Published on September 2nd, 2012 | by Emily2
Dwarf Fortress: Losing is Fun
When I’m asked what my favorite video game of all time is it severely difficult for me to come to a decision. There are a handful of games that I absolutely love to death, and those always come to mind. In the name of half-assed journalism (and after a spirited round of “Eeny Meeny Miny Mo”), I decided that I’d share with the world my perverse, forbidden passion for a game called Dwarf Fortress.
For the uninitiated, Dwarf Fortress is a freeware game – part rogue-like and part civilization mini-manager – in which the player controls an enterprising group of dwarves as they strike out from their home nation in order to build and maintain a new colony which is doomed to fail. In the meantime, these dwarves must contend with climate issues such as drought and resource shortages as well as attacks from hostile groups of goblins, dragons, giants, and any number of other monsters. Try as they might, these dwarves will not succeed. Life sucks and then you die. The new Dwarf Fortress player might do well to remember the mantra that the devoted fanbase has embraced like a beautiful bearded dwarf woman: “Losing is Fun.”
Some people will tell you that there’s also an Adventurer Mode in Dwarf Fortress in which you can play a single character wandering the world in search of violent, humiliating death. Those people are ugly, and smelly, and their mothers didn’t give them enough hugs. They have deep emotional issues and have provided the college funds for at least one psychiatrist’s child. I, however, am not one of those people, so I won’t tell you about it. Suck it, psychiatry!
Dwarf Fortress, in spite of its awesomeness, has a tendency to turn off a lot of new players. The game has a learning curve steeper than the check your mom ran up at your local Uncle Bubba’s House of Gravy and Lard. (For the sake of this simile, your mom is fat.) There’s a couple of reasons that new players, upon starting up Dwarf Fortress, promptly yell “Fuck this shit!” and stomp off to do something that requires less effort. Chief among these is the graphics – or lack thereof:
It looks like your keyboard mixed tequila and Jagermeister last night. And then it threw up repeatedly and smeared it across your monitor while insisting that it was dying and you needed to call an ambulance even though you knew it has been way drunker than this and it was just being dramatic. Those symbols each represent something. Sometimes they move. Sometimes they flash. Sometimes they change colors. I can’t deal with that. That’s why I, and many other players, play with tilesets. Many players are so lonely that they spend their own free time in developing tools to help make the game more accessible to new players and players who don’t want to spend half their play time with the screen paused trying to figure out if that flashing plus sign is supposed to be a barrel of ale being moved to the drink stockpile or a goblin eating a baby. Tilesets change the ASCII symbols in the game to images that actually look like the shit they represent. You’ll probably find that helpful. If you plan to play this game, I suggest you invest some time in finding a good one.
The second issue with the game is the controls. All commands are done via keyboard. For once your mouse will get a rest without the terrified understanding that the hand that’s about to touch has been furiously stroking your love muscle. (Or polishing your flesh marble. Let’s not be sexist.) There are hundreds of command combinations used in this game. Want to tell your miners where to dig? Hit the “d” key twice. Want to tell your dwarves not to use the third piece of kaolinite in your stockpile to make a chair? Fuck you, figure it out yourself. There is only one single published guide to the game, and that has only come about recently. Otherwise, the lost player can search the internet to find some general guides with very basic commands to help you get started. Beyond that you’re pretty much on your own. You figure it out as you play or you Google in the hope that someone somewhere has also needed help in figuring out how to dig through water.
It sounds like this game sucks but fuck you. No, it doesn’t. I just haven’t gotten to the good parts yet. (Unless you think being in the group of people who can say “I play Dwarf Fortress without tilesets.” makes you better than everyone else. In which case, fuck you twice.) Dwarf Fortress combines the best elements of sandbox and story.
You’re free to do whatever you want. Part of the experience is making your own damned decisions. What’s your goal? What do you want to do before you lose? You want to cut down all the trees on the map? Okay, but don’t tell the elves. You want to start an underground farm? Good idea. You want to train an army of naked dwarves whose hands are the only weapon they need to dispatch any foe? Go for it. You want to build a stories-tall solid gold statue of your sister’s vulva? That’s weird, but you can do it anyway.
What I’m getting at is that the game is wide open (like your sister’s legs) and there’s a plethora of resources to collect or not collect, industries to run or not run, and decisions to make or not make. Go nuts.
Then there’s the story aspect of the game. It’s subtle, but it’s there. You need imagination to see the story in your game. If you expect cut scenes and to be drug through the plot like a toddler on a leash, you are going to be disappointed. In Dwarf Fortress, you develop the story along with the game, like two partners contracting Herpes and not knowing who gave it to whom. The game initially provides all of your dwarves with some knowledge of the historical figures up to the point that your game starts. When you have your mason engrave the walls in your dining room, he might etch in a depiction of the Battle of Darkback where the Elvish forces were overtaken by a Goblin ambush and gave their lives to save the forest of Swampcrotch. As you progress in the game, you’ll create your own historical figures and legends that will be incorporated into the art created by your craftsdwarves. Nothing instills pride in the player like watching your metalsmith forge a silver statue of the drowning of Urist McPigswill that you orchestrated a week ago by intentionally trapping him on the drawbridge while it was being raised. He deserved to die. He was a dick.
Each of your dwarves, civilizations, locations, and even some animals and monsters have names. They each have an individual description. Each of your dwarves has a thoroughly-described personality and list of relationships with other beings. If you pay close enough attention, you might notice that your Mason and your Swordsdwarf are spending more and more time together. Their relationship status is progressing from “Acquaintance” to “Friend.” You’ll note that she loves cats and he has a pet cat. Then they get married. Shortly thereafter, she has a child. She names it after his cat. Unfortunately, the baby drowns when it crawls into an open well. The Mason goes crazy, kills her husband, eats the cat, and then you have to have your militia hunt her down and slaughter her in front of dozens of dwarves before she rampages through the city killing children and animals. How much more story than that could you ask for? None, that’s how much.
If that doesn’t attract you to the game, then I don’t know what will. If I’ve piqued your interest, you can download Dwarf Fortress for free at: http://www.bay12games.com/dwarves