The meticulous game is kind of like if Patrick Bateman made “The Sims”
“Dwarf Fortress” has now been in development for almost 19 years. That’s more than double the life expectancy of a Great Dane dog. It’s been in development through four presidential administrations, six seasons of Jersey Shore, two recessions, four console generations and odds are—if you’re a college student reading this—most of your life. It is now, with its forthcoming release on Steam, getting graphics for the first time.
Before now, the only way to know whether the creature you were looking at was a cat or a forgotten beast who has acid for skin and “undulates rhythmically” was to recognize the various colored ASCII characters and use your imagination. And now, finally, those ASCII characters will be replaced by tiny sprites.
“Dwarf Fortress” generates a new procedurally generated fantasy world each time you play. But unlike your typical roguelike or simulation game, “Dwarf Fortress” captures the minutia of its worlds in a way rarely matched by even fantasy authors: an entire history is generated. Every notable figure, when they were born, what they did, when they died, when wars started and basically anything else you can think of is compiled into a file that you can browse at your leisure, if you ever come to wonder why the center of your map has like a 8×8 tile zone of abandoned citadels filled with nothing but crocodiles and elderly vampires.
The level of detail is unprecedented and much of the joy to be found in the game is just discovering all the intricate, strange things its world generation has made for you. As you might guess, this level of detail can frequently become cumbersome (such as when a character loses a finger in a fight and a necromancer is somehow able to resurrect said finger and command it to strangle its previous owner to death), but though these elements can get in the way of clean gameplay, it’s impossible to get too upset at a game that’s this dedicated to creating a realistic world. And so far, game creators Tarn and Zach Adams have only implemented a fraction of the content they intend to. There are still wizards, military management, property law and a plethora of other mechanics that must all be blended seamlessly into the game’s already bloated shell.
A hint of the game’s density can be found in some of the bug fixes: “Stopped dwarves from silently dissolving their marriages when they make a close friend,” “Stopped inebriation personality alterations from being permanent,” “Animals no longer become distracted from being unable to drink if they’ve experienced trauma.” All this regularly funny stuff also serves as a reminder of the game’s scope—the development’s end goal is to “create a fantasy world simulator in which it is possible to take part in a rich history, occupying a variety of roles through the course of several games,” which seems to be an understatement. Two people have managed to create a video game world many times more detailed than any corporate developer. And with no end in sight, they may continue to do so until they die.
The primary gameplay of “Dwarf Fortress” consists of designing and managing a fortress full of dwarves. It’s comparable to something like “The Sims” or “Minecraft” in its broad strokes, but the experience formed by all these deep elements is really nothing like those games; it feels more like managing the world’s largest spreadsheet, but fun. It’s also very, very hard. It’s less “wow, these monsters are really strong” hard and more “I forgot to dispose of this meat and the fumes have upset my best soldier enough to start killing all my craftsmen” hard. With so much to consider and manage, there is no end to the number of variables that might lead to a game-ending scenario if left unchecked.
“Dwarf Fortress” is still free, but the upcoming Steam version will see the Adams brothers charging money for it for the first time, to the tune of a modest $20. The Steam page has the release date listed as “time is subjective.”
Written by: Jacob Anderson — email@example.com