Title: Slaves to Armok: God of Blood - Chapter II: Dwarf Fortress
Developer: Bay 12 Games (Tarn Adams and Zach Adams)
Publisher: Bay 12 Games
Date Published: August 8, 2006 (First public alpha)
Platforms: Windows PC (Windows 98 and above)

Once every few years, a game will come out of nowhere and cause the lucky few who play it to rethink their preconceived notions of the limitations of the medium. Dwarf Fortress is one such game. The game's humble origins (it is a hobby project created by a two man team) and unassuming presentation (the game's graphics are rendered in code page 437 text mode, in the venerable tradition of Kingdom of Kroz, ZZT, Castle Adventure and Nethack) belie a startlingly brave and innovative design ethos, which delivers a game experience which has no obvious parallel.

Dwarf Fortress is at the most basic level a strategy game in which the player is given the task of founding and maintaining a dwarf mining settlement at the foot of a mountain. The game's Tolkienesque fantasy setting is largely irrelevant, serving as a loose framework used to limit the activities which can be pursued (and allow for some culturally familiar fantasy elements) without feeling too obviously artificial. The dwarves could just as easily be a group of American pioneers or the survivors of a plane crash (with a few cosmetic tweaks).

But Dwarf Fortress aficionados won't tell you about how the game fits into genre categories. They'll tell you their stories. Dwarf Fortress's triumph is that it draws the player into a drama about a society of individuals who don't just have stats and skills, but their own hopes, fears and personalities. And you, as the player and disembodied guiding influence, are out there, with your hardy troupe of pioneers, engaging directly with the trials the world throws at them, determined to help them carve a small pocket of civilisation out of the ancient rock. It's not obvious how the game can achieve this feat, although the meticulous attention to detail (where detail has been lavished on aspects of the world that the developers realise are important, not just those that lie within the bounds of convenience and conventional wisdom) and the polished, economical writing both contribute to selling the illusion.

Before the game can be played for the first time, an elaborate world generation routine must be run, taking several minutes on a typical modern PC. The world that is generated by this process (complete with unique topography, vegetation, rivers, cities, weather systems and background history) contains fifty sites where a settlement can be founded, more than enough for the inevitable first few abortive attempts while the player learns the game, as well as for a few experiments once the player is feeling more confident. (Once the game has you in its grip, it is rare to abandon a settlement in all but the most dire circumstances - the game's unofficial motto is "Losing is fun, too.")

Once the world has been baked, it's time for our vertically challenged charges to set out on their journey. The player can choose a suitable site, and then can determine the initial loadout of equipment, provisions and skills for the initial seven pioneers. (A popular method is to make each of the founding dwarves a specialist in one skill, thereby minimising the time wasted by dwarves constantly switching tasks, and ensuring that each dwarf quickly gains mastery in their designated skill.)

Once the caravan arrives at the site, the game proceeds in real time (although not at real speed - seasons last a few hours of our time, but the events in the world occur slowly enough for the player to easily follow). The basic layout of the site is always the same: the Western side of the map is wide band of open wilderness, with a river running North to South. To the East of the river is the sheer mountainside, a sheet of rock into which the dwarves can dig tunnels, rooms and eventually their entire cave fortress. Digging far enough in an Easterly direction unearths a subterranean river, and somewhere beyond this, a magma flow.

Although some parts of the colony can be built in the wilderness, it quickly becomes apparent that as much as possible should be housed within chambers excavated from the mountain. 'Indoors' is protected from the elements, and easier to defend from intruders. An intensive programme of excavation will also provide the colony with a good supply of rock and ores, the raw materials from which most of the dwarves' technology is crafted. This proceeds in a manner vaguely reminiscent of Dungeon Keeper, with dwarven miners burrowing through the rock a square at a time, while others haul the mined material out to stockpiles where it can be sorted and processed.

The initial challenge in the game is to survive the first winter. Smaller goals that need to be taken care of towards this end include ensuring that all the dwarves have their own beds (and bedrooms), a supply of food (provided by fishing and hunting at first, but quickly demanding agriculture) and water (wells) and somewhere to eat and congregate (a dining hall). A range of workshops can also be built to allow the construction of buildings, tools, weapons and trade goods, as well as the preparation of food, beverages and clothing. (Many items require a sequence of several discrete processes to manufacture, which will be familiar to players of The Settlers, Industry Giant, or scholars of Iron Age settlements.)

It's not enough to simply build a settlement large enough to meet the needs of the original band of dwarves, however. Traders who visit the settlement will spread news of the dwarves' progress, which can result in groups of immigrants arriving to share in the glory. Rapid expansion can quickly overstretch the available facilities. When twenty dwarves turn up in the middle of winter and immediately demand dinner and somewhere to rest after their journey, things can quickly turn ugly. At any time it's possible to examine the recent thoughts and experiences of each dwarf. Oftentimes, this log of status messages forms a miniature narrative: (note: the following messages are in reverse chronological order.)

Kel Borushreg has been very unhappy lately. He was rescued recently. He sustained major injuries recently. He was beaten recently. He was glad to have punishment reduced recently. He admired his own fine bed lately. He enjoyed smashing up a building recently. He has witnessed death. He enjoyed throwing someone recently...

If the frequency of bad experiences starts to eclipse the good, the dwarf may throw a tantrum, breaking things and picking fights. If their condition continues to worsen unchecked, they may even go insane, which can result in all manner of murder, mayhem and mischief. Of course, poor conditions are likely to affect all the dwarves in the settlement, which can lead to a wave of unrest and seriously disrupt essential day to day activities.

If the player manages to survive the early years and finds themselves with a large, sustainable population, a new type of dwarf may seek out the settlement: nobles. Each noble has a specific profession which adds new dimensions to how the player can interact with the world. The Sherriff allows a system of justice to be implemented (which would help prevent situations such as the descent into rioting described above); the Manager allows specific jobs to be assigned, instead of having to place jobs into the settlement-wide pool via the workshops; the Bookkeeper allows a coin-based economy to be established; and there are dozens more.

The game's many intertwined systems (which simulate industry, agriculture, defence and many other aspects of dwarven society in exhaustive detail) continue to unravel as the game goes on. I'm told that in later years there are more predetermined major events in store, such as invasions, and an eventual 'endgame' involving something lurking within the mountain.

Beyond the Fortress, there is even an entire second game mode - Adventurer Mode - which allows you to explore the world in a more traditional Rogue-like hack'n'slash RPG fashion. I know little about this mode beyond the fact that it has a tremendously in-depth (and ultraviolent) combat and wrestling system. I understand that it is intended for the two playing modes to eventually be integrated.

I have to admit, eventually managing the Fortress becomes overwhelming. I am sure that with a sufficient investment of time and concentration, a fugue state can be maintained allowing interaction with the game to remain intuitive even in the later stages. The sheer amount of micromanagement and the idiosyncracies of the menu-driven interface (in its current form) present a barrier to all but the most committed strategists. (Which isn't to say that the interface is bad - it's actually extremely powerful. It's just that it has retained a lot of awkwardness and inconsistency as a result of being built around people who already have intimate knowledge of the game and have committed its quirks to muscle memory. It's rather like the brutally inelegant interfaces of early drum machines in this respect.)

Surprisingly, the text mode graphics do not have an appreciable negative effect on the game's immersiveness. Although it's sometimes necessary to pause the game and query an unfamiliar symbol, for the most part the graphics clearly and unambiguously portray the action. As far as I've been able to tell, every physical action in the world is acted out on screen, from falling snow to spiders spinning webs to catch flies. There are even some quite cleverly implemented animations to represent natural phenomena such as waterfalls.

At times the text art is even more affecting for its starkness: a while after one disasterous episode where some of my dwarves died in an ambush, I saw the designated graveyard had become literally a neatly organised dumping area, where rows of corpses (lifeless smiley face characters) lay bleaching in the sun. One of the corpses was blinking grey to white, indicating that they had reached legendary status in their chosen profession while alive. Years of toil cut short by a moment of violence (or possibly starvation - I hadn't quite figured out the subtleties of cave farming at that point).

Life is tough for a dwarf. Spending some time with this wholly remarkable game gives one a deep appreciation of this fact.


Official homepage: http://www.bay12games.com/dwarves/index.html
Forum: http://www.bay12games.com/cgi-local/ultimatebb.cgi
Wiki: http://dwarffortresswiki.net
Bill Harris' Blog (advocacy, tips and great stories): http://dubiousquality.blogspot.com/

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