Friday, January 19, 2018

Dwarf Fortress

"There hammer on the anvil smote
There chisel clove and graver wrote
There forged was blade and bound was hilt,
The delver mined, the mason built"

The Song of Durin

What can I add about Dwarf Fortress? For fifteen years, much more dedicated fans than myself have posted incredible stories of their own personal subterranean carceri d'invenzione, easily out-digging, out-building and out-polishing my haphazard attempts so far.

DF is a base-building game, which is to say a small-population city simulator with combat elements. Its 1980s graphics (if you call ASCII "graphic") have failed to jazz all but a few obsessives into playing. Its dauntingly immense tangle of categories, sub- and sub-sub-categories of terrain, creatures, events, materials, orders, products and other functionality whittled away most of the remainder. Even for me, reasonably accustomed to difficult, complex or just plain old games, it took years to finally grit my teeth and give it a chance - but I am glad I did. DF deserves wider recognition.

To get some vague idea of its ambitions, consider that before you can even start a game, you must first have it generate the world which you'll inhabit. Entire continents, islands, mountain ranges, deserts and primeval woods will spring up, thousands upon thousands of possible locations, one of which you'll choose for your game map according to its climate, proximity to other civilizations and availability of wood, water, minerals and whatever else you can think of. Around your infinitesimal speck of a mighty fortress, this world will continue to develop as you play, civilizations rising and falling alongside your own. For my sixth attempt, I chose the source of a stream up in the mountains.
Aside from the stream, ponds, trees with brown piles of leaves around them (south side) and bare gray dirt (north) where my livestock and foot traffic trampled the sparse mountain grass, the most prominent feature would probably be my hastily constructed defensive wall. See, back in the early years this region had a big problem with giants (pun intended) and I figured some passive defense, unsightly as may be, was in order.

Just as the structure neared completion, I got attacked by a roc. Flitted right over my little wall. Because the universe hates me, that's why. With all my guards stationed underground to deal with threats from below (thinking I had a wall to buy me time topside) livestock and civilian casualties might have mounted quite rapidly, if not for one unexpected development. A dog, a pathetic stray from one of the pastures, bit into the roc's wing and clamped down for dear life, keeping it from chasing other prey and effectively pinning it until my guards made their way up to riddle the monster with crossbow bolts. The dwarves who died in the fight were immortalized alongside the roc itself in gaudy engravings adorning the walls of my commercial district's inn. (Left side of the screen.)
The dog, who also sacrificed his life and saved many others in the process, could not be commemorated. He was a nameless stray.
Now that's pathos.

A decade later, attacks from above ground have nearly ceased, aside from the occasional thieving kobolds infiltrating the upper reaches. My attention turns below, to the natural caverns with their own possibilities and dangers. Ten levels beneath the shops and twenty-one levels beneath the pastures, a small walled outpost (right side of the screen) gathers the wealth of the deeps.
It's quite self-sufficient, defended by a guard barracks and rows of deadly traps outside its walls, supplied by a local kitchen, sizeable crop field and underground lake for fishing. Said wealth, however, comes surprisingly not in the form of precious jewels and metal ores, useful as those are. Abundant fungiwood trees have prevented me from over-harvesting my above-ground wood supplies even as I keep the charcoal feeding my forges. In the large blue circle, the entire cavern seems festooned in white remnants of giant spider attacks. Silk, in such amounts as to keep my clothiers constantly churning out spidersilk cloaks, gloves and hoods, to the point where the silk trade has eclipsed all my other exports combined. My dwarves have even kenneled and tamed a few of the creatures, so I'm well on my way to a silk farm.

A smaller blue circle up the slope heading left marks a somewhat sadder event: a red trail of blood left by a naked mole rat, just one more little escapade of the hundreds upon hundreds constantly being played out within my colony. Such a minor event that I never even took notice of it, finding only a tale written in blood upon the stone.

And this is all just basic stuff. Haven't even gotten into building complex machinery yet. I've been putting it off because, frankly, I know it's going to be a pain in the ass just placing anything more complex than a wall. DF's worst feature isn't even its graphics. You get used to the symbols. They start to flow, they gain meaning, you start seeing the tableau they make. They're even pretty, at times, like watching raindrops flicker blue over the landscape. The interface and control scheme, on the other hand... ouch. Mouseless, arrowing back and forth over your entire screen every time you want to do anything from checking the contents of a square to designating a target for your military squads to kill, gets old very fast. Unfortunately, that basic clumsiness gets compounded by some design decisions which seem almost intentionally counterproductive. Menus routinely sink three and four layers deep and utilize different sets of redundant scrolling keys at random. The game's eternally unfinished state, constantly reiterated, bleeds though in aggravating redundancy with lists stretching over entire screens with no options for sorting, rearranging or filtering information. That anyone puts up with any such nonsense stands in itself as high praise of the fascinating complexity to be found past that interface.
Though admittedly lacking ease of access and the aesthetic charm brought by even the simplest modern technology (see Banished) Dwarf Fortress' breadth and depth of interactions enables it to provide many times more of those precious little dramas to which sandbox games are so apt. Everything becomes an adventure within an adventure, from finding yourself unable to trade because your broker decided to drink herslef asleep when a trade caravan's in town to digging a tunnel to fill a cistern and inevitably drowning the poor dwarf you send to break into the riverbed. I've barely scratched the surface. Any of Dwarf Fortress' constituent elements could make entire games in themselves. I'm screwing up so badly that I can't build coffins quickly enough to bury all my hundreds of dead, and I'm loving it.

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