Dwarf fortress I’ve been playing Dwarf Fortress for 13 years, and I’ve witnessed plenty of legends. I’ve seen one-armed dwarven generals kill dragons since the beginning of time. An artisan who had spent months imprisoned beneath my fortress halls emerged from the darkness toiling away on a puzzlebox made of obsidian and bone while I looked in horror. Now that Dwarf Fortress is available on Steam, the colony sim’s evolving tale is just barely more approachable than it has ever been.
Dwarf Fortress, the constantly evolving life’s work of brothers Tarn and Zach Adams, is moving into a new era by replacing its text-based graphics with actual pixels and the fundamental modernity of native mouse capability. For those willing to go into its depths, Dwarf Fortress continues to be an unparalleled treasure mine of procedural mythmaking, still mysterious and spectacular.
The intimidating reputation of Dwarf Fortress is well-deserved. The game does relatively little work for you when it comes to creating and maintaining your beautiful mountain house. There are just three things left: you, a collection of menus, and whatever semblance of self-preservation instinct your dwarves can conjure.
Every element of your developing dwarven society—and there are a tonne of them—is under your control. You instructed your dwarves to dig every square inch of every room and passageway. You instructed them on where to sow the seed in case they produce a crop. And if any of Dwarf Fortress’s numerous threats succeed in taking them away from you—such as goblin hordes, were-gazelles, or an unintentional cave-in—it was your fault.
And you’ll fall short. A lot! That is reasonable. The guiding principle of Dwarf Fortress is that losing is entertaining, as the game explicitly states. It has no requirement for winning. There is no victor. Whether you surrender a stronghold voluntarily or are forced to, they are all ultimately doomed.
Your successes are actually measured by the knowledge and lessons you have applied. Whatever the duration of your castle, all of its accomplishments are wholly your own because you laboriously built them from the top of a vertical learning curve.
Successfully navigating production lines, military defence, and civic planning are all necessary for long-term success in Dwarf Fortress. Even after 13 years of play, there are still many facets of Dwarven industry that I haven’t explored. Internalizing a fresh bit of Dwarf Fortress reasoning, like mastering an eldritch magic, is a tremendous source of pride. Consider how strong I’ll be once I master Dwarven hydraulics.
Striking the earth
Dwarf Fortress is essentially a simulation of a colony. You go out from the Mountainhomes with a small band of dwarves to claim a piece of a remote wilderness. It’s up to you to build a stronghold fit for the ages from the ground up—or down, as dwarves seem to do. It won’t be long till winter. start excavating.
Dwarf Fortress appears to be straightforward at first. It may be difficult to handle, but it seems simple enough while you’re pointing out tunnels to mine and trees to chop. You quickly find yourself sifting through three menus while attempting to assign administrative roles, allocate burrows, and manage the stockpiles of food, gems, finished commodities, and priceless cave wheat brew.
Your best farmer is going through a depressive episode because there aren’t enough chairs in the dining hall, your livestock are fighting because you put them in a pasture that’s too small, your lone huntsdwarf is being chased home in a panic after angering a large capybara with their last crossbow bolt, and so on. Before your first goblin siege, that is all.
The most noticeable modifications in the Steam edition are cosmetic, leaving aside the difficult balancing act of fortress management. Dwarf Fortress was previously an ASCII-based business, necessitating mods for any imagery more interesting than a letter “D” facing you in a duel.
Dwarf Fortress now has gorgeous tile-based aesthetics of its own. Your dwarves’ sprite representations of their physical characteristics are endearing enough to look at. The updated visuals are accompanied by a larger music that alternates between the grizzled warmth of dwarven work songs, wistful acoustic plucking, and eerie atmospherics. It perfectly captures the mood—at times whimsical, at times harsh, and frequently doomed.
The interface and controls have undergone the most significant adjustments in terms of playability. Dwarf Fortress, which previously only supported keyboard input, now offers native mouse functionality. The ability to designate, interact with, or inspect items by clicking on them is a much-needed and welcome change, but the new UI finds it difficult to handle all the facets of this bottomless game.
That’s only half of the magic, though. Although it pulls off a convincing act, Dwarf Fortress is really just a colony sim. In addition to the planning and management, Dwarf Fortress is a marvel of procedural worldbuilding. It’s a toolset for making stories that calls itself a game.
Each dwarf has a distinct set of physical traits, right down to the way their beards are plaited and how their earlobes look. They each have unique personality features, tastes, objectives, and mannerisms. They also have pets, animals, and a goblin invader trying to stab them in the ribs. Each etching has its own randomly produced image, and each object has its unique generated attributes.
Every aspect of gameplay in Dwarf Fortress is covered in dozens of layers of procedural simulation. It also starts the moment you start playing by creating a world for you. It would be stunning enough to see the creation of a distinctive geography, new continental landmasses seeded with simulated biomes, and water tables when you click the “Create a New World” button. History begins to be written by Dwarf Fortress.
Demigods walk the planet as decades pass in a matter of seconds as your new world enters its first age. Mortal civilizations emerge, their towns uncoiling roads as they prosper, and contracting as they crumble. Dwarf Fortress involves simulating countless events at the same time, mapping connections between real-life people and mythical objects, tracking migration patterns, and counting casualties.
A new caravan of dwarves that I send forth does not go in a vacuum. It is the most recent episode in an ongoing story. My dwarfs are entangled in a vast, ancient thinking web that lies behind what is visible on the screen. It is mentioned in the poems they study and recite, each with its own set of formal and metrical requirements, and when they carve murals depicting historical events.
This simulation’s ridiculous depth gives Dwarf Fortress an outrageous amount of information. The mechanical gameplay is hardly at all significantly impacted. But it’s not necessary. That absurd, almost pathological complexity has captivated me for more than a decade.
That amount of detail makes it much easier for me to believe that there is a world happening off-screen and that what I am seeing is only a small portion of something that is living. Every sliver of algorithmic flavour text offers the possibility of developing an attachment, turning the fumbling pixels on the screen into tales worth telling. When any two Dwarf Fortress players interact, the outcome is obvious: stories serve as the fundamental exchange medium.