Dwarf Fortress lacks strong visuals, but that isn’t a bad thing

The complex gameplay makes up for the fact that it looks like a five-year-old puked on a calculator.

Dwarf Fortress is one of the most open and ambitious video games out there.

Players can build complex structures that stretch high into the sky or far below ground. They can be a wandering adventurer, taking quests from villagers to slay bandits and dragons and vampires. They can pulp their own paper and have the dwarves write procedurally generated books. Or they can dig into hell itself and unleash the infinite and nigh-unkillable monsters beyond imagination.

Each new game is set in a randomly generated world. And when the game generates a world, it doesn’t just generate land and trees and people and towns, but histories as well. The stories that players can share after just one game are often surprising and absurd.

Visually, though, it looks like a five-year-old puked on a calculator.

First released in 2006, Dwarf Fortress is a labour of love made by brothers Tarn and Zach Adams, after years of closed development. Dwarf Fortress is funded entirely by donations, and the creators aim for the final product to be as close to reality as possible — or as real as a world filled with dwarves and goblins can be. It is one of the first video games to be featured in the New York Museum of Modern Art.

The biggest failing of the game is its incredibly steep learning curve. The graphics fall into the category of “ASCII Art” where alphanumeric symbols are used in place of pictures. In this game, a picture of a horse is instead a brown lowercase “h,” a goblin is a green “g,” and so on. The game also does not do a good job of explaining how things are done, with even experienced players needing outside assistance.

The game’s motto is “Losing is fun!” and it makes that crystal clear.

What makes the game amazing are its complex systems: how they connect and, more often, collide. For example, the game tracks the individual organs and layers of skin, fat, and muscle for each entity to determine health and damage.

I remember hearing about a dwarf who, in a fight with some goblins, got his torso cut open. The other dwarves were able to rush him to the hospital and patch him up. Later, however, while the dwarf was moving around the fortress, the player noticed two red tildes trailing behind. Investigating, it turned out that the doctor who performed the operation was good enough to save his life, but not good enough to remember to push his intestines back inside him.

I, too, had my own experience of comical tragedy. In one of my first games, a particular dwarf was super unhappy because he lost all his pets in a goblin attack. He was very sad, but he was able to soldier on. A few days later, however, he ate a bad meal, and that was the last straw.

He flew into a rage and ran down the hall, punching two or three of his fellow dwarves before calming down. These two dwarves, still also sad from the loss of their own pets and now with the added trauma of being punched, flew into a rage as well. This escalated to include their friends and family, who were now furious that someone they knew had been punched.

This, I learned, is what is known as a “tantrum spiral.” Soon, everyone in my fort was dead except for one dwarf who happened to be in the basement at the time and hadn’t made friends with anyone.

I limped along, trying to run a fortress with just one pair of hands, until a new wave of migrants arrived and brought things closer to normal. I named the sole survivor as the Captain of the Guard, to honour his experience, and continued running my settlement without incident.

Months later, a random dwarf snuck into the Captain of the Guard’s chambers, chopped off both of his legs, and merged back into the population before I could determine who did it.

The survivor was rushed to the hospital and successfully stabilized. But this was an earlier version of the game, before crutches were functional. So he lay sleeping in his hospital bed for years.

Later, after the game was updated, he woke up, grabbed a pair of crutches, and went back to work.

The game is still far from where its creators want it to be. Currently it stands at version 0.43.03, which is their way of saying it is only 43 percent complete, with a projected 20 years of development remaining. Even in its unfinished state, the game boasts a thriving fan community that has made game mods, tile sets (to replace the letters with actual pictures), and the aptly named Lazy Newb Pack, which is stuffed with tools and utilities to help beginning and experienced players alike.

And stories. Countless stories ranging from humour to horror about astounding things in a game nowhere near complete. Imagine the stories it could tell when it gets there.

Dwarf Fortress is available for free at www.bay12games.com/dwarves


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