Friday, April 04, 2008

Dwarf Fortress, pt 1

From the journals of Solon Playfulcastle, Bossdwarf:

Arrived at fortress site early Month Granite. Mood best described as ‘hopefully wary’—the very defensible box canyon location is unfortunately too far above the treeline for anything to grow. The only available timber is from a meager stand of scraggly pine a few miles down the mountain, and from our own dismantled wagons.

There are no game animals around, and on the sterile schist of the canyon only an inedible lichen thrives. With luck, we’ll manage to get the brook dammed and a farm cavern dug and irrigated before we starve to death, or run out of booze.

Oh, and the oracle at the Dwarven Mining Co-op chose the name “Bustmystery” for this enterprise. Great.

A Mac OS port of Dwarf Fortress was recently released, an exciting piece of news; since the middle of 2006, I’d watched longingly through the glass as the various tribes of indie game geeks, hardcore roguelike mavens and other gaming masochists sung the praises and cursed the cruelty of Bay 12 Games’ fantasy base-building sim. At last, I’d have the chance to find out for myself how my fellow nerds were finding tragedy and triumph in those impenetrable screensful of multicolored letters, numbers and punctuation.

On the PlayThis Thing! blog, Greg Costikyan described Dwarf Fortress best when he called it a game from a parallel universe, a universe whose computers are just as powerful as ours but where the revolutions in graphics and user-interface design never happened, where games are powerful simulators displayed in ASCII text and controlled through cludgy shell menus and an arcane repertoire of hotkeys.

To someone from our world, where the wand-waving magic of the Wii is getting senior citizens addicted to virtual bowling and the fastest-growing sector of the games market is in “casual” games that require one mouseclick and two brain cells to play, Dwarf Fortress seems beyond daunting. But on the other side of the insane – sadistic, really – learning curve lies one of the most intricate, involving, entertaining and flat-out satisfying simulation games ever devised…
From the journals of Solon Playfulcastle, Bossdwarf:

Bad idea to schedule the construction of the whisky still and the bunkhouse before excavating the farm. I thought it would help morale, but nothing’s getting done; the big plan now is to give up on gem-mining and just export organic lichen liquor.

Hang on; I think I hear the head mason hauling himself out of bed. As much as I hate to get all hierarchical – this is supposed to be a progressive, collaborative enterprise – I think I’m going to have to lean on him to finish building those irrigation floodgates. The food situation is getting worse.

Dwarf Fortress amazes with is its ambition; developed by a single programmer, Tarn Adams (with design assist from his brother, Zach), the game is a world simulator on every level from the planetary – the world is built fractally, according to rules of geology, hydrology, biology and meteorology – to the visceral: the dwarves working on a Moria of their very own are resolved physically down to individual limbs and organs, and psychosocially to the level of fundamental needs and preferences.

The result is all the wonder of a living world, a game whose challenge and entertainment arise from the barely-predictable chaotic interaction of systems: accidentally digging into an underground aquifer floods a cavern, which kills a dog, which depresses its owner, who stops working, which holds up a fortification project, which means the goblins get in… ad infinitum, on every level, constantly. Eventually, the effects of countless butterfly wings push the whole system over one brink or another and the fortress fails spectacularly.

The Dwarf Fortress motto: “Losing is fun.” Not only is it fun to watch your little ant-farm world of dwarves finally succumb to goblinish or demonic invaders – or to depression, madness and mass murder/suicide – but there’s a whole other Adventure Mode to play, a straight-up roguelike dungeon crawler through which you can explore the ruins of your fortress, discovering its treasures and records, experiencing its rise and fall though the lens of dungeon archaeology.

While the industry encrusts itself into formal genres, cranking out trivial variations like a tavern Blues band barfing up cover after 12-bar cover, Dwarf Fortress comes on like underground punk rock: revolutionary, independent, free, uncompromising… and more than a little terrifying.
From the journals of Solon Playfulcastle, Bossdwarf:

We’re going home. Nothing will grow here, the irrigation system is fucked, we’re dismantling empty ale barrels (there are lots of them) for scrap lumber because nobody can go logging without getting mauled by bears… and now our chief engineer is possessed, or something.

Farewell, Bustmystery. And fuck you.

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