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Indie Treasures: Dwarf Fortress

by: Anurag Ghosh ; edited by: Michael Hartman ; updated: 4/17/2012 • Leave a comment

In part 1 of this series covering independent PC games, we take a look at Dwarf Fortress, a simulationist single-player fantasy game where everything is randomly generated.

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    The Tragic Miner

    Kol Sedilònul had a good life at the fortress of Atöllogem (translated as "Findpaint" in the human tongue). She worked hard day in and day out at her mining duties, and attained the rank of Legend. How could she have know that the day ònul Eraraban arrived at the settlement would be the beginning of the end for her?

    Despite the master's prohibition against hunting, ònul set out for the wilds immediately after arriving to see what beasts he could trap or kill. Unfortunately, he decided to try his luck against a herd of gorillas. Even more unfortunately, he lived through his massive head injuries and managed to crawl back to the barracks......

    (Excerpt from the Dwarf Fortress Wiki -

    Dwarf Fortress is one of the indie game scene's pride and joy. It boasts one of the most imaginative and deep game worlds I have ever seen, and is all developed by one guy. As the player, you take command of a group of dwarves sent to found a new colony inside a mountain. As soon as they arrive at their destination, it is your job to assign each dwarves tasks, from digging out stone, hunting, fighting off native wildlife, to carpentry, in order for your fortress to prosper. You see, dwarves need food, wine, and other basic comforts (as well as the occasional luxury) or else they'll perish, or worse, go mad.Dwarf Fortress Screenshot 1  

    The game simulates not only each dwarf's body, but their psyche as well. Things happening around them can cause happiness, sadness, anger, confusion, hatred, and other emotions, and will lead to your dwarves throwing tantrums or going insane if you throw them to the wolves. And when they fight off enemies, Dwarf Fortress boasts a "full-body combat model", which means their limbs can be cut off, they can get blinded, and so forth, often leading to unexpected (albeit entertaining) results.

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    Sim DwarfWorld

    The world where your dwarves dwell has several layers of simulation. Mountains and valleys are generated, rivers and streams form based on rainfall, volcanos and swamps affect the surrounding flora and wildlife, and so on.

    The climate changes upon season, a dynamic weather model tracks clouds and rain, towns and civilizations crop up, bands of soldiers wander the world and wars are fought.

    All of this happens before you even begin playing the game.

    The entire world is randomly generated, simulated through thousands of (game) years, and then held persistent for a game. As such, there is a really intricate depiction of a world and its history. It can take up to 10 minutes for the game to generate a world it deems suitably playable before you can start.

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    A Screen of Text?

    A Screen of Text   The learning curve is, sadly, atrocious. Your dwarves have so many skill sets, the world has so many items, you can do SO MUCH that the interface itself takes a long time to get used to and navigate.

    Everything onscreen is rendered in text and ASCII characters in different colors, and the biggest hurdle to playing this game is learning how to interpret everything you see. After a while, though, you will be able to automatically see what's going on without having to refer to guides and translating everything. This usually happens after about 4 or 5 hours of play.

    The other thing is that the player never has direct control of his dwarves. Like many sim games, you can only direct. Each dwarf has a list of skills that you can enable or disable, and you can assign areas or objects "tasks" - dig out this block of stone, move this chair, attack this enemy, and whatever dwarf with the available skills to perform the task will be on the job. This may not sound like the greatest degree of control, but when you have over 50 dwarves all scrambling around in your fortress, all with different tasks, you'll appreciate that you don't have to micromanage everything.

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    Eye Candy

    The game really is phenomenal. One of the greatest parts of the game is reading other people's stories of intricate defenses that they have rigged up (levers that flood rooms, pressure plates that trigger crossbow fire, magma moats) and how their dwarves met their end. There's so much content that is simulated in the game that emergent gameplay finally has a meaning.Dwarf Fortress - Eye Candy  

    That said, this game is not for everyone. It requires a lot of upfront commitment, involving yourself into the deep world and learning how everything ties together. And of course, there's the interface, which newcomers compare to looking at computer screens of flowing text from the Matrix.

    Thankfully, the game's fantastic community has modded Dwarf Fortress, releasing graphical chipsets that allow players to see everything going on with pictures. I recommend most people to use chipsets, despite being less flexible, because you can always go back to text later. You still have to learn how to use the interface.