Dwarf Fortress: The Indie Game of Delightful Defeat

Generating a world in “Dwarf Fortress” feels like rolling a snowball down a hill. It starts innocuously, then as you “Press Y for Go” continents, seas and biomes spring into view. From there, the details of the landscape are created. Next, civilizations begin to crop up, creating the history, legends and monsters of your world. This unfolds before your eyes in the form of a colored map of text characters (ASCII) — reminding older users of text-based adventure games. Most players, however, download graphics packs that apply directly to “Dwarf Fortress.”

The next step in gameplay is deciding what game you want to play. You can choose to drop down into your world as an adventurer or develop a dwarven city and continue your omnipresence. Of course, the modes can be switched between at will, allowing you to be a humble denizen of your own fortress if you so choose. The truly open world experience is the primary appeal of Dwarf Fortress. You can play it as solely an RPG if you wish, creating your own quests and building your character without much restraint — similarly to how a well-run tabletop game can feel. Or you can be the maker and destroyer of civilizations, building your cities and increasing their scope before annihilating them yourself (although the game will frequently do the destroying for you).

Of course, there is the infamous “learning cliff.” Dwarf Fortress, because of all the choice it offers you, is difficult. The likelihood that any of your fortresses will survive is pretty low, especially when you are first starting out. Knowing how the mechanics work can also be difficult since the controls you’ll utilize range over all of the keyboard. Unless you have a friend who already knows the game well, YouTube tutorials are probably your only hope of enjoying the game. One YouTube Dwarf Fortress “Let’s Play” creator is Captnduck, who uploads videos explaining each update of the game as they are released. The Dwarf Fortress wiki is also an indispensable resource.

This may seem like a lot of work, but it is a lot of game. The unofficial motto of the game, after all, is “Losing is Fun.” While this may seem like an oxymoron, no game is more fun to lose than Dwarf Fortress. Frequently, the most memorable stories of playing Dwarf Fortress are about how catastrophically your fortress has met its demise. Well-documented fates that may befall you are “thermonuclear catsplosion” (dying due to the uncontrolled breeding of cats), various were-animals (including weasels, iguanas and capybaras) or vampires infiltrating your population, and the “tantrum spiral” (a butterfly effect that happens after one dwarf is angered, leading to him angering another dwarf, until all your dwarves are angrily murdering each other). For an idea of what may happen, read Boatmurdered (lparchive.org/dwarf-fortress-boatmurdered), which chronicles the happenings within a fortress as recorded by its leaders over the years.

Humor is an integrated part of the gaming experience as almost every aspect of your world has a randomly generated name and description. Randomly generated world events or battle effects are also frequently funny. While in adventure mode, for example, you could throw a fluffy rambler (basically a boneless rabbit creature) at a colossal monster and somehow one-shot it while battling on a hill known as The Point of Slapping. This character may later die due to a necromancer killing him by reanimating his own torn off arm. The patch notes released by the creator are also amusing.

Dwarf Fortress has been continuously growing over the past (nearly) thirteen years. Largely the brainchild of a single developer, Tarn Adams, with support and increasing involvement from his brother Zach, the game runs solely on donations from its large and still growing cult following, making it free to play. So far, version updates have revitalized the game roughly every two years since its original alpha release. The most recent version update was on Oct. 24, and the game is still considered an alpha. That said, it runs better than many fully released games.

It runs on Windows, Linux and Mac, and can be downloaded at bay12games.com/dwarves. I also suggest downloading the “Lazy Newb Pack” which includes implementable graphics (including Mayday which is my personal favorite for its old school gamer vibe). It’s detailed on the wiki page (dwarffortresswiki.org) and can be downloaded there. Go adventure into your world and remember: losing is fun.