Friday, April 04, 2008

Dwarf Fortress, pt 2

Sweet southern springtime, the last late skiff of snow evaporated, the lawns lousy with more robins than a Teen Titans cosplay convention. I really ought not to be spending these golden-crisp sweaterweather days indoors, quasimodoed over a laptop, but… other worlds have other seasons and their attendant responsibilities. Besides, I’m parked here by the picture window, plenty of Vitamin D flooding in; I even get a bit of a social life, when I make eye contact with passers-by.

Maybe I should have shaved.

Or taken a shower.

Or at least changed out of my pajamas.

“I can smell you from here,” my lady calls from an adjoining room, and I know she’s not exaggerating. I can feel it on me, familiar as favorite socks: old-time Gamer Sweat, sour scent of The Zone, pheromone cloud biologically calculated to attract… who? Not the female of the species, for sure. Maybe it’s a primitive, cellular matchmaking service, XBox Life: caveman nerds would catch a whiff across the glaciers and know someone nearby was up for a few rounds of StoneThrow 10KBC

I’m still playing Dwarf Fortress, you see, and though you all come here for only the freshest videogame coverage I’m going to take a Mulligan on last week’s column – time, tide and deadlines forced me into it too early: I’d only logged twenty or so hours, and most of that in a series of pathetically stillborn Fortresses. I’ve since sunk another twenty into this most intricately geeky world-simulator and managed to see one noble outpost through two whole game years without collapse… and I’m still Holy Shitting every half hour or so, at the crazy crap that emerges from the simulation’s natural chaos.

But even with a whole workweek’s worth of time dropped into DF, I’m still scrambling up the lower slopes of the game’s craggy learning curve, the rest of the mountain rising before me. Dwarf Fortress is a pain in the ass to play, DOS-shell-style menus on top of submenus on top of sub-sub-menus detailing everything from, for example, the attributes of each individual morsel of food, to where each individual Dwarf sits at dinner, to how that Dwarf feels about her seating assignment and how those feelings affect the healing of her sprained wrist. And it’s all displayed via an indecipherable textlike GUI that looks like somebody’s dog ate the Rosetta Stone and barfed it up all over the Matrix.

Some tips for prospective Dwarven castellans. After grabbing the zip from Bay 12 Games, go immediately to the Dwarf Fortress wiki, devour as much of the newb material (esp. “Your first Fortress”) as possible -- and plan on keeping that window open for a week or so, even though DF’s omniscient God-brain snarls at sharing process time with other programs. And even with your hand held minute-to-minute by these thoughtful tutorials and walkthroughs you’re going to be frustrated – and, let’s be honest, kind of bored -- to the point of Fuck It and beyond… the only way to endure through this is to have a source of hope, a vision of what your manky, poorly-sited, starving cavern of losers could become, of what wonders Dwarf Fortress can offer the stalwart.

I personally recommend the Saga of Boatmurdered, a “succession game” in which multiple players guided (or tried, mostly in vain, to guide) the fortunes of the titular citadel, handing off the controls at the end of each game year and recording the events of their turns in-character. The writing is spotty as you’d expect from an ad-hoc rota of geeks, ranging from workmanlike to comedy gold, but without the example provided by their tale – complete with marauding elephants, genocidal lava traps, grand achievements, hubristic vanity projects and eventual mass insanity – I’d never have had the will to force my head into DF’s maddening depths.

So now I’ve finally got a thriving little outpost going, known to the Dwarves as Thikutostuk: “Booksneak”. Irrigation’s all figured out (only a single puppy drowned in the flooding, this time!), I’m mining a tidy little ore vein, got some lukewarm trade links established, and hopeful immigrants are filling out the population, bringing with them much-needed expertise – or, at least, strong backs and an Old World work ethic (also alcoholism). And speaking of filling out the population, I note that my engineer, Ilral Knifemachine, has been dallying with foredwarf Logem Relicsalves… might the pitter-patter of tiny (yet sturdy) feet soon echo through the halls of Booksneak?

Time – hours of precious, precious time – will tell, and damn me but I’m willing to put in those hours… because I’m more involved in Boooksneak than I have been in any videogame character in a long while. That’s the terrible secret of Dwarf Fortress: behind the savage wall of user-unfriendliness lies a world-simulator of constantly surprising complexity, and the extreme abstraction of the world’s presentation requires reactivation of imaginative capacity long lulled by the advance of graphics technology. More than any other sim game, Dwarf Fortress really lives, and lives inside you...

...which makes it pathetically tough to live outside it.