Dwarf Fortress and the Pursuit of !!FUN!!

Over Dwarf Fortress’s twenty-year history, it has evolved considerably: After four years of development, its public alpha was released in 2006, a humble two-dimensional simulator with ASCII “graphics”; letters and glyphs repurposed to represent various colorful critters and landscapes. Four years later, in 2008, it literally gained a new dimension, adding Z-levels to its extant X and Y, allowing players to direct their bearded civilians to delve into the depths of the earth.

A bustling dwarven tavern with a custom tileset

Because of the game’s simplistic approach to graphics (a single image file serving as the game’s entire visual look) and data (plain text files easily accessible to curious players), Dwarf Fortress also developed a thriving ecosystem of mods. It takes only a few tweaks to make trivial changes like swapping out the tileset, or reconfiguring dwarven biology to allow dwarven women to sprout beards. More extensive changes tend to be built on top of DFHack, the de facto platform for unofficial DF development.

And now, the Steam release! On December 6th 2022, fans and new players alike rejoiced as Dwarf Fortress’s long-awaited graphical release arrived. The graphical update features complete overhauls to the game’s entire interface, not just the in-game graphics, but the copious menus, info screens, and lists of items and units have all been rebuilt and reintegrated.

At heart, however, the game has not changed: It is still a masterpiece of (usually) balanced complexity. On the game’s unofficial wiki, the phrase “Losing is fun!” is a common refrain. It’s a healthy approach: since there is no way to “win” at Dwarf Fortress, losing is inevitable for all but the most lucky and methodical fortresses.

Whether you go slowly and attempt to understand the intricacies of dwarven physics and psychology, or throw caution to the wind and paint a picture of chaos with your fort, time spent exploring Dwarf Fortress is never wasted. When your chef complains that there’s nothing to cook, and the pantry is empty because the farmer is camped out in the woodshop demanding leather and cut gems for their masterworked shoe (just one shoe), you must acknowledge and rejoice that the dwarven universe works this way because a human made it so.

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