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Survival of the Fittest?
Underneath the shimmering glitz of the triple-A gaming world, beneath multi-million advertising budgets and precise, scientific gameplay analysis, there exists an exciting world of underground gaming. Rife with independent titles, these underground games are often made by a single person working purely out of passion.
Many of these games receive a loyal cult following, but perhaps none have been as explosive as Dwarf Fortress, a game about survival in an unforgiving wilderness. It is a tough game to learn, but does it reward those who brave its challenges?
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In a way, the gameplay of Dwarf Fortress brings instant reminders of Oregon Trail. After a very elaborate process of world generation, Dwarf Fortress open up on the lives of a small team of dwarves who have embarked into the wilderness. These dwarves have a cache of supplies available to get them started, but are otherwise left to their own devices. Like Oregon Trail, Dwarf Fortress is essentially about surviving in an environment which is doing everything it can to kill you.
But of course, the Dwarf Fortress is much more complex than that (and much more complex than Oregon Trail). Dwarf Fortress, beyond being a survival game, Dwarf Fortress is a sandbox strategy game, and it offers a huge number of avenues for success in failure. To survive, you'll need to manage fishing, manage mining, manage crafting, manage defense, manage trading, manage, manage stockrooms, manage sleeping quarters, manage build orders, manage the behavior of your dwarves, and on and on. There are endless things to manage, and Dwarf Fortress doesn't do much of it for the player. Automation is available - but only if the player sets it up first.
This is the challenge and dilemma of Dwarf Fortress. It is an insanely confusing game at first glance. There are likely thousands of things which can be managed and adjusted, and the interface is not well explained or laid out. It is not a game for everyone.
But that's the point, and the bluntness of the game's complexity is refreshing. That isn't to say its always fun. But just like playing Oregon Trail, playing Dwarf Fortress isn't just about winning. Its about exploring a world which is always different and always dangerous. While it would be nice if the game was less deliberately obtuse, the game's difficulty enhances the sense of adventure and success that comes with surviving your first winter.
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Graphics and Sound
Part of the famously steep learning curve of Dwarf Fortress comes down to its graphics. From the intro screen to the gameplay, Dwarf Fortress uses a very basic ASCII graphic style. This style however, is not because of any technical ineptitude or lack of time - a fact that is obvious in the game's short intro which uses the game's visual style to display an elaborate sequence of events.
While the graphics are initially confusing, they do serve a purpose. Every graphic represents a specific entity, which means that Dwarf Fortress packs a lot of information into a small screen. However, the size of the screen itself is an issue, as Dwarf Fortress's standard resolution is tiny and difficult to play on my 22 inch monitor.
The game's sounds are surprisingly good, and a bit more modern than one would expect considering the game's appearance. The music is actually pleasing to listen to - a shocker for a free game - and the other sounds, while sparse and often abrupt, do their job. They are certainly less appealing than those found in most triple-A games, but they are satisfactory for a title of this type.
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Dwarf Fortress's steep learning curve means it isn't for everyone, and even those who can slog through the first few hours of learning may not find it to their tastes. However, there are few sandbox strategy games which can compare in detail to Dwarf Fortress.
There is also a certain charm to the game, a hard to describe X factor, which puts it over the top. Failure comes often, but that makes success all the sweeter. Make it through winter, and Dwarf Fortress will feel like a miracle simulator.