Dwarf Fortress

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Dwarf Fortress is an amazing game. When I first began playing, it fulfilled many long-nascent desires (desires later scratched in a different way by Minecraft). After a while, I grew tired of its idiosyncratic foibles (and I discovered Minecraft). Here are my thoughts. Keep in mind that DF is still in development, and could use your support. Consider downloading the game and donating a meal or two worth of cash to the talented Tarn Adams.

What DF does right:

  • The interface is really dense. Sure, when you first look at it it appears that the Quadratic Formula exploded but after a while it grows on you. The interface exposes a ton of information that would normally remain hidden in sub-menus. The keystroke oriented input also makes it easy to automate tasks. A whole set of AutoHotkey scripts are available, which would be impossible if not for the input oriented interface.
  • Game simulation is deep and convincing. For what it does, Dwarf Fortress does it well. A rogue-like fantasy world simulator with accurate physics, impressive fluid dynamics, material interactions, weather systems, and more. Dwarf Fort is so good at this that most of the time the player doesn’t even notice it. You can just imagine the world will behave reasonably, and it usually will.
  • Character and land history that stretches back for ages. This is one of the most amazing parts of Dwarf Fortress. During world generation, thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of characters are generated and live simulated lives before dying of violence, old age, plague, starvation, or a handful of other woes. The breadth and depth of history is truly stunning. So vast, in fact, that there is a history browser built into the game, as a third “game mode”.
  • Dwarf Fort gives you freedom to pursue your goals (and often, to fail). There is no set story, no cut-scenes, and no scripted sequences. Well, okay, there’s the seasons, and the merchants. Mostly though, it’s just the player and the game world, slugging it out.

What DF does wrong. (Keep in mind that these may be resolved with additional development):

  • You’d think, in a world with such a vast simulated history, that DF would be teeming with life. But no, the characters sit around listlessly, waiting for the player to do something. No one has jobs, no one eats food, no one goes out hunting. There aren’t any invasions. It is as if the whole world freezes in shiftless lethargy as soon as the player comes on the scene.
  • Not only does the world seem dead, but even when the player takes action, the in-game characters don’t really try to help you. Instead of directing the fortress of dwarves, it’s more like fiddly mind-control. Want to cook some food? Well, I sure hope you remember how to set up an agricultural supply chain and infrastructure web, because none of these dwarves have the least interest in doing it for you. (see the “AI Assist” post) When my dwarves starve to death amid fields of ripe produce, I don’t feel like I failed. I feel like they deserve it for their total lack of initiative.
  • There are a lot of properties and qualities in the game that don’t do anything. I think they are placeholders for later, when more features are added, but it’s really confusing trying to figure out which character qualities are important and which are just dummy variables. In addition, some of the important values are buried under several layers of menus. While some information is displayed right on the screen, other info is obfuscated and mixed in with useless cruft.
  • Dwarf Fortress plays more like a toy than a game. A well used, well loved, partially broken toy. I’m sure it will get better as development progresses, but the oddness is a bit wearing after a while.
  • While many things are simulated rigorously, this serves to make the exceptions stand out. Wooden mechanisms pumping lava, dwarves carrying a Bronze Titan around in a wicker basket, and a thousand other quirks. It’s not that occasional ideosyncracies are bad, but the disparity in polish really shows.
  • The worst part about Dwarf Fortress is also it’s most characteristic quality. The whole thing is done in ASCII style grids. This severely limits both the scale and the granularity of structures within the game. This gives rise to a scale issue, where the size of a “tile” is absurdly ambiguous. A tile is, as Tarn loves to say “Not so big that two dwarves can pass each other, but large enough to hold one hundred dragons, as long as 99 are lying down.” You could see this as a loveable quirk, but the engineer in me is offended when this ambiguity is coupled with the realistically simulated materials, fluids, and physics. The interface also just doesn’t read well, and the total commitment to ASCII character mapping means that several very different things map to the same icon, which thwarts even the most dedicated texture pack. Without resolving this issue, I can’t really take DF seriously, and maybe that’s the way it should be.

So there you go. I really like the idea behind Dwarf Fortress, but the implementation could probably use a complete overhaul. I’m not sure what Toady1 plans for the future, but I really hope DF becomes everything he envisions. It really is an amazing game. Hopefully we will see more like it soon.

2 thoughts on “Dwarf Fortress

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