For a brief, beautiful moment on Steam this week, the top-selling computer game was Dwarf Fortress. It was beating out Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II, the massively popular first-person shooter game with a purported budget of about $250 million.
This was notable because Dwarf Fortress is a cult classic created entirely by two brothers, Tarn and Zach Adams, in Washington state. Ever since it was first released in 2006, the game has been in continual development and is free to download, with the brothers relying on donations from fans. The game is ostensibly about managing a colony of dwarves, but it achieved equal amounts of fame and infamy for being perhaps the deepest, most inscrutable, and most difficult simulation game ever made. It directly inspired Minecraft and influenced a host of other games.
The new version of the Dwarf Fortress, released this week on Steam for $29.99, adds pixel graphics, mouse support, and improved menus that go a long way toward making the game more approachable to players.
Trying to briefly explain the game or its appeal is difficult, but: The Adams brothers took the idea of procedurally generating a world and ran with it to ludicrous lengths. When a player creates a new world in Dwarf Fortress, the game models not only the geography and topology but also the history of that world, creating lore and legends that are reflected in the art that your dwarves craft. Every creature has its own personality traits, appearance, and skills, from the dwarves down to the stray cats. The depth of code underlying the game has led to amusing bugs and emergent behavior, such as cats trying to clean themselves after being vomited upon by drunken dwarves and dying of alcohol poisoning. When the Adams brothers introduced the ability to build sewers, they were surprised to find vicious hippos taking up residence in them.
As a game that you actually, like, play, though, Dwarf Fortress has always been a beast. The learning curve is like ascending K2. Much of this was due to the ludicrous number of menus one had to navigate, all by esoteric keyboard commands. The graphics were also all ASCII characters. And once you began to figure out what you were even looking at, you had to figure out what to actually do in the game. Let me put it this way: The “Quickstart” guide on the Dwarf Fortress Wiki clocks in at more than 15,000 words. There is no victory condition or end to the game because every fortress you build will inevitably fail, either from a terrible beast emerging from the depths, an enemy raid from the surface, your own dwarves going insane, or any other number of calamities. Dwarf Fortress fans will tell you this is the fun part.
The new Steam version will let you get to the fun part a bit faster. For the first time, there’s a tutorial. This is a welcome addition that explains how to navigate the world and various menus. (Don’t kid yourself, though. You’re still going to need that 15,000-word guide to figure out how to craft chain mail or set up a drawbridge to keep goblin raiders out.)
I’ve played Dwarf Fortress in the past, and I recommend downloading the ASCII version (still available as Dwarf Fortress Classic) some time to see it in all its cryptic glory. Once you acclimate to the symbols, like Cypher staring at the Matrix code, you can appreciate the amount of detail that the Adams brothers were able to squeeze out of them. Puddles appear during spring rain storms, trees change colors in autumn, snow accumulates on the ground in winter.
To be honest, I never got too far into the original game because I didn’t have the attention span to conquer the interface. My immediate impressions on playing the new Steam version for a few hours are that it preserves most of what makes the game weird and wonderful while making it much less tedious to approach. The menus for managing dwarf labors and tasks are particularly easier to handle.
Things are proceeding normally enough so far at my first fortress, Crystalspike, although I notice that one of my dwarves, Monom Alathumam, is perpetually grumpy. Looking through his recent thoughts, I see that he didn’t even feel happy while drunk, which is very unusual for a dwarf. He also “didn’t feel anything while crying on somebody in charge.” Monom is a walking pharmaceutical commercial.
Browsing through his extensive personality profile, I see that his problem is that he has an unmet need to “be extravagant.” My poor dandy dwarf just wants to be fabulous. I need to build a clothing workshop and craft some quality duds for Monom, or barter for some the next time elven traders show up at my fortress.
My dwarves have also presented me with a petition to build a temple to Rakust, one of the various dwarven deities. Further reading shows that Rakust is a god of death and suicide. A death cult, then. Maybe the dwarves would also like it if there were some live goblins to sacrifice to Rakust. That means I need to set up some cage traps, which means I need to build a mechanic’s workshop, and then forge some iron, which means mining the various iron ores like magnetite, limonite, and hematite. But first I need to get my wood furnace running so that my smelter has coke for fuel …
This is how the game draws you into its seemingly impenetrable depths. The surprise of Dwarf Fortress, like Crusader Kings, is how stories and narratives naturally emerge as you play.
It’s not an exaggeration to say Dwarf Fortress is one of the great pieces of outsider art created in the 21st century. (Don’t take my word for it; the game is on display at the Museum of Modern Art.) It’s a work of singular genius, the kind that we don’t see much of these days, and also the story of an indie gem finding its audience thanks to the internet. The success of the new Steam version shows people are eager to show their appreciation for the Adams brothers’ years of labor. The story isn’t finished yet, though. The Adams brothers are still working on Dwarf Fortress and adding new features, delving ever deeper into the simulation, just like their dwarves. Long may they reign.