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    Peter Bordenave / The Mainstream
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    Peter Bordenave / The Mainstream

An uncommon video game: Dwarf Fortress

in Columns/video games by

The video game Dwarf Fortress in its full title is known as “Slaves to Armok: God of Blood, Chapter 2: Dwarf Fortress.” While having a title almost as big as its player base, the game lives up to the hematic name.

Dwarf Fortress is a life’s work produced by two brothers, Tarn and Zach Adams. It is collectively called “the most complex game ever made,” according to the New York Times, the Seattle Weekly and PC Gamer Magazine. Dwarf Fortress was chosen for this column’s premiere because of the impact it has made on popular games and for being one of the first games placed in the MoMA, Museum of Modern Art, according to Helen Walters of TEDBlog, the blog of TED Talks.

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Peter Bordenave / The Mainstream

Tarn Adams is the single programmer while the pair of Adams brothers work to design the game. Tarn Adams explained to me in an email what projects led up to Dwarf Fortress.

“My brother and I had always been working on a fantasy game, among our other ongoing projects.  We had one called Dragslay that we were working on in high school in the mid ‘90s which was our first with a procedurally generated world, the tracking of towns and named opponents.  That was also a text game, but we wanted to add graphics which is where the aborted Chapter 1 came from.”

Dragslay, then, helped lead to the development of the aborted chapter 1 of Dwarf Fortress.

Tarn Adams explained what happened to the first chapter of Dwarf Fortress. It didn’t get very far as a game, though the game can still be found at bay12games.com/armok. One of the more interesting glitches of the game, according to Tarn, “aside from the horrifying body tissue stuff, it had some terrible procedural animations so you could, for instance, designate that you wanted to stand on one hand and one foot, and you could walk around that way.”

snowy fortress example
Peter Bordenave / The Mainstream

Tarn and his older brother have been designing games together since they were around six years old.  “We talk through all of the additions and the overall arc of the (Dwarf Fortress) development as well,” he said.

Zach writes stories on the website (bay12games.com) that the brothers use for planning, “though most of his story-writing energy now goes into the individual rewards we send out to people, “ Tarn said. “We also work a lot together on side projects that sometimes find their way back into the main game.”

So, that leaves us with the question of what “Slaves to Armok: God of Blood, Chapter 2: Dwarf Fortress” really is. Dwarf Fortress is a game where the player takes control of seven small alcoholic humanoids into a world they generated to build, garrison and defend an outpost.

The game starts with the player creating a world to play in, then choosing from three options of game play. Dwarf Fortress or “Dwarf Mode” is the main mode of the game taking the form of a city-building simulation, similar to games such as SimCity. Adventurer mode is a sandbox role playing game with permanent death, and in Legends mode players can view the histories of the game’s entities. Only one mode can be played at a time in any given world.

There are some common criticisms of the game that makes Dwarf Fortress unappealing to certain players. The first obvious criticism is the game’s graphical fidelity and user interface.  The game runs off of a pseudo-ASCII text system to display everything in the game from trees to monstrous demons. Dwarf Fortress has the player running through menus of many lengths, sometimes requiring a great deal of patience or memory to understand the information.

Even hardened players of the game sometimes have issues running through the menus when things get hectic. Another often-touted point of the game, stemming from the ASCII style and maze of menus, is its overall learning-curve. The curve is labeled as a “learning cliff” from players and observers alike. This “learning cliff” comes from the game’s immense amount of detail and abstract nature.

Veteran players often joke about the graphics come from the Matrix movie partly due to its UI and graphics. While new players are left with no tutorial to help them blunder through their first fortress. Eventually from frustration or incompetence, the player fails and the game informs them, “Your settlement has crumbled to its end,” dumping them back into the starting screen.  This can start a cycle for some players or turn off those who simply find it too difficult to continue trying.

However, the things that make Dwarf Fortress bad make it just as good.

The lack of graphic capabilities allows most computers to run Dwarf Fortress with at least a 32-bit CPU and 2 GB of memory or RAM. It also makes up for its shortcomings in mechanics and story generation with its scope.

When players fall as adventurers, they can kill themselves from the weight they’re carrying. If water is in their fortress, it will build pressure, becoming an unstoppable force if the wells and water-lines aren’t correctly planned.

Dwarves are also taken into account. They have personalities all of their own and will act accordingly. For example, a depressive dwarf may cause fights or even be driven to suicide. An ecstatic dwarf may go into a frenzy of inspiration, crafting an artifact for the glory of the fortress.

The game simulates everything it possibility can with new mechanics continually being planned and put together by the two-man designers. The stories that come from the game’s depth of simulation have inspired artists, developers and fans alike. One of the more famous stories is from the very early days when Dwarf Fortress was a 2D game; this particular game was named Boatmurdered.

Gathering a following on forums and more, it has often been retold as an example of what players could experience in Dwarf Fortress with a little imagination. This leads us into the community for the game and the influence Dwarf Fortress has on modern video games.

One of the most popular games, Minecraft, is inspired by Dwarf Fortress. Borderlands and many other games, such as World of Warcraft and Runescape, have references to this game, as stated in the Dwarf Fortress Wiki, Dwarffortresswiki.org.

Tarn Adams explained his impressions about the games that have been inspired by Dwarf Fortress, “We haven’t gotten a chance to play many of them, but they seem cool.  We’ve met some of the developers personally at various events and talked about the common problems that come up making games like this.”

Dwarf Fortress is only 14 Megabytes, that’s 86 percentage smaller than one gigabyte. Dwarf Fortress’s price is just as small as its size, free. This game is entirely free and the developers earn all their income from donations by fans and players using online services like Patreon and PayPal or more traditional methods.

For players looking to get into Dwarf Fortress, Tarn stated, “If you can’t immediately get into it, it would help to have some experience with other text-based roguelike games. You can try the lazy newb pack (it has tilesets and other useful stuff), the Dwarf Fortress wiki, and video tutorials on youtube; there’s even a book.”  If you want to play the game, you can download it at Bay12Games.com/dwarves/.