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  • Writer's pictureAndy Sadler

Sadler's Selections - A Brief Dive into Dwarf Fortress

If you ever look up "most complex video game of all time" into Google, chances are you'll see numerous mentions of a strange looking game called Dwarf Fortress. But just what is Dwarf Fortress? What about this game made entirely out of colored text and 3 minute long acoustic guitar solos makes it so complex? Well, it's a big of a long story.

One player sees a mess of colored text - another sees continents split by mighty rivers and lakes. Screenshot credit: Stack Overflow

Developed by Bay12 Games starting in 2002 and initially released in August of 2006, Dwarf Fortress' premise is seemingly simple: as the overseer of a newly settled dwarf colony, you must keep your dwarves alive for as long as possible, while also keeping them happy. I'd like to put emphasis on the words seemingly simple, since there is so much more to this game than what first meets the eye.

To start, before you can even pick one of the game's two main modes (Fortress Mode and Adventure Mode), you're tasked with generating a world. You are able to set some parameters for this world, such as how big it is, and what sorts of biomes exist. Now, while games such as Minecraft mainstreamed the idea of a game that randomly generated a world for you to interact with, Dwarf Fortress took it a few extra steps further. Not only are you generating the world's terrain, but also it's lore. Who resides in this world? Who were some of the major political figures? What wars were fought? What gods/deities exist? Do the dead roam free?

In other words, you're generating centuries and even generations worth of digital history - and this is before you're even playing the actual game!

Generations of virtual history, right at your fingertips. Screenshot credit: Dwarf Fortress Wiki

When your world is generated, you can then select which game mode you wish to play. For the sake of this article and so you can get a grasp of what many people refer to when talking about this game's complexity, we will be talking about Fortress Mode.

Before you can play with your newly settling dwarves all willy-nilly, you have to select where they're going to settle first. This doesn't sound all that important, but trust me when I say that this may be the most important decision you ever make in this game. If you try and settle in an area that has an aquifer in it and you try digging downwards, prepare to have at least one drowned dwarf.

After you pick where you want your dwarves to settle, you are now given the option to either start the game right away using its Quick Start settings, or if you want to assign your dwarves' roles and specialties manually. I personally just stick with the Quick Start settings, because there's already a lot going on in the world generation and the base gameplay as it is. Speaking of gameplay, let's talk about the meat and bones of Fortress Mode.

What could possibly go wrong? Screenshot credit:

As mentioned before, the main goal of Fortress Mode is to have your newly settled dwarves survive for as long as possible. There's no real win conditions, but players are encourage to figure the game out on their own - much to their dismay. You are presented with so many different menu options and the game doesn't tell you what any of them do. While you could argue that Minecraft didn't give you much to work off of either, Dwarf Fortress presents far more information all at once than Minecraft does.

Take this for example: if you want to build a wooden house, in Minecraft, you just have to punch some trees to gather wood blocks and place them. Simple, right? In Dwarf Fortress, on the other hand, you first have to make sure that one of your dwarves has the woodcutter job. Then, you have to make sure that they have the proper tools to cut down a tree. Then, you have to designate any of your woodcutter dwarves to cut down a tree. And finally, assuming that your dwarf isn't grieving over someone's death or is morbidly ill, then you will finally have cut down a tree. But, it doesn't stop there - you have to designate an area in which to place all of your gathered wood so that it isn't just laying out in the open for potential passers to steal. Then, once you have gathered some wood, you have to manually build each wall, floor, and roof of your house by using the designations menu, just like when you were designating your woodcutters to cut down trees. But, you also have to make sure that a dwarf has the Builder job in order to build the house, otherwise they won't do anything. And having idle dwarves is the worst thing you can have in a game like this.

Keep in mind: nothing of what I've just described in the paragraph above is ever explained to you in-game. You either have to figure it out yourself, or look up a guide. And you have to perform a similar process for EVERYTHING in the game.

Because of this game's amount of depth and the complexity of its mechanics, your game could end for a multitude of reasons. An army of goblins comes and raids your fort, slaughtering any dwarf they see on sight? Done. You run out of food reserves because you forgot to plant some plump helmets before the winter? R.I.P. One of your dwarves goes insane and murders your entire civilization in a blind rage? Game over.

Oh. THAT could go wrong. Screenshot credit: IGN

Speaking of dwarves going insane, let's touch on that real quick.

In Dwarf Fortress, your dwarves, much like the world they live in, are randomly generated. They all have their own unique personality traits and appearances, and as such, they all have their needs and wants. All of this information can be found in a dwarf's information menu.

However, If you don't keep them fed, give them a stable supply of booze or give them what they want, then their mood will deteriorate. When a dwarf's mood deteriorates to a certain point, they will either become so sad that they no longer want to do anything (they become idle), or they will go crazy. And believe me: the last thing you want is one of your dwarves to go crazy. They will begin slaughtering anything and everything they see. They will essentially turn into a miniature version of Anakin Skywalker during Order 66 in Star Wars - everybody will either be forced to slay their bloodthirsty brethren or die trying.

They're dead. And not just the men - but the women, and the children too. Screenshot credit: IGN

Now, this isn't all just to say that Dwarf Fortress is a misery-filled bloodbath - there are just a lot of intricacies in this game that will take the average player quite some time to wrap their head around. If you do keep your dwarves happy, then you will surely have a civilization that will last far longer. At least, until that army of goblins shows up.

And all that I've talked about today is barely scratching the surface.

As someone who's dabbled in Dwarf Fortress quite a few times over the past few years, I've heard people compare this game to an ant farm; you're presented with tiny, seemingly insignificant creatures, and you're tasked with giving them what they want while they move and interact with each other and their environment autonomously (assuming they have the proper gear and designations). While this is an apt comparison, I'd rather compare Dwarf Fortress to a rogue-like, or to games such as The Binding of Isaac and Enter the Gungeon. You start in (relatively) the same scenario, and you're presented with obstacles that you're not quite able to grasp at first, and you'll inevitably fail at some point. But, with each failure, you learn more from your previous experiences in order to make your playthrough last much longer, and in turn, discover brand new obstacle to overcome. And thus, the cycle of destruction and rebirth continues.

If you want to see some of the craziest pieces of video game fiction on this side of the internet, look up crazy Dwarf Fortress stories. Trust me - you will not be disappointed.

- Andy

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