to find out what happened before they built their fortresses.

It is a game that is hard to get into because it has so much potential. If you can dream it, it is probably possible. An example of this is the lignite box trick. A player can build an iron box that is so strong that it can survive magma. When it is finished, the player places the box into a magma channel. Into the box he places lignite, a burnable stone. The lignite ignites, and the player has, through ingenious use of the landscape, created a nuclear reactor. The lignite and magma in the box burns forever, allowing the player to create some neat tricks that would otherwise be unavailable.

In many commercial games, this type of thing would be impossible. In Dwarf Fortress, it is just one of many potential reactions that are possible. The very things that make the game unfriendly towards new users make it so enjoyable to those who stick around. It is limitless in its potential, but getting to that point is terrible and hard.

I cannot recommend this game enough for the patient gamer who is willing to trudge through the difficult parts to get to the real meat inside. If you have no patience and cannot get past the game’s many flaws, then you should avoid this like the plague. Still, I find it enjoyable, as I am sure that my new rating system will show.

This image is 120k in order to present Dwarf Fortress in stunning detail.

Spyder Mayhem’s Awesome Super-Hyper Excellent Rating Scheme X (SMASHERS X)

-Does the game possess tons of sweet cutscenes using the best graphics available?

No. It has no cutscenes at all. (0 Points)

-Does the game feature a sweet female character dressed in skanky clothes for no reason other than to stare at her?

No. Due to the ASCII graphics, female and male dwarfs look the same. We are past the time when imaginations were used I think. I mean, it wouldn’t have killed them to put one on the title screen, would it? (0 Points)

-Does the game depict terrible acts of violence in stunning high definition, allowing players to be truly immersed into the world of violence and rage around them?

No. But it can be ridiculously gory in its own way. Still, it is unfair to expect gamers to appreciate textual descriptions of nerve damage and lost limbs. (0 Points)

-Does the game feature voice acting by tons of well-known and famous people?

No. It has no voiceovers at all. (0 Points)

-Does the game feature a tough main character with a shady past that is uncovered over twenty engaging levels?

No. There is no main character, really. What kind of game has no main character? And there are no levels to speak of, either. (0 Points)

-Does the game offer downloadable content that you have to pay for on a regular basis, offering such sweet features as alternate costumes or additional modes?

No. The game is free, and so is everything else related to it. (0 Points)

-Does the game have killer multiplayer that uses voice chat and lobbies?

No. There is no multiplayer at all. You can’t even get kids to call you racial slurs and teabag your corpse no matter how hard you try. (0 Points)

-Was the game made by a Japanese developer? Bonus points: Was it made by Nintendo or for a Nintendo system exclusively?

No. (0 Points)

-Does the game contain “Grand Theft Auto” in the title, or “Rockstar” in the developer’s name?

No. I’m not even sure if anyone at Rockstar has even heard of it. (0 Points)

-Can you buy a more expensive version of the game, with perhaps an art book or a collectible figurine?

No. (0 Points)

FINAL SCORE: 0/10

Hmmm…

Hmmmmmmmmm…

Huh, I guess it is awful and that I hated it. I had no idea.

The rating scheme is a rousing success! Jake is a genius!

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3 Comments

  1. Spyder Mayhem said on April 10, 2009:

    Grammar is hard. What a mess this article is in the proper sentence format area. I blame the game’s ridiculously complicated control scheme for my sudden loss of writing ability. Ugh.

  2. pat said on April 14, 2009:

    i read some of the link to the story of boatmurdered. it seems like the game is all about crisis control. you have moments of relative calm, when you can set dwarves to mine or farm or whatever, but mostly you are fending off elephants, goblins and natural disasters. does that sound about right?

  3. Spyder Mayhem said on April 27, 2009:

    Better late than never answer:

    No, no it really isn’t. Being that you build a dwarf fortress you can actually build something that is almost enemy proof with very little effort. Most of the game is managing the economy of the dwarves.

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