Dwarf Fortress is a brilliant game, but it will make you work to find that out. It’s a game that loves its complicated world and the adventures it offers players, even when the odds of winning are slim. It rewards you for putting yourself in a sticky situation – a goblin siege, a forgotten beast with deadly breath, too many cats making your frames per second drop to the single digits – by gifting you a story you can tell for life. It hides grand narrative arcs deep in its code for you to discover.
But Dwarf Fortress is also clunky, obtuse, and complicated. It’s so easy to get lost in the details that you don’t even know where to start. Does the game start at world creation, where you enter the specifics that will define your play session and which generates a vast, unique history you might never see? Is the meat of the game the fortress building itself, the endless economies to juggle and moods to manage? Should you spend time in Adventure Mode, where you can take a character out on a quest in one of the worlds you’ve created, or in Legends Mode, which allows you to explore the records of such a world?
Most people play Dwarf Fortress in Fortress Mode, which tasks you with building and defending a fortress for a small group of dwarves. You start out with a few dwarves, though migrants usually show up once a year. You have to build up an economy to make money through trade, and then make your fortress into somewhere beautiful for your dwarves to live and deadly for enemies to get inside. You make it nice by building nice furniture and engraving the walls and floors. The engravings, which appear to the player as text descriptions, are created by the dwarves from the history of the fortress and the wider world. You defend the fortress by building traps, increasing your military, or finding creative uses for magma if you mine into it. It is much, much harder than it looks, and if you’re lucky, it’ll all go entertainingly up in flames.
Dwarf Fortress is an early access PC game coming soon to Steam. You could blame a lot of its quirks on this state, but it’s also on purpose. If you play the game completely unmodded, the art is done entirely in ASCII. The world is a mess of letters, numbers and symbols, and even after learning how to parse everything, it still hurts my eyes if I stare at it for too long. Everything is represented by a letter, number, or piece of punctuation. In the font the game uses, it’s easy to mistake a lower case “c” for an upper case one, meaning if you see a “c” on the screen, it could be a cat, chicken, cavy, cow, or camel. It could also be a Bronze Colossus, which will try to kill your dwarves. Many fans prefer to either use a fan-made tile set (the Steam version will have an official tile set already in it), or to keep the Dwarf Fortress fan wiki handy.
Most of the game is played through keyboard shortcuts, which are case sensitive. That means “h” (for creating hauling routes) and “H” (which opens the hot keys menu) will make the game do different things. You will never, ever get used to this.
The keyboard shortcuts also sometimes lead to nested menus, and it’s easy to forget that you need to dig through them in a specific order so you can carry out the most basic task. So, so many times have I pressed “d” expecting to designate an area for my dwarves to mine for stone, only to realize I didn’t have the Designation menu open, which also requires pressing “d.” You can’t select any stone to mine or trees to cut without already being in that menu, and from there you need to use your arrow keys to select the rectangular area you want your dwarves to work on. It is extremely tedious, and often I long just to be able to click on an area with my mouse instead of tapping away on my keyboard. Better mouse support is coming for the Steam version, but the release date for that version of the game currently reads, “time is subjective.”
Dwarf Fortress was made entirely by two brothers, Tarn and Zach Adams, and that shines through. No one with any experience in user interface design would design their UI this way, unless they intentionally wanted to hurt their players. This singularity of vision makes Dwarf Fortress special, even if it means I’m constantly fat fingering my way into a new disaster.
Losing is fun because the circumstances surrounding it are so bizarre. However, truly losing rarely happens. More often, you just get stuck or get bored. In order to actually lose a run, you have to let every dwarf die, and they are hardy creatures. More often than not, things get messed up in such a way that you haven’t lost, but you can’t quite recover. Fans play the game to celebrate complicated achievements, but also to celebrate the creative ways everything can go wrong even before the walls of your fortress are smeared with the dwarven blood of its inhabitants.
BACK OF THE BOX QUOTE: Losing is fun!
TYPE OF GAME: Sadistic alcoholic dwarf simulator
LIKED: A truly open world of possibility, full to the brim with life
DISLIKED: Incredibly esoteric controls, ASCII art hurts my eyes
DEVELOPER: Bay 12 Games
RELEASE DATE: August 6, 2006, though the game is technically still in pre-release
PLAYED: Uncountable hours of starting a new fortress, watching it all go to shit, and then telling my friends how hilarious it was.
There are so many bad things that can happen in Dwarf Fortress. You can fail to build up a military and die to a siege, or have too good of a military and die when one of your soldiers has a tantrum and kills everyone else. You can have all your dwarves starve, or have all your dwarves get mad because they’re too sober and either get so depressed that they wander listlessly and starve to death or kill everyone. You can be attacked by vampires, lizardmen, or one of the randomly generated forgotten beasts that lurk in the caverns below the fortress. You can tunnel into hell, unleashing a demon invasion into your fortress.
Each new ending will be one you never expected. In one of my very first games, I had a werehorse attack shortly after starting my fortress. I managed to kill the werehorse, but I knew there was a chance that one of my dwarves had been bitten. I scrolled through the action log, which tells you every blow that was delivered or received in a fight, but couldn’t find evidence of a bite. I should have taken solace in the fact that no one appeared to have been bitten, but I couldn’t shake the fear that I was just having trouble sorting through Dwarf Fortress’ morass of information. I ended up abandoning that save before the next full moon. I wasn’t necessarily afraid of a werehorse epidemic – dwarves turning into murderous horses would have been hilarious, even if it wiped everyone out. There was just more of the game that I wanted to explore, more structures and machines I wanted to build, and more ways I wanted my dwarves to die.
One way you find that “more” is by digging into Legends mode. There, you can see all the historical figures and wars that the game generates to describe your world before your dwarves arrived. Once, while looking at the residents of my fortress in Legends mode, I found a dwarf I didn’t recognise. She was ancient and nomadic, having joined dozens of mountainhomes in her lifetime, and had claimed nearly as many lives. I quickly realised she was a vampire, and I didn’t recognize the name because she had used a different one when she joined the fortress. Fascinated by her long history, I looked through the log of her life in Legends mode to see what she got up to between all the murder. Mostly, it was footraces. She won all of them.
Adventure mode also gives you a new way to see and explore the world of your fortresses. My forays into Adventure mode haven’t gotten very far, but it’s fascinating to see outside of the limits of the fort you control in Fortress mode. On my unsuccessful quest to kill some bandits, I wandered through sparse human towns with bustling taverns and the more temperate elven settlements, suspended in the trees.
Just exploring these worlds was fun, and all those locations exist and change as you play the game in Fortress mode. You might get an update about a new war between the goblins and humans when the dignitary from the capital comes, or your map might update with new dwarven settlements. Once you have seen all three modes of the game, everything feels overwhelmingly alive.
Trying to think about Dwarf Fortress in its totality is dizzying. You’ll never hold all the things you have to do, and all the ways they could go wrong, in your mind. The game isn’t even done yet, and Tarn Adams says that perhaps it never will be. I’m amazed by how vast and complex it is and the possibility of what else could be added. It’s clear that the Adams brothers love the richness and ineffability of life. They love the randomness of it, the thrill of discovery, the pain of loss, the warmth of love, the way that having a child changes your centre of gravity. They want to cram every part of life – the heartbreaks, the mirth, and sometimes even the boredom – into their game.
Some of Dwarf Fortress’ DNA has seeped into other games. You can see it in Rimworld, a game where you manage a small fortress in space, rather than a sprawling fantasyland. Steam hits Gnomoria or Oxygen Not Included also put you in charge of a small outpost teetering at the brink of a potential disaster, with Oxygen Not Included having you manage breathable oxygen on top of everything else in your colony. But none of these games contain the love that Dwarf Fortress does. Rimworld is too eager to revel in the death of your colonists. Oxygen Not Included narrows the world around your fortress to nothing but more rocks to mine. These games all make smart decisions about where and how to cut clutter. Dwarf Fortress has no such restraint, and that awe-inspiring ambition makes it what it is.
One of my favourite things to do in Dwarf Fortress is build chapels. Dwarves can worship a deity or deities, all randomly generated during world creation. You can build places of worship for specific deities, or build a general place of worship that everyone can share. I like to make my chapels fancy. I direct dwarves to engrave the walls and floor, and to fill the chapels with statues depicting the history of the fort. In my head, I imagine these places as quiet, peaceful sanctuaries where any dwarf or visiting human or elf can find peace. You can even build and install musical instruments in these spaces, which always makes me envision them as some kind of spa where they play nondescript, tinkly pan-asian music
Chapels are a fun project for me because they’re places to gather. You can also build taverns where your dwarves will throw parties, but that can sometimes get in the way of work. At the chapels, dwarves worship and socialise, and I sometimes select the dwarves who visit to figure out what deities they worship. But chapels are also a way to take care of my dwarves, who must be stressed from all the mining, forging, cloth-making, farming, and furniture building that I’ve made them do. I feel responsible for my dwarves, after all. They should have a place to find their centre before a werehorse rampage takes them all out.