Dec 24 2009

Losing is Fun! (Dwarf Fortress)

As a sideshow to my real job, I recently acquired an “Enterprise” level project which really needs to get some attention. However, my productivity has been nil for the past week thanks to Dwarf Fortress.

World of Warcraft occasionally gets referred to as online crack. If that’s the case, DF is … actually I don’t know enough about illicit drug use to make a comparison. Dwarf Fortress is a game where I’ve sat down to play around 4 PM, because I needed to kill a couple hours before my schedule comes out for the next day around 6… and when I look up it’s 4 AM. (I only actually had to go in to work three times in the past two weeks– it’s been slow.)

I actually originally ran into DF last year sometime, but lost my install with a hard drive crash. I’m not sure exactly how I got directed back to it. Elsewhere on this blog I’ve mentioned that I don’t really like ASCII graphics– they’re too abstract for me. There are several good tileset mods for DF however, such as this one. That said, I think someone named ‘Shujaa’ on a Penny-Arcade Forum thread was pretty correct when they said:

The ascii is a curse when you’re learning the game. It’s a blessing once you’re used to it. Exercise your imagination, and you realise that no graphics could do justice to the little stories unfolding before your eyes.

And the little stories, (emergent gameplay I guess is the buzzword), is what makes DF so compelling. In one sequence I watched, a soldier dwarf rushed to the aid of a civilian child who was being attacked by a goblin. The soldier killed the goblin, but the child was mortally wounded. The soldier stayed with the child until it passed on before returning to his patrol point. In most games, with most game engines, a scene like that would have to be scripted in advance in its entirety. In DF it just happens.

The general idea is that you start with seven dwarves on a map that has various resources which you need to mine or otherwise harvest. Individually, you have no control over the dwarves (except for soldiers, which can’t be used for economic purposes) but designate areas in which the dwarves are to mine, or fish, or cut trees, or build workshops. The dwarves run around complying to your mandates on their own schedule, eating, sleeping, drinking when they need to. They have preferences for what they want to wear, eat, see. They make friends, get married, have kids. They die (a lot), and get upset when friends or relatives get injured or worse.

The above sounds alot like a game somewhere between The Sims and Sim City, but unlike the characters in The Sims, the dwarves face dangerous challenges rather than a fairly bland version of suburbia. The persistent but procedurally generated fantasy world has armies and factions that vie for control of territory. Your dwarves face invasion by goblins, colossi, mythical beasts such as hydra or dragons. If diplomacy goes poorly you can find yourself challenged by Elves or Humans as well. And against this backdrop, there’s the chance that your poor engineering will cause the fortress to flood with water or magma at inopportune times.

Although complexity is not in itself a reason to like a game, the world of DF is extremely detailed. Temperatures are modelled– liquids freeze and solids burn. The rocks you are mining are found in the same layers as real life. There is a physics model for liquid flows (although water flows as if it were an extremely viscous fluid). The resource model is deeper than any RTS I can think of, while animals for example, may be adopted by dwarves as pets, they may also be butchered in which case they yield skin, meat, bones, fat… which get handed along down different workshops to be rendered as prepared meals, tallow, leather. Different ores have different uses– and they smelt to the metals they get refined to in real life as well (Hematite to iron, for example).

As events happen in the game, your dwarves will engrave the history of the fort on its walls and floors. Animals and enemies acquire names and titles as they make an impression on the dwarves. After you lose or abandon your fort (and the tagline for the game is “Losing is fun!”) you can come back in ‘Adventurer’ mode to try and find artifacts and historical information in the remains.

If you need help, consult the Dwarf Fortress wiki, which has detailed information on the game as well as links to decent guides and tutorials. The game has been in extended alpha since 2006, and Bay12Games (the developer) has released updates more or less continuously since. It’s free, it’s addictive, and if you haven’t played it you should.

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