Oh, and the graphics are entirely in extended ASCII. (This is the game the designers of the likes of Overlord and Tecmo's Deception would make if they had seven years and no artists.)
If that sounds entirely unappealing to you, you're not alone. I first read about this game in the pages of Electronic Gaming Monthly several years ago, in an article about esoteric freeware games with text-based graphics. NetHack made the list. So did Angband, Linley's Dungeon Crawl, and a bunch of other roguelikes, as well as some expired-copyright Infocom text-adventure classics like Zork and the Hitchhiker's Guide game penned by Douglas Adams himself. But Dwarf Fortress? What the hell was this shit? If you look at a screenshot of the game in action, with no context, it looks like what a 1986 dot matrix printer would screech out in the throes of orgasm. At least NetHack looks kind of like a dungeon, if you pull your face a good distance away from the monitor--Dwarf Fortress's smorgasbord of colored symbols is almost painful to look at, much less make sense of. Furthermore, I've never had any interest in obsessively detailed simulation games. Note the long line of historical-sim games, going all the way back to the days of the Commodore 64, that trade graphics for some kind of bullshit imaginary "realism". Simulated reenactments of famous Civil War or Second World War battles would take into account wind direction, elevation, terrain, weather, troop morale, and how loud the enemy general could flatulate--only to portray the actual battle as two icons blinking at each other for five seconds. Forget Civilization or any of the 4X games--I couldn't even get into SimCity 2000 until I was about fifteen. All that tedious long-term strategic micromanagement seemed pointless to me when the exciting real-time tactical bits were abstracted away in a virtual dice roll--games like those, to me, entirely missed the point of gaming. I don't want to develop a brilliant system in which lower taxes and increased recruitment lead to a long-term strategic advantage that slowly drives the British out of the colonies. That's not fun, that's work. Worse, it's bureaucracy. My idea of a war game would have been something like StarCraft, in which quick thinking and superior tactics could allow a player to overcome an enemy even at a strategic disadvantage. Or even Dynasty Warriors, in which one really clever guy on a horse can decisively undo months of painstakingly wrought tax collecting in seconds. Take that, anal-retentives of the world! I smash your universal clockwork. I kick over your sand castle.
Don't get me wrong, I eventually learned to overlook the daunting complexity of macro-strategy games, if they had something else to offer--I'd been caught up enough in the giddy kid-in-a-sailboat glee of exploration to finish Star Control II / The Ur-Quan Masters and Sid Meier's Pirates!, and I did manage to spend fourteen hours straight wrecking economies in Alpha Centauri before never touching it again. I've played (and beta tested!) my fair share of MMORPGs, even though I believe, as I always have, that 99% of them are, of all the ways a human being can spend his or her precious little time on earth, the most pointless activity ever devised. But Dwarf Fortress? Hmm...excruciatingly tedious detail and the most primitive graphics possible. Sounded to me like a deliberate attempt to make the most tedious, unenjoyable game ever.
Then I found some adorable fanart. I am a slave to endearingness. I just had to try it.
So how is it?
I can't tell you. I've been too busy playing it to write.
In an interview, Toady One, the game's only developer, once said that he created Dwarf Fortress as an experiment in dynamically creating narrative. This focus is evident in the game's world creator, which I'd assume was the first part of the game to be completed, and the related Legends mode. You see, most epic-scale fantasy-themed games give you just one world--one painstakingly built from scratch by artists and designers, maybe an on-staff writer, who spend hours writing cultures and geographies and maps and ecosystems and mythologies, 90% of which won't make it into the game, before they even start thinking about the characters the player will represent and interact with, and the events that will transpire over the course of the game's story.
Toady One prefers to do it the way nature does it: Throw a bunch of random numbers into a vat of primordial ooze, and stir.
And so, the first time you run Dwarf Fortress, it does exactly that. It starts with a mostly empty world, with numeric biases to ensure that there are continents and oceans, with a hot tropical zone around the center and colder areas to the north and south, and a variety of elevations--it tries to create a somewhat Earth-like distribution of biomes. There are rudimentary geographical features, like forests and lakes, and mountains and islands and volcanoes. The game steps through geologic time to allow the world to age around these features. Earthquakes push up mountains, volcanoes pulverize forests, oceans erode shorelines. Mountains develop snow caps and northern regions freeze. Sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic layers develop naturally in the rock. Animals migrate, spread, and eat each other, as do many different varieties of plants--ecosystems form, where plausible. Slowly, as in an atheist creation myth, the world begins to take shape.
And then the Tolkien kicks in--and things start to get interesting.
Towns of elves, dwarves, goblins, and humans start appearing across the map, according to each's geographical preference--dwarves prefer mountains, elves prefer woods, and humans and goblins settle anywhere hospitable. All require water, and will settle only near a water source. Humans build roads, and trade with nearby settlements, allowing them to grow faster than their neighbors. Randomly generated countries form. Those countries go to war--they devastate each other's populations, establish border zones, limit road construction; all of these are recorded in the annals of each town. Creatures of myth like dragons and cyclopses and bronze colossi emerge from the mountains, scourging settlements until finally killed or driven back by adventurers (these events, and their participants, are also recorded in the annals of each town, in painstaking detail). Mountains, forests, and swamps become tainted by evil, swarming nearby towns with undead flora and fauna until they spread over the entire region, or until heroes drive them back. Woods are deforested by civilization. Lakes dry up from farming activity. Trade passes legendary artifacts from dwarven craftsmen to human and elven hands. Epochs with generic randomly generated Tolkeiny names (like the "Age of Enchanting" or the "Aeon of Heroes") come and pass. A world of warring factions, struggling to survive in a hostile natural environment, all made uneasy by the ever-encroaching taint of evil, begins to emerge. No two of these worlds are ever alike.
All this happens before the game even begins.
You can let this world run, stepping forward hundreds or even thousands of years, in Legends Mode. You can also wander through it as a lone adventurer in Adventure Mode, going on quests, slaying monsters, finding travel companions (sometimes even your world's historical figures!) in pubs. The world is exceptionally detailed--day and night pass, weather changes, your character will have better visibility when the stars are out, etc. Combat is also almost absurdly realistic--none of this "You hit the minotaur! The minotaur hits you!" crap. It's all like, "You wrestle the minotaur to the ground. You strike the minotaur in the head with your spiked wooden mace! Blood gushes out of the minotaur's eye! The blinded minotaur pins your right arm to the ground! He breaks it! You wince in pain! You drop your spiked wooden mace!"
But the real deal, the real meat of the game, is the titular Dwarf Fortress mode. And that's when you take a small Oregon Trail-like party of seven dwarf settlers--no, you cannot name them Happy, Dopey, Grumpy, Sneezy, etc.--into any tiny piece of this world, the smallest little fragment of this vast randomly generated Silmarillion, and start a happy little town.
Despite the name, you don't really have to set up a fortress. You don't even have to settle in the mountains. You can carve out a lair underground, or chop down some trees and build houses (HA HA SILLY HUMANS AND YOUR FLIMSY ABOVEGROUND DWELLINGS), or even gather up some ice and make igloos. The game has a very mimimalist interpretation of "walls," "floors," and "ceilings," so pretty much anything you could build with Legos you can build in this game--massive towered keeps, Aztec-style terraces, lavish mountain citadels in the style of Helm's Deep. As in most simulation games, you will have to place and build a series of workshops and other functional buildings so your dwarves can actually make stuff--forges for blacksmithing, looms for weaving, kitchens for cooking, the like. Practical concerns will guide these designs--you shouldn't keep your beds too close to the blacksmith's forge, for example, as sleeping dwarves will complain about the noise. You will also have to meet your dwarves' basic needs so they do not die of starvation, thirst, or exhaustion and do not go insane, and so you will have to build and plan and lay out places to put beds and dining tables, and storerooms for food and booze (dwarves literally go insane if not supplied with copious amounts of alcohol), and areas to socialize, and various forms of ornamentation to keep them thinking happy thoughts. There is no "bedroom" or "dining room" or "statue garden" structure--you plan these out yourself.
Interestingly, this game follows the passive-aggressive school of micromanagement. You don't have to tell an individual dwarf to build a well, for example; you instead issue a job (as in "Gee, you know what would be really great right over here? A well!") and any dwarf with the appropriate job skills will wander over to the site when he's not busy and build one. The AI is generally pretty good about this, although the dwarves themselves can be pretty flaky. Notably, there was one time my mason walled herself into an underground chamber that was flooding with water, and almost drowned because the miners were all too busy getting smashed on dwarven ale to dig a hole for her to get out. (This kind of thing doesn't happen a lot, but when it does, it's hilarious.)
In most dungeon keeping games this lack of direct micromanagement lends itself to an impersonal style of gameplay, where dozens of nameless peons are wandering about performing your tasks and will humorously provide you with opportunities to punish them for insubordination. It's the fortress that matters! The fortress is your pride and joy! Everyone inside it is expendable! But in DF, it's a little hard not to get attached to them. Your dwarves, whether you have seven or seven hundred, all have distinct personalities, and (for the most important ones at least) you must pay attention to their individual concerns if you want to keep them happy. Take a look at the info page for Mestthos Dalkamfikod, my fortress's chef and distiller:
Every one of these details has an effect on gameplay. Every single one. Even the personality traits determine who he gets along with, in what conditions he best does his work, which stats will grow and what natural features or works of art he will stop to admire. This description will grow and change as Mestthos grows and changes. Recently, Mestthos was elected bookkeeper of the fort by his comrades, and his personality and skill development has reflected his newfound responsibilities. He's been sleeping more and drinking more, and spending lots of time in his new office. His likes and dislikes now center more on social pursuits than animals, and there's a hint of a triangle between him, his girlfriend Zefon, and another dwarf...
Toady One went through great pains to make these little guys as relatable as possible. They mourn and console each other when a friend dies (sometimes leading to them throwing a tantrum, which destroys a fellow dwarf's masterwork statue, which enrages the mason to murder, which leads to more mourning, which leads to more bloodshed...), they appreciate little things in life like good food and waterfalls, they stop to admire remarkable works of art or craftsmanship. They also complain if there's not enough variety in their diet, get into bad moods after arguing with other dwarves, become better at trading by joking around with and lying to and flattering other dwarves, and occasionally bring all production in the fortress to an abrupt halt by throwing a party in the statue garden. Sometimes they will have a flash of inspiration and commandeer a workshop for a personal project, and refuse to leave or do anything else until it is done--the result being a bizarre, sometimes funny randomly generated artifact of exceptional quality. (Now you know where all of those weird dwarven Macguffins of Mysterious Power come from, and why there's so many of them in fantasy lit!) And they drink. A lot. If you've got twenty jobs on the queue and you can't find your dwarves anywhere in your fortress, they're probably all in the storeroom having a beer. (Even and especially if there's a dragon pounding at the gate. But guys, there's hot fiery death coming down thSHUT UP BEER IS MORE IMPORTANT.)
I think about NetHack, and how, far beyond the enjoyment of the game itself, its real power is its ability to create stories. People hang out on rec.games.roguelike.nethack (long after the rest of Usenet has, like Teotihuacan, been mysteriously abandoned) and talk for pages about individual sessions, and the adventures that transpired therein. My character was a great Barbarian--he slew Medusa by blinding himself with a camera flash, escaped certain death at the hands of Beelzebub, and slaughtered six cockatrices without wearing leather gloves, only to choke to death on a fortune cookie! My character reanimated and tamed all the adventurer corpses in Hell, and she stormed the Wizard of Yendor's tower with zombified versions of all the players in the top ten list! My character had his ring of levitation stolen while he was floating above a pit of lava! Dwarf Fortress takes that one step forward. It is always creating stories, even when you are not playing. When you quit a game, your fortress is left behind, ready to be reclaimed by military force or the elements. When you start a new game, you embark one year after the fall of your previous fortress, and your settlers are presumably aware of their predecessors' demise. No gaming session stands alone, narrative-wise. There is a very real sense of history. The dwarves are aware of it, too--if you assign some of them to decorate the walls of your fortress with engravings, they will carve hieroglyphs describing everything that has happened to your fortress up to that point. This visual record will remain even if your fortress is annihilated or abandoned.
It's hard not to feel moved by the unpredictable moments of pathos this game occasionally produces. Like the dwarf that throws a tantrum out of grief when his wife is killed by an elven raiding party, only to be consoled by the beauty of the engraving of a backpack she made above their bed. (Who was it who once said, "The true holy grail of artificial intelligence is teaching it to do something you never could have expected"?) Watching dwarves wander away from their tasks to admire a particularly beautiful throne they created, or discover that they really like turtle stew--it's like raising children. Autistic, intellectually retarded dwarfy children. And then again, the same randomness that produces that dynamic, unique narrative can also produce extreme silliness...like the dwarf that immediately gets over losing both legs in battle because he gets to eat dinner at a really pretty quartzite table.
That's the thing about Dynamically Generated Everything, really...anyone who's worked with it on a scientific level knows that the more complex a simulation is, the sillier the inevitable bugs. For a while, due to coarsely defined measures of aggressiveness, elephants used to be the most violent land animals in the game. Packs of them would roam the savannah, slaughtering hunters and fisherdwarfs, smashing through gates, and wiping out even well-defended fortresses with ease. Far more powerful than trolls or cyclopses, a rampaging herd of these terrible behemoths was often a good sign that it was time to quit your fort and start over. Elephants have since been made more docile in later versions (though many worlds are still dotted with abandoned fortresses, trauma-induced carvings of elephants goring the shit out of dwarves lining every wall), but carp--oh my goodness, carp. Due to a new bug involving the damage of their bite attack, carp are stupidly enormous and can easily bring down even a powerful warrior. Dwarves will drop whatever they are doing and run away screaming if they see a carp, even if they are looking at one through a closed window forty tiles away from the riverbank. Also, cats reproduce quickly and have no known predators, meaning that if not occasionally butchered they will overpopulate hilariously and your fort will be drowning in cats. These bugs, far from destroying the realism of the game, make each playthrough an immensely more enjoyable experience.
Speaking of attention to detail...holy shit, wow. There are hundreds of stone types, each with their own specific temperature and melting point (important for magma and other engineering considerations), all of which are found at places concurrent to real-life indicators in geology, and all of which can be used to make things. There's an economy, and a bureaucracy, driven by world events outside of your playable region, which will sometimes result in trade or waves of immigrants, and other times result in epic Helm's Deep style sieges. There are limitless possibilities for fortress defense, including improvised death traps, few of which are predefined (as in, if you want a room to flood with magma when raiders enter, you're going to have to actually dig out a channel for the magma to flow through, and a floodgate that will open, and a pressure plate connected to that floodgate). There are countless engineering possibilities based on the physics of the world, from perpetual motion machines to swimming pools to wind farms, of actual benefit to the fort and limited only by your own creativity. Food rots and bothers your dwarves if not disposed of, bones have to be carried away from the dinner table, alcohol burns spectacularly if exposed to fire, bat men go after dwarves with high Comedian skill, lakes can be turned into obsidian by directing magma flows into them, demons come out of glowing pits and swarm your fortress if you dig absurdly deep (now you know what happened to Moria!)...it's just incredible what you can do in this game. This game beats out even NetHack for anal-retentive attention to detail.
And this, really, is Dwarf Fortress's main problem. Due to its epic complexity, the learning curve isn't just steep--it's a sheer cliff. The in-game tutorial (press "?" ingame) is useful for figuring out the controls, but if you want to know what to build first, or how to keep your dwarves alive through the first winter, or how to raise an army for defense, you're going to need the wiki just to get started. Hell, without one of the beginner's guides in the wiki, you'll have a hard time knowing where or how to start your fortress in the first place. I can imagine a new player starting a fortress on an oceanic beach with two miners, a swordsdwarf, a soapmaker, an engraver, a cheesemaker, and a gemcrafter, and wondering why he can't do anything. I've been playing the game for two days now and I still don't know what everything does.
Isometric 3D or tile graphics wouldn't really hurt, either. DF certainly has some of the most impressive extended ASCII graphics I've ever seen--the opening cinematic alone probably would have won awards at an early '80s demoparty--but come on. With this much going on, and everything happening in real time, I really don't want to have to use my imagination. Seriously...this game would be a huge hit (for massive damage!) if it looked like this.
Nevertheless, if you're a patient learner, and you'd love a game that gives you something new every time you play, Dwarf Fortress doesn't disappoint. If you're a control freak, this will be an absolute slice of heaven. If you're the opposite, like me, you will have just as much fun watching everything in your fortress die spectacularly. (Remember the game's motto: Losing is fun!)