My Brief Dwarf Fortress Time

1,749 words.

I saw @Stargrace and some other folks talking about Dwarf Fortress in the blogosphere and on Twitter. It’s that game that has that reputation for being the greatest game ever, and also the most impossible to actually play, that I’ve been hearing about for the last ten years. I think I first heard about it on the Gamers With Jobs podcast years and years ago.

It dawned on me that I’ve always heard it’s a game that sounds similar to RimWorld, and I love RimWorld, so therefore by the transitive property I should also love Dwarf Fortress. A bunch of people on the Reddits actually recommend Dwarf Fortress if you like RimWorld. Those people are insane, as we’ll soon see. (But insanity is a requirement for using Reddit, zing bang boom, hey-oh, har har.) Anyway, I’ve always wanted to see it for myself.

So I went to Steam to see how much it costs. Except it’s not on Steam. I Googled for it. It’s a “freeware” game. You just go to the Bay 12 Games web site and download it. (And donate money if you want to.) Well that explains the popularity, at least.

It doesn’t have an installer. You just unzip it into a directory and click on the executable to play it. At this point red flags and alarm bells are flying and clanging all over the place.

It quickly became clear to me that Dwarf Fortress is not a game so much as it’s the back-end for a game. It’s a game with the user interface layer completely missing, awaiting some other enterprising programmers to join the team and add it. It’s got the user interface of a 1980s Unix NetHack game, is what I’m trying to say. ASCII art and everything. It’s a game that concedes that yes, the rumors are all true, making a good user-interface for any software project is by far the hardest part, so we’re not even going to try. I mean it has *no* user interface, is what I’m trying to say. You pretty much put the mouse away and do everything by typing letters on the keyboard.

But still… it’s kind of like RimWorld, only about 5000 times more deep and complex, which is intriguing. Even stumbling around the incomprehensible menus and maps for a half hour I could see that it looks like the same sort of simulation base-building adventure experience as a RimWorld, where you’re not so much playing a game as you’re experiencing a story unfold from the inside. It’s almost like playing a D&D campaign.

A Dwarf Fortress medium world. I don’t normally do “click to embiggen” images but this is one that cries out for it.

I started a game. I generated a world, which is a process that is mind-bogglingly time-consuming and complicated even with all the default settings. It’s not just making a map, it’s making an entire archaeological history of the dwarves, elves, humans, and goblins that populate it. Eventually I got to the point where I “embarked,” that is, started to play. I couldn’t make heads or tails of anything on the screen that I needed to understand.

Here's your first 5 seconds of playing the base vanilla unmodified game after you "strike the earth."

Oh, I could sort of puzzle out the general purpose of the menus when I read through them, but getting a dwarf to cut down a tree was looking like it would be a half-hour project of searching and study. And it was so vastly open-ended that I didn’t have the slightest clue what obstacles I needed to prepare for. Attacks? Weather? Starvation? All of the above probably? Who knows?

So yeah. It’s hard to figure out. It’s one of those games where every tutorial video says, “It’s really not that hard once you learn it.” That’s always a red flag. Programming isn’t that hard once you learn it. I imagine brain surgery and advanced calculus aren’t that hard once you learn it. They conveniently leave out the part that it takes you a solid 20 years of work and study to “learn it.”

Still… it’s kind of like RimWorld, which is really fun. And it’s kind of intriguing. A mystery wrapped in an enigma and so forth. What fantastic gem of a game could possibly be inside this rough exterior, to keep people raving about it for so long? Or is that once you *do* learn it, you have no choice but to rave about it, to justify the time spent learning it? Regardless, it’s hard to look away from it.

The game is so difficult to figure out that there’s a huge cottage industry of mods and hacks and enhancements to improve it so that normal people can actually play it. I normally prefer the vanilla experience of moddable games, but in this case it seemed mandatory to reach for the hacks. So I downloaded a Lazy Newb Pack thing, which is about 50 times bigger than the game itself. Even *that* was hard to figure out. At first it wouldn’t run at all. Then I noticed that Windows had blocked every single executable and DLL in the entire directory after I unzipped it, and I had to run a PowerShell script* to unblock them all. Only then could I run the “easy” interface for Dwarf Fortress.

* Note that there are 50,000 different web sites that tell you how to do unblock files, and because it’s Windows and PowerShell, they all tell you a different way to do it, so I just picked one at random.

This is the easy way to play, the user-friendly interface, the so-simple-a-child-could-play-it front-end.

So I created a second world. I read a little bit of wiki text, and watched a couple of “what to do first in Dwarf Fortress” videos (a booming industry in and of itself-here’s a Bob Ross-style video I liked from Kruggsmash), so I was ready to embark on my second attempt to play. The game just dropped out to the desktop twice after the “strike the earth” paragraph for no apparent reason, so I had to start over twice. But the third try it worked, and I’m not sure why, but anyway, I got to a map with a graphical tileset that was a tiny bit more user-friendly.

I mean, actually, it's still not that user-friendly.

I still didn’t know what to do. I mean, I know you’re supposed to make a base and gather and build stuff, but it’s pretty overwhelming to do those things. I thought I would just sit and watch the dwarves to see how long it would take them to starve to death. It turns out they survive a long time without any help. They milled around at super-fast DOS-text-game speed. I couldn’t really tell what they were doing, if they were eating, what they were eating, when they were eating, or anything like that. I formed them into a military group (something I saw on a video), and sent them to kill nearby coyotes and squirrels and other animals. They did it, but again, you couldn’t really see what they were doing, because everything happens at lightning fast speed. Unless you set the game to “follow” one of the dwarves. Still, they zoom around like a movie on fast forward and disappear off the screen very fast. But a bunch of stuff died and left bright red blood pools all over the place. I have no idea if my dwarves took any damage or not.

Time passed much faster than I realized. It took only a few seconds for a full day to pass. It took about a half hour for each season to pass. Other migrant dwarves joined my colony of idlers. The fisherdwarf starved for a while, but then he stopped starving. He seemed to be fishing and leaving all the fish on the shoreline to rot, but I couldn’t quite tell. I surmised I was supposed to setup a place for him to store and cook the fish, but I didn’t have a clue how to do that. Someone tracked coyote blood all over the campsite around the cart, but I could never figure out who or how or why, because it seemed quite random when blood stains appeared. Soon I got a message that the baron was arriving with a caravan of stuff, which was supposed to happen in the fall. I didn’t make a depot or something, so the caravan passed me by. But the baron talked to me for a while and setup… trade? Or a treaty? Or something? I didn’t really understand what I was seeing on the screen, as per usual. He left and said he would be back next year, so I guess I didn’t hurt his feeling too badly.

And that’s where I left my burgeoning dwarf empire. That was a few hours of false starts and gameplay over a couple of days. I don’t know if I’ll go back. It doesn’t really have the same “hook” that RimWorld does… there’s a massive layer of obscurity between you and the heart of the game that makes it really hard to care about what happens to your dwarves. You just can’t *see* what’s happening to your dwarves. There’s a really neat page that gives you a lot of cool details about what they’re going through, but it’s so hard to find and monitor that it’s kind of frustrating.

All of this stuff apparently happened, but I never \*saw\* any of it happen on the screen.

Anyway, it’s an interesting, puzzling, bizarre mystery game. I’m not even sure it qualifies as a “game.” I feel like it would be better as a campaign or character generator for a tabletop D&D game, because it generates *huge* amounts of detail for every dwarf’s backstory, and the world around them. The name generator is pretty impressive, too.

If nothing else, I feel a little better for having experienced a tiny taste of the Dwarf Fortress experience.

UPDATE: I can now confirm it takes about two and a half hours of idling in game time before the dwarves die of thirst and starvation. I don’t know what they ate in the spring, summer, and fall, because I didn’t plant anything for them. I guess they just ate handfuls of seeds from the barrels in the cart. I think there are some discrepancies in the accuracy of the “simulation” part of the game.

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