Learning Dwarf Fortress

For my first few posts, I’d like to write a few short articles about the mega-indie city-sim Dwarf Fortress. My gaming interests lie particularly in indie PC games, and I feel that Dwarf Fortress exemplifies the kind of raw, unleavened creativity that can make indie PC games particularly special. But DF, as it’s called, also exemplifies a lot of the qualities that make some indie games inaccessible. I’d like to talk about this tension. It’s a productive one.


My first game of Dwarf Fortress lasted a good forty hours.

It went like this: I stumbled through the terrifyingly complex world-generation process, ran the Fortress Mode game, and embarked with a randomized initial party of dwarves. I had a vague idea about the game’s object: found and intensively micromanage an outrageously detailed underground ASCII city filled with dwarves. But the menus—the controls! The visual language of this game is so abstract and opaque that it’s practically Martian.

Dwarf Fortress. Scary as fuck.

What is going ON here?

I managed to survive for about eight minutes before discovering that half my dwarves had been killed by fire imps while I was busy mistaking my camel for a carpenter. In fifteen minutes I was sitting back at the main menu screen, fuming, listening to the solitary audio track loop endlessly and thinking this is a fundamentally flawed gaming experience.

Then I went online.

I read a good three hours of wiki. I studied up on two different tutorial series, video and written. I made myself more comfortable with the pause button. Then I went back to the game.

This was now hour six or seven. I generated another world, fixed my keymapping, sorted out my starting dwarf party, and embarked. I told my dwarves to dig, to chop down trees, and to build doors and beds. Then winter came. The river froze solid, and my dwarves, apparently too stupid to melt ice, got thirsty. One died, dehydrated. The others went insane. The announcement bar at the bottom of the screen explained that, in their despair, they were throwing tantrums. Two of them killed themselves, or were killed by their tantruming friends—I couldn’t tell which. The leftover ones went mad, ripped off all their clothes, and died of thirst. My fortress was destroyed.

My fortress dies.

In DF lingo, this is known as a 'tantrum spiral'.

I went back online. I read about the importance of digging wells before the winter hits.

I started again. The next trip-up was farms. I went back to the wiki. I went to the forums. I learned that this game has a tighter, more-entrenched community language than many MMOs do, and a body of foundational folkhistory comparable in breadth to that of a minor US state. I saw what others have done with this crazy machine: I became intimate with the game’s systems, and with the possibilities those systems create. I felt out the slope of the learning curve. I peeled back the idiotic user interface, the absurd ASCII graphics, the nonsensical input-output scheme that drives the game’s guts. I played the game every moment of my free time. I started six or seven different fortresses in different locations. I read an entire sixty-page forum thread about endgame scenarios I’m unlikely to ever play myself. I was in it up to my neck.

See, Dwarf Fortress is a kind of crazy quicksand. Or maybe it’s like the military. It sucks you up and breaks you down and spits you out. Let’s metaphor nerdier: I spent my thousand years in the sarlaac of Dwarf Fortress and emerged stronger, if a bit corroded.

I started up a new fortress. It was my last fortress.

I didn’t win it. It’s not a game with win conditions. Instead, I played it just long enough that I could sit back and say to myself, Laura, you know how to play this game—then I stopped playing it. That was a week and a half ago, and I haven’t played a moment of it since. I consider that the end of my first game. A good forty hours, over maybe three weeks.

My longest-running fortress.

It's a messy fortress, but it works. 104 dwarves! Nobody tantruming!

The game of Dwarf Fortress isn’t just Dwarf Fortress the executable, Dwarf Fortress the little black ASCII window that runs behind my browser, plunking out its sad MIDI soundtrack: it’s Dwarf Fortress the process. It’s the masochistic procedure of learning to play, of learning the character and aims of the online community, learning to judge yourself against them, rate yourself by their impossible standards. It’s about learning to give yourself a purpose in a game which has no purpose beyond perpetuation. The exultation I felt when I realized that I had actually become a competent player was beyond most of the successes I had when I was ‘playing the game itself.’ As far as I’m concerned, I’ve won. It’s a real kind of winning.

So Dwarf Fortress is really more than one game, on a variety of levels. The game as it’s designed is both a city-sim (Fortress Mode) and a dungeon-crawler RPG (Adventurer Mode). But the game outside the game is there, too. I never finished Jesper Juul’s 4:32, since I refuse to uninstall Flash, but I appreciate what he was getting at. 4:32 and DF share a core similarity: it’s all about the process.

DF is, according to most modern standards, a Bad Game. It ignores the long, slow shift in focus that’s been going on since the eighties, the shift from difficulty and achievement to play experience—from NetHack to Fable II, for example. It’s a game from the before-time, so rough around the edges it hurts to touch. Bay12 Games’ current mission plan for future DF development puts UI updates and player accessibility very low on a long, long list, and it’s this crazy focus on complexity that makes DF so different, that creates the game-outside-the-game for me to win. It gives purpose and community. It gives the game a point.

Essentially, much of what makes this game so special is that it’s badly developed.


I hope to write more about DF in the future, maybe after I take a break with something else. If you want to see some really sparky writing about DF, take a look at this.