A World Apart

A World Apart

Felix Behr is a dwarf, and the fortress, and the world.

I literally stopped playing [Dwarf Fortress] for a year due to the unkillable supercarp in every source of water available. They swam in the channels I dug, they muscled their way through the grates, and they killed my dwarves dead with their giant carpy teeth (thus polluting the drinkable water).

At some point it got so bad that in order to get fresh water, the dwarves had to go a bit upriver. Then they got devoured by carp there, thus polluting the water.

So they had to go a bit more upriver to get fresh water (ignoring the pond I built and closed off with an actual floodgate this time; I’m still not sure why they ignored it); at which point they got killed by a carp, thus … I’m sure you can see where this is going.

At that point, the strewn out chain of dwarves trying to get past the waterlogged corpses to fresh water was attacked by goblins and hacked to pieces. It was one of the most ridiculous chains of events I’ve ever experienced.

This story, which I found in a thread on brokenforum.com titled “The Dwarf Fortress thread of blood rain, vampire and skeletal cows,” is one of many that recount the devastation caused by carp. “Carp” is not a codeword for anything. Rather, the harmless fish became one of Dwarf Fortress’s most infamous monsters due to a coding error on the part of the main creator of the game, Tarn Adams (or Toady One when he is on the Dwarf Fortress fora). He later admitted that he might have “made fish too hardcore.”  

Dwarf Fortress, or Slave of Armok: God of Blood Chapter II: Dwarf Fortress is one of those cultish games that people hear a lot about without quite understanding what it is. It has remained a game that largely exists on the sidelines of popular conception because its learning curve doubles back upon itself, leaving the new player upturned before a wall of unreadable text. And, of course, it’s still a work in progress. Tarn and Zach Adams began development in 2002 and released the first alpha version of Dwarf Fortress in 2006. After twelve years of constant development, Dwarf Fortress remains an alpha.

The reason for the never-ending alpha state is that Dwarf Fortress is actually a world simulator.  It attempts to produce an entire Tolkienesque land. During the game’s procedural generation, everything is created and recorded, from rivers eroding mountains to the founding of religions to how an elf was eaten by a bear twenty years ago. Towns are founded. Wars between men and elves and dwarves and goblins begin, bring death, and end. Events from earlier points of that procedurally generated history are engraved upon artifacts. The code remembers and proceeds to manifest itself as an intricate world.

It is from this mass of data that the pages of stories people tell about Dwarf Fortress emerge, and, as the earlier mention of blood rain, vampires, and skeletal cows might suggest, killer fish and dwarves barely scrape the surface. The sheer scale of the mechanics combined with the active imagination of the fanbase melds into some pure fun storytelling. Here are two of the more massive community let’s plays, Boatmurdered and Roomcarnage, to read if you ever have a perfectly pointless afternoon to kill. Played on the Something Awful fora in 2007,  Boatmurdered was a colony founded by mining dwarves who were soon faced with dwarf-eating elephants and artifacts bearing engravings of cheese. Roomcarnage, which was chronicled on Dwarf Fortress’s home site, bay12game.com, attempted to carve a fortress into a volcano that towers over a glacier and and is subjected to inclement weather consisting of frozen elf blood.

Such anecdotes serve as good pitches for Dwarf Fortress. After all, if you tell anyone about bloodthirsty bottom feeders, they will probably remember it. They’re not the kind of details that are easily forgotten. But, for me, they fail to capture what Dwarf Fortress really is and why it is a unique experience.

The crazy things that happen in Dwarf Fortress all the time and stories like the one about the carp do a lot to illustrate experiences that thrive underneath Dwarf Fortress’s inscrutable graphics and UI. But crazy things happen in video games all the time. That’s a major part of their appeal. Even The Sims encourages deviant gameplay.

What makes Dwarf Fortress stand out is not just the scope of the project, but also the fact that it offers multiple ways to play with it. It’s like a puzzle-box. The different grips the box offers invite you to understand the object in a fuller way. So yes, it is time to do a quick geek out over the different ways with which you can engage with Dwarf Fortress.

The procedural generation has to run its course before you start actually playing, so when you boot up Dwarf Fortress, you are not prompted to play, but to “Create New World!” After waiting for the few minutes it takes to generate the area’s entire environment and its history, you are returned to the menu. Now you may “Start Playing.” You click it, choose the world you want to use, and are presented with three modes of play.

The first mode, Fortress, is generally perceived as the main game. Starting with a crew of seven dwarves you must build a fortress community that will culminate in either horrific genocide, a population that has grown so large that your frame rate plummets, or boredom. The gameplay resembles a fantasy take on the construction and management genre, except that the same intricate systems or obsessive micromanagement that defined the game’s procedural generation in the first place are at play here, too. For instance, dwarves will immigrate with preexisting histories, relationships, religions, preferences, the lot, as do the goblins you are fighting.  

In Adventurer, you create a character, give them a ridiculous name like Gocta Seasonpeppers, and explore, killing until you are inevitably killed. Here we have a totally open experience. You can go pretty much anywhere, including your previous fortresses. You can try to fight anything, including the dwarves of your previous fortresses, though odds are that someone will shortly sever the nerves in your hands, legs, or spine — another example of the granularity of Dwarf Fortress’s simulation .

Admittedly, Legends, the final mode, does not offer a way to alter or influence events within the simulation as the other two do. Instead, it lets you access the historical records of the whole world you have been playing in. Beginning with the beasts that existed before time and ending with whenever you last played with that file, Legends contains the records of notable events that you experienced as well as the ones you would never notice. Each time you play either Dwarf Fortress or Adventurer, time passes for everything, so more events happen, so there is more data stored within the world-file’s Legends. Through Legends, you learn about the generated lore and you can discover the history behind the civilizations, fortresses and adventurers you played as and belonged to.

Individually, all three modes present the player with the opportunity to experience a systemic narrative.

In a video essay titled “Telling Stories With Systems,” Mark Brown, a former videogame journalist who now makes the YouTube series “Game Maker’s Toolkit,” nails a succinct description of systemic stories or emergent narratives. Systemic games like Civilization, X-Com, and Crusader Kings 2, he notes:

…can manufacture interesting stories because they have complicated systems with rules, computer-controlled characters, and lots of moving parts that are let loose and are allowed to bounce off one another. Under the right circumstances, this will create stories with conflict and tension and success that is snatched from the jaws of defeat. And our brains are quite happy to take all that and turn it into one epic narrative.

So, through the screenshots I used to illustrate the modes of play, one could create a short story in which a small community was founded in the mountains. A month later, a demigod called Gocta Seasonpeppers set out to check it out only to be ambushed by boogeymen and die before the dawn of the next day. The Pale Fellowships, the group he served for two months, will carry on regardless. Sadly, two experiences remained unconnected due to my incompetence.

The difference between the engagement with Dwarf Fortress and with the games Mark Brown listed is that the different styles of play complement the player’s experience of the generated world. In fortress mode, the act of managing a fortress naturally generates systemic stories. You start a community. Inevitably calamity strikes. You deal with it. And so a story begins and ends.

However, Dwarf Fortress is not limited to the fortress. You can also interact with it as an open world RPG, which is a radically different orientation than looking from above as a management sim god. Or, contrariwise, as if you could stop playing as your hero to build a city for them to visit later. In Dwarf Fortress you can run between the two and grasp the simulation from two completely different perspectives. You can view existence from society’s perspective or the individual’s.

The shape through which you reach the simulation changes and some will probably never choose to play one mode over the other. And since the breadth of the project means that Dwarf Fortress is in a near-permanent alpha state, some players will want more features. After all, even though the game enjoys its own cultish popularity, there is a reason why it has not broken the mainstream market as others have.

These drawbacks, though, work toward Tarn Adams’ goal, which 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.” The carp is fun, but it is a texture of everything that could be explored.    

That is why even though it’s arguably not a game, Legends establishes Dwarf Fortress. It grounds the other two perspectives by presenting a third, a history of the game’s creation. The embarrassingly short career of Gocta Seasonpeppers fits into a larger data structure the player can refer to and use to create an even more elaborate or epic experience. Dwarf Fortress contains a web of information and historical entanglements because each person, location, or organization is connected to another. There is a ricocheting effect, in which you bounce between the different modes of gameplay to flesh out an incomparably full foundation for the player to assemble a world.

More importantly, the introduction of Legends changes Fortress mode and Adventurer mode from being styles of gameplay to being subsystems. The key is that none of the three are the actual game. Rather, they are three parts that work within the same saved space, the same world. Before you can play, you have to create the world in which you can choose to run a fortress, fight as an adventurer, or explore the new historical data that was generated as you were galavanting about in some mountain. The “game” is the world itself, and as far as this game has a goal, it is to explore and interact with that world.

Individually, each of these options offers a deep way of exploring your computer’s simulation. Together, these three modes act as three different grips for a puzzle box that spontaneously generates amazing stories. By fiddling with each grip separately, you are able to twist the whole device into a new form and gain a more coherent understanding of how the world fits together. It is for this ability that my teenage imagination was entranced by Dwarf Fortress. And it is for this, as well as the horror stories of the Überfisch, that it stands alone.

Felix Behr is a contributing editor to the Danish magazine, Mayday, and is from Yonkers, NY. He promises that he does play other games than Dwarf Fortress.