December 3, 2023

I care about my dwarves because the stories I make up about their lives are also the ones I make up about my own

(Washington Post illustration/ Kitfox Games)


Developer: Bay 12 Games Publisher: Kitfox Games

“Dwarf Fortress” is one of the most important video games of all time. It’s part of the permanent collection in the Museum of Modern Art. Many of your favorite games are inspired by it, and some outright rip it off. It has now reached its 1.0 version, meaning that after 20 years of development, you can finally buy it on PC platform Steam.

“Dwarf” Fortress is developed by Tarn and Zach Adams, two brothers who started it as a hobby in 2002. Bay 12 Games, “Dwarf Fortress’s” development studio, was initially just them, though they’ve grown a little bit over the years. So has “Dwarf Fortress,” its complex web of actions and interactions growing more complex not just for the player, but for the community of dwarves they control. Although the game has three modes — only two of which are available at launch — the fortress mode has been the most enduring since the game launched for free on the “Dwarf Fortress” website in 2006. Fortress mode allows players to plan out and build a fortress for their dwarves. Legends mode lets players look at the major characters, monsters, and historical events of the world they generate. (The last, so-far-unavailable mode, called adventure mode, lets players create their own adventurer and explore.)

This is a game where you help a colony of dwarves dig into a mountain to create a settlement, carving out their bedrooms, dining halls and eventually their tombs. The game world is made up of a series of horizontal planes that show one layer of elevation at a time. As you move the camera up or down, you see a top-down view of the little slice of mountain your dwarves are settling. As you descend lower and lower, you have to make your dwarves a place to live. You design their bedrooms, produce food and alcohol, give them ways to entertain themselves or otherwise take the edge off by making things like libraries, taverns, or temples.

As a player, you don’t control any individual dwarf, but rather lay out instructions for all the dwarves. If you select trees for your dwarves to cut down, they’ll do it — after they finish eating, sleeping, drinking alcohol, and all the other dwarf-y things they have to do every day. It’s not like The Sims where the characters do more or less exactly as you demand. Dwarves are their own beings, with their own needs and wants, which you will become extremely familiar with as you play. The only goal is to see how long you can survive, managing all the different resources your dwarves need and occasionally weathering a siege or the attack of some kind of fantasy beast.

Notoriously, the game is difficult, but this is mostly to do with its convoluted user interface. You can do a lot of things in “Dwarf Fortress,” like making soap and glass or creating a complex minecart network. Often, figuring out which menu allows you to do that is the most complicated part. If you’re new to the game, just know that previously it did not have the robust mouse support it now boasts, and was about a thousand times more tedious.

New players to “Dwarf Fortress” will find the game a bit inscrutable, and while the Steam release does a lot to resolve the interface issues, it’s not nearly enough. However, adding mouse support and graphics — the game was rendered entirely in ASCII art prior to this release — makes the entire program much easier to parse. There’s also a new tutorial that goes a long way to help players understand what each menu does, and it’s just about enough to get your first fortress up and running. From there, the options are almost limitless. The issues of both understanding what is even possible to do in the game and how you navigate each menu to do it will likely turn off players expecting a more streamlined experience.

But that inscrutability is often part of the appeal. There’s a saying in the “Dwarf Fortress” community: losing is fun. Things almost always go spectacularly wrong. Your fortress falls victim to an aquifer flooding everything, or a vampire gets in your fort, or there’s a wererhino attack. The point of the game isn’t survival at all costs, or a scalable growth that never ends. It’s about figuring out exactly how things went wrong, and using it as a trial run for next time. It’s about history, and how you track the passage of time. “Dwarf Fortress” is a game about creating things, about how failure leads to greater creation, and how communities change, grow, and cope with loss.

“Dwarf Fortress” is also a game about stories, both the ones the community shares with each other and the ones you tell yourself. It’s possible you’ve heard about the game because one of your friends can’t stop talking about it, or because you’ve seen videos or read the reams of fan fiction online. Instead of starting with a plot-heavy cutscene, the first thing the game needs you to do is set the parameters for the world you’ll be playing in. You choose how big the world is, how evil it will be, how many natural resources it will provide and also how long the game will simulate the world’s history, going from 50 to 250 years. From there, the game sets the flow of the rivers, shapes the mountains, seeds the forest. Some worlds will be unsatisfactory — if you aren’t playing in a cursed biome where it rains acid and everything that dies comes back to life as a zombie, you’re playing in a place where it’s too cold to scavenge for plants on the surface.

There are a lot of games that try to simulate a world, but none so successfully as “Dwarf Fortress.” The games it’s most similar to, like “SimCity,” “Cities: Skylines,” “No Man’s Sky,” “Rimworld” or The Sims, sometimes shine in particular areas where “Dwarf Fortress” is more shallow. Characters are more vibrant in the Maxis-developed games like “SimCity” and The Sims, and Paradox’s “Cities: Skylines” has more intelligent models for pathfinding and more options for how to manipulate the surrounding terrain. “No Man’s Sky” takes on the universe rather than just one world, but the game does not have a sense of civilization or politics in the way that “Dwarf Fortress” does. “Rimworld” is the most similar to “Dwarf Fortress” in that it is also a resource management game where you have to manage a colony in a strange world, but it does it all on a much smaller scale.

When you’re told that “Clementine will remember that” in The Walking Dead, there is a little bit of “Dwarf Fortress” in that. “The Sims 4’s” new sentiments system, which gives friendships between Sims different flags that change the characters’ moods when they’re around each other, is a little “Dwarf Fortress”-y. A complex web of characters and their relationships to each other is basically the logical endpoint of every open world game, even though “Dwarf Fortress” is much smaller in scope and level of visual detail than something like “Cyberpunk” or “Skyrim.” For the past 20 years, this game has quietly pushed forward when it comes to what it means to play in a randomly generated, always-moving simulated world, and other games follow its lead.

“Dwarf Fortress” does all of the parts of simulating a world that you see in bits and pieces in other games, and it does it in a way that I find more emotionally impactful than those games. The Sims and “No Man’s Sky” present me with unexpected gameplay moments or randomly generated worlds and characters that I grow attached to, but I have never wondered if those games are actually alive in some way. It isn’t that “Dwarf Fortress’s” simulation is so realistic or detailed that you mistake it for real life, but that the game — like life — has the capability of surprising you. There are big surprises, like enemy sieges and forgotten beast attacks. There are small surprises, like learning that one of my dwarves became more sentimental after he became a parent, or that one of the dwarf children going berserk and lashing out at his fellow dwarves had just lost his dad, watching him rot on the fortress floor before being entombed.

Dwarves also have emotional needs you won’t be able to fully control. The things that happen in their lives — falling in or out of love, gaining or losing a pet or having or losing a child — shape their personalities. The ways dwarves change their outlooks based on their experiences are delightful, feeling unexpected but never completely random. Keeping stress levels down by decorating your fortress and making sure the dwarves have food and alcohol stores will help you in the long run, but anything that inconveniences your citizens adds up over time.

I feel like if I played this game for an entire lifetime, I still wouldn’t be able to put together the hows and whys of dwarf psychology. It’s a level of character detail I’ve never seen so acutely in other games that simulate a world. If you mug a character in Grand Theft Auto, they won’t experience that as trauma and change their behaviors. In “Dwarf Fortress,” your dwarves will remember the loss of their friends and the birth of their children, and their understanding of the world will change because of those experiences.

I like to look at the kinds of goods my dwarves make and export, because the smallest details that matter the least to gameplay are the most evocative in terms of creating a fortress’s culture. They are either randomized or related to the personality of the dwarf that made the item. How they decorate them, which of them are good at carving illustrations in the walls and floor, what kinds of creatures they favor sculpting — all of these things can usually be traced back to a dwarf’s specific personality. Sometimes, a dwarf will just be a little weird in a way you won’t be able to figure out. There was one guy who wouldn’t stop making sculptures of snails. I never figured out what his deal was.

One of the most interesting parts of “Dwarf Fortress” is the art that the dwarves make. Every so often a dwarf will be taken by a mood and claim a workstation, using the surrounding materials to make something of the highest quality, adorned with jewels and sometimes illustrations. The descriptions for all these artifacts are randomly generated, often describing how a particular amulet or warhammer is “encircled by echidna leather rings” or “menaces with spikes of ginkgo tree wood.” But as cool as artifacts are, my favorite kind of art in “Dwarf Fortress” are the engraved walls and floors. If you’re lucky, dwarves will start carving major historical events in the walls. Even better is when they start carving just the stuff they personally remember.

I love to just pause the game and read over the description of each engraving that my dwarves make. Many of them are mundane, just drawings of different animals or gemstones. Some reference battles that took place from before the fortress was founded. In one of my playthroughs, two were illustrations of battles where dwarves had killed elves. These were engraved after the elves dared to tell us how many trees we could cut down every year. Although it’s probably a coincidence, I like to think my dwarves took it personally.

Sometimes they reference the things that have happened in the fortress. Not the big things, like the losses and the beasts, but the small things: The electing of a mayor. The creation of a legendary amulet. A dwarf’s pet pig. I can’t help but imagine what they were thinking when they carve these things, making up a backstory as I go.

“Dwarf Fortress” is a storytelling engine as much as it is a game, spitting out associations and facts and details that you can shape into a coherent and specific narrative. This is also what we do to our own lives, personifying random events so that they feel significant rather than a matter of chance. Life isn’t usually a satisfying narrative. It isn’t so much that “Dwarf Fortress” is a perfect simulacrum of life, but that it shines a bright light on the human tendency to look for meaning in everything. I care about my dwarves because the stories I make up about their lives are also the ones I make up about my own.

Gita Jackson is a cultural critic living in New York. They have bylines in GQ, Vulture, Motherboard and Kotaku. They are currently working on a book.


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