In your typical Tolkien-esque fantasy world, plenty of favor is given to the elves, the halflings, even the humans. But Dwarf Fortress is a game that will make you fall in love with the dwarves.
The game is freeware, developed almost entirely by Tarn Adams, with help from his brother Zach. The first alpha build released in 2006, and after ten years in development, it still isn’t exactly “finished.” But while some games usually suffer for such a long development time, Dwarf Fortress has only become a greater, more complete experience over time.
There are two play modes to the game, and they function very differently. The first is Fortress Mode, which plays much like a real-time strategy game or a management/sim game, where the player has the run of an entire fortress full of dwarves, giving them instructions of what to build and how to survive.
The other mode is Adventure Mode, in which the player controls a single character (not necessarily a dwarf) and freely travels through an open-world, taking quests, slaying monsters and collecting items, much like a traditional roguelike.
What really sets Dwarf Fortress apart is the staggering depth and complexity of its systems – it may be the most mechanically complex game ever.
Take world generation for example. The first thing a player must do upon starting the game is have a random world generated. This world is formed with surprising realism. Mountain ranges form in realistic lines, rivers will flow across the land, carving out fertile valleys, and rain shadows will form deserts on the far sides of mountain ranges.
Then an extensive history for this world will be generated, with civilizations rising and falling, titans raiding towns, wars being waged, heroes appearing, etc. This will all be reflected in the factions that visit your fortress, and in the areas your hero can explore.
Physics also play a prominent role in the game’s functionality. In a seemingly simple action, such as a dwarf swinging a hammer at a goblin, so many factors come into play. The game will consider the force of the dwarf’s swing, the quality and material of the dwarf’s hammer (a silver one would be heavier than a copper one, and therefore more effective), the thickness and quality of any armor the goblin may be wearing (which is also dependent on the specific body part struck), how many layers of armor and clothing there may be, the thickness of the goblin’s skin, muscles, and bones, and more.
Through all of this, the game subverts typical damage tracking in the form of hit points, and instead uses a broader, somewhat more vague system in which body parts may be bruised, cut, broken, mangled to various degrees, or lopped off entirely. On top of all that, the game also considers any cut arteries, severed nerves and even the character’s personality.
Discussing all the game’s mechanics requires an entire book (an indeed there are books and even thesis on them), but thanks to the interplay between these systems, one of the biggest draws to Dwarf Fortress is that it’s a great storytelling game.
This isn’t to say that the game has a well-written narrative, or really much of a written narrative at all. Rather, every person who plays Dwarf Fortress comes out of the experience with their own unique story. You may dig too deep, find an ancient beast, kill it, but see your fortress infected by a disease spread by the beast’s blood. Or perhaps play as a bold, brash elven hero that loses a leg in battle but still roams the land, wielding a sword in one hand, a crutch in another.
The game is also notorious for its graphics and control scheme, which many new players find all but impenetrable. By default, the game uses an ASCII tileset, representing every creature and object in the game as a unicode character, but the game is easily moddable to use graphical tilesets.
The controls, particularly in Fortress Mode, seem unintuitive at first, but this is due to the game relying largely on hotkeys which are normally reserved for more advanced players in a typical strategy game.
Dwarf Fortress’ astonishing depth comes from over a decade of tireless development. The first release didn’t even allow for multiple Z-levels; the whole game was limited to a two-dimensional plane.
In 2011, Tarn Adams stated that the game could very well be in development for another 20 years and still not reach version 1.0. And even then, he would probably keep updating it, in his pursuit of simulating the “narratively interesting parts of existence”.
He receives enough money in fan donations that he is able to live comfortably, and he has stated that he intends to always keep those humble roots, never signing with any publisher or development company, funding the game solely through donations.
Although it may never be entirely finished, the importance of Dwarf Fortress is undeniable. It stands as an one-of-a-kind game, that achieved a rare perfect balance between procedurally generated elements and the importance of player input. Trevor “Trooth” Mooth