From the Mountain homes, seven dwarves set out to start a new colony in a world full of myths, monsters, and gods. Even though they are small, these dwarves are our story’s heroes: People who are short and strong and like to drink and work. They will either dig a little too close to a volcano and fill the entire structure with lava or they will create incredible artifacts, face great evil, and build a citadel that will stand the test of time. After that, you’ll recreate everything in a new world with brand-new gods, monsters, and myths.
Dwarf Fortress, perhaps the most cult-classic video game, has been producing tales of triumph and tragedy for nearly 20 years. All of this and more is standard procedure. Text-based ASCII graphics, convoluted keyboard controls, and an impenetrable maze of fan-created mods and tilesets to make it more approachable have kept its incredible depth hidden for a long time. In addition, the game’s premium Steam release includes new graphics and a slew of quality-of-life enhancements that fundamentally enhance this amazing game for the next generation of storytellers, even though that admittedly high wall was already worth climbing over.
Even if you haven’t braved these terrifying tunnels, Dwarf Fortress has probably had an impact on you elsewhere. With its initial release in 2006, developer Bay 12 Games effectively established the Colony Sim genre, paving the way for games like RimWorld and influencing numerous others. It is still a reminder of how this combination of procedural generation and rules-based, reality-driven simulation can create unparalleled stories on the fly. Even today, among its many successors, Dwarf Fortress remains the only game that consistently creates a world and populates it with interesting characters. It is a sublime experience to watch this simulation of a world in action as you participate in it.
Doing far more straightforward now is as well. The dwarven world is presented in all its splendor in the updated graphics, which make use of a system of dynamically assembled sprites. In addition to dragons, hydras, unicorns, and other similar creatures, there are graphics for hundreds of different animals and animal men. Even the random and one-of-a-kind Forgotten Beasts, Titans, and Demons have been given appearances to match. Past-enhancing ASCII images, the sprites, and tiles – both static and dynamic – are a heavenly illustration of the pixel craftsman’s specialty.
A vibrant new soundscape of nature noises, dwarven work, tavern chatter, and whistling cavern winds adds a real sense of place to this fresh coat of paint. On top of that is a classical guitar soundtrack that pays homage to the single-track guitar noodling that used to accompany the free version of Dwarf Fortress and includes delights like singing in the dwarven language that is used in the game.
The Steam version of Dwarf Fortress, perhaps most significantly, brings the controls out of the early 1990s by including integrated mouse support, a fully functional graphical interface, and settings menus rather than requiring direct editing of game files to adjust the difficulty. To me, the proper mouse support alone is worth the entry fee: It’s simple to paint out walls, mining tunnels, and more. More important for new players is the ability to click on a tile to quickly access a tabbed inventory of everything on it. This inventory includes quick buttons for basic interactions like prohibiting your dwarves from touching it. This is useful when you kill a huge six-eyed cave bird with poisonous blood and your chef immediately tries to get a head start on tomorrow’s dinner.
Dwarf Meets World
Dwarf Fortress is still an unapologetically complex game underneath despite all that improvement, which is shockingly large and remarkably comprehensive. By providing you with a world, a relatively secure embarkation point, and a fortress that can supply its necessities (such as food and alcohol), its new tutorials go a long way toward teaching you how to play. Even so, a tutorial can’t teach you even a tenth of what you’ll probably want to know during your adventure, so those who are new to this genre will need patience.
Before making even a single dwarven sock, you must first set up separate workshops to spin plant fiber into thread, weave thread into cloth, and optionally dye the cloth. It’s a game in which you, like all good dwarves, take on the role of an amateur mineralogist and try to figure out where in the geological strata to dig for iron, tin, coal, or gold. You’ll some way or another become familiar with the distinction between gabbro and rock. You will probably read an article that explains what a quern is. Although it may sound like a lot, it is extremely rewarding to learn real-world information and then immediately apply it to your game.
Dwarf Fortress’s biggest flaw is that you can only control your dwarves through actively deployed military squads. You act as a sort of central planner, granting labor permits, overseeing production, and drawing up blueprints for their constructions. However, when any of these things take place is up to them. They may be too preoccupied with eating, taking a nap, or listening to the local bard tell a story.
Additionally, it is delightful that you are unable to control them because dwarves each have their own simulated inner lives. They have considerations, recollections, most loved things, individual abilities, connections, and actual qualities, all of which you can find out about in menus or in some cases see on their sprites. They will occasionally make bizarre decisions based on who they are because of the simulation’s complexity, and the procedural nature of everything makes those decisions occasionally hilarious, frustrating, or even heartbreaking.
Dwarves, for instance, have a bad reputation for leaving things outside the fortress and then trying to get them back no matter what. Everyone has their tales of Urist running into a goblin horde because they forgot their socks in the pasture, or of a terrible beast emerging from the caverns and a helpless child skipping through the battlefield to pick mushrooms in the lower caves, only to be stopped by your brave militia.
That simulated idiocy can occasionally be obnoxious, but it can also produce beautiful stories. I once had two dwarves, a doctor and a surgeon, who decided to wed amid an ongoing crisis. Their friend, a farmer, officiated their wedding, while nearby patients cried out in pain in my hospital room and enemies were at the gates. Poignant, as if they had decided that they would rather die together than together if their lives were in danger. It was hilarious because the vows were being exchanged while a patient remained open on the surgical table and everyone was covered in blood.
Because this game generates reams of tall tales, Dwarf Fortress is also unapologetic about the amount of reading required. In essence, you won’t be able to follow any of these tales if you don’t read a dwarf’s thoughts or look at their relationships in the character menu that appears when you click on them. Although graphics are helpful, this is still largely a text-based game. Because Dwarf Fortress focuses on creating and simulating actual events rather than rendering them in great detail as they occur, you read descriptions of objects, people, and combat.
Finding these stories is part of the game in Dwarf Fortress, especially as the number of people living in your fort increases. Although notifications let you know that certain things are taking place, reading the event logs, studying your dwarves’ histories, and pausing to look around your fort’s day-to-day operations are necessary to fully comprehend them. It is incredibly rewarding for those who enjoy roleplaying their fortress inhabitants and figuring out why they do what they do.
Dig, Baby, Dig
This is the epitome of a nerdy game, requiring care and attention across a wide range of subjects and fields. There’s always something new to learn, a new challenge, or an absurd project to try. I find none of its complexity to be frightening or frightening; I want to rise to the challenge more. Building a fort is like playing in a sandbox, and you can interact with many of the systems in Dwarf Fortress in any way you want. I rarely use windmills or powered pumps because I dislike tinkering with them.
The systems in Dwarf Fortress are only limited by your imagination, knowledge of how they function, and proficiency with the interface. Each procedurally generated world has its cast of characters, civilizations, artifacts, gods, religions, stories, books, instruments, and more, all of which have histories that go back centuries before the “present day” you start in. You can almost instantly create new worlds. There are plenty of biomes to build in, including swamps, tundra, grasslands, deserts, badlands, mountains, coastlines, marshes, riversides, and jungles—just to name a few—and each has good, evil, and savagely primordial variants—so you won’t need more than one world to play for hundreds of hours.
You are aware that you are here to collaborate with game systems rather than fight them as long as you go into the game knowing that the majority of fortresses end in some kind of ruin. That mode of play gains so much power thanks to the new controls; Building workshops and placing furniture is a breeze thanks to the interface’s simple clickability, and letting your dwarves build them from whatever material is most convenient rather than optimizing the stone used for a kiln takes some of the hassles out of common tasks. The same is true for above-ground structures; previously, switching between the Z-levels of the 2D top-down map of Dwarf Fortress was a cumbersome process that was made easier by the convenience of a default view that accurately depicts what lies beneath empty tiles.
That’s great because construction is its separate subgame. The placement of fortifications, workshops, or guard towers is one end of the spectrum; the other is optimizing effective fortress designs in which dwarves travel only a short distance to meals and workshops. Dwarf smiths can use the secrets of steelmaking to create an invincible military or your fort can become a hub for crafts and trade, selling carved stone baubles to the outside world. You can construct a massive statue and use magma from the earth’s depths to light its eyes, or you can design a complicated pump system to irrigate vast caverns for mushroom farming.
It’s a lot of fun to set up a series of clever traps, like pressure-plate-opening pits, wall-hung blades, triggered crossbows, or more elaborate designs: False entrances that open, allow in intruders, and then close before flooding with water or magma are some of my favorites. I’ve used “dwarven shotguns,” minecarts with swords that stop abruptly and hurl their contents at the enemy at high speed. Or you can go the direct route and train a dwarf army and send it off the map to take over nearby towns or cities in exchange for supplies.
When you get bored with a fort’s success, it will either fall into ruin or be retired. Having a fort either fall into ruin or simply fail is one way to learn the deep systems and learn more about how to survive as a dwarf. “Losing is Fun!” has long been the community’s motto. Players will also talk about doomed endings such as dwarven civil wars and poisonous monster breath as potential sources of that “Fun.” You decide what you want to accomplish—among many other possibilities, becoming the new Mountainhome, subjugating your neighbors, or just having the happiest dwarves in the world.
When you open up the large, subterranean caverns beneath the earth, which are home to creatures like giant white crocodiles, impish candles, or pale, blind cave ogres, one of my favorite game challenges to build around is. You’ll probably want to build… a cool tavern with staff and bards because opening caves attracts wandering monster-slaying adventurers who will ask to live in your fort so they can explore the depths. After all, every adventurer requires a tavern.
I enjoy reading the combat logs of monster killers. Even though the most intricate battles in Dwarf Fortress appear to be two swarms of blinking sprites colliding on the surface, it’s great to delve into the specifics of what’s going on both during and after a fight. Wounded warriors slip in pools of their blood, limbs are severed, and spears become stuck in bone. In desperate battles, one side chokes the other out of life through unarmed struggle.
When you direct and learn about the lives of the characters in question, this struggle means a lot. Fighting off a dragon attack in Dwarf Fortress can sometimes be a good day. Realizing that one of your dwarfs likes frogs and making some frog statues for their bedroom is sometimes it.
The new version of this vast and beautiful game has flaws in many places that have been there for years. For example, so a lot is happening at some random time that presentation unavoidably endures as guides fill in size and intricacy. The most recent version runs better than ever, but when many characters or creatures appear at once, it can slow down to a low-FPS crawl. Forts with more than 200 dwarves becoming unsustainable on any but the beefiest PCs will undoubtedly result in what the community refers to as “FPS Death” when set to high limits and built to ever greater heights. Creating smaller background worlds and choosing smaller fortress sites, as well as ensuring that your dwarfs throw their dirty socks into a magma-based disposal system to reduce the number of objects that must be tracked in the world, are always helpful.
This brings us back to the interface, which makes a valiant effort to contain the sheer volume of content that Dwarf Fortress contains from the start, let alone the content that it generates during play. This latest version is vastly superior to its predecessors in terms of performance, but the usability is still limited by your patience in figuring out where each piece of information is stored. Dwarves alone have twelve tabs and subtabs in their data board, and a solitary game tile can contain numerous items to be tapped on and have their portrayals perused.
However, this does make doing many things much simpler. Either a straightforward checkbox system or categorized lists with basic search or sort capabilities are sufficient for managing dwarf laborers and preferences, such as what to do with their trash, what goods to stock at the trade depot, or how many people are on the mining detail. However, it still has the potential to quickly become overwhelmed by a large number of items and lacks basic UI conveniences like hotkeys for moving items to the top or bottom of lists. To trade away a lot of specific items in a row, it’s not very fun. At the very least, the new controls are pretty adaptable and allow you to rebind almost anything. That is a clever and user-friendly reference to the fact that mastering hotkeys and shortcuts will continue to be essential to a successful Dwarf Fortress experience.
Part of the fun for me is figuring out where each piece of information is kept and how to get to it quickly. You can’t both love Dwarf Fortress and complain that it’s too hard to play because of its complexity. Similarly to that, you wouldn’t buy a Porsche or a Ferrari and then complain that it needs constant maintenance to perform at its best. Dwarf Fortress is complicated because it is a machine built by two dedicated craftsmen over decades with just one glorious purpose in mind: to create complete worlds and fill them with interminable adventure.
Dwarf Fortress would be my favorite game to play for the rest of my life because I don’t think I will ever run out of interesting and new things to do in the 50 to 60 years I have left. This is the ultimate world simulation and building management game, with an infinitely explorable complexity and equally rewarding depth. Up to this point, its heavenly universes have been clouded behind out-of-reach ASCII workmanship and a troublesome connection point that mainly a devoted not many had the option to appreciate. However, the new Steam version has improved graphics and sound, modern controls, and a proper user interface, allowing a new generation to blissfully immerse themselves in the magnificent story engine. In addition to its place in museums, academic texts, and the hearts of its many devotees, this genre-defining achievement demonstrates how fantastic video games can be when a developer has a precise goal and valiantly strives to achieve it, even if the effort takes decades.