Dwarf Fortress World

Gaming History: ‘Dwarf Fortress’

Dwarf Fortress occupies a unique niche in gaming history as one of the most influential games of all time, ranking right up there with Doom, Civilization, and Simcity.

Dwarf Fortress has been in development since 2002 by a pair of brothers, Tarn and Zach Adams. The game features an unusual graphics set, being designed entirely with ASCII characters. This only adds to the challenge of the game, which is highly complex.

Another interesting feature Dwarf Fortress sports is an inability to beat the game. Every fortress will succumb to one threat or another in time, whether from internal stress or external factors. Lava, goblins and even the player’s own dwarves might bring about the civilizations downfall, possibly because they delved too greedily and too deep.

Dwarf Fortress Battle Record
[Image by Dwarf Fortress/Bay 12 Games]

Dwarves in Dwarf Fortress are highly individualized, with various personality types and individual characteristics. Some are great at mining, and others may excel at crafting. Some might be lazy slobs whose sole purpose is to swill beer and get in drunken fights with other dwarves.

Many games trace their roots back to Dwarf Fortress. Minecraft, one of the greatest indie studio success stories in gaming history, was inspired in part by the game. According to Wired, “For most people, the colorful numbers and letters that filled the computer screen would be completely baffling, but Markus [“Notch” Persson] felt right at home. The game was called Dwarf Fortress, and it had become a cult favorite in indie circles. Markus had downloaded it to try it out himself and watched, entranced by the simple text world drawn up in front of him.”

Rimworld, another popular survival/management game, bears many things in common with Dwarf Fortress. One of the most popular methods of ensuring a player’s colonists survive is to dig deep into mountainous terrain, a tactic known as “vaulting” and likely a reference to Fallout. Each map has limited resources, and before long, stone, iron, and other metals and precious items become rare. And each colonist has their own stats and characteristics. Social fights sometimes break out, and colonists will experience negative moods and binge out on food, drugs, or alcohol. Some (with a Pyromaniac trait) will even go around setting fires in your base if they are depressed enough.

Dwarf Fortress Character
[Image by Dwarf Fortress/Bay 12 Games]

So why is Dwarf Fortress so popular? For such a graphically simplistic game, one might not expect the cult following it has to develop. Over one million people have downloaded the free game, and it frequently pops up on major gaming news sites.

Part of the appeal is its intricacy and complexity. This is no Simcity or Civilization, which, while both have high merits for their challenge, are nothing in comparison to Dwarf Fortress. The New York Times describes the appeal, stating, “Dwarf Fortress unfolds as a series of staggeringly elaborate challenges and devastating setbacks that lead, no matter how well one plays, to eventual ruin. The goal, in the game’s main mode, is to build as much and as imaginatively as possible before some calamity — stampeding elephants, famine, vampire dwarves — wipes you out for good.”

Dwarf Fortress is also known for unintended consequences. The game developer will often add things in because he likes the feature, but how that feature interacts with the rest of the game may not be known. For instance, carp (the fish) exist in the game and were set to be carnivorous. But in an unplanned turn of events, the carp began eating dwarves (they are about the same size). Another case of this was the addition of sewers. Evidently, the game’s hippos like to swim into them. Dwarf Fortress is complex enough that the internal logic of the game can adapt to added features, changing the game with unforeseen possibilities.

Ever played Dwarf Fortress? Tell us what you thought in the comments section below!

[Featured Image by Dwarf Fortress/Bay 12 Games]

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