Dwarf Fortress is one of the most complex computer games in the history of computer games. How complex? In the game's discussion forum, one player asserts that after 120 failed games, he can finally "get into the swing of things." One of his many fortress death spirals began, as the downfalls of society often do, with an immigrant dwarf who suddenly succumbed to a "secretive mood." A short time later—kaboom.
First devised by its two obsessive creators in 2002, Dwarf Fortress involves taking a band of dwarves and building them into a miniature civilization. This includes all the implied strategy and resource management: assigning jobs, collecting and storing goods, building and using structures, and eventually defending yourself against other civilizations. In a profile of the game’s co-creators, theNew York Times described Dwarf Fortress as “a series of staggeringly elaborate challenges and devastating setbacks.”
Not only is the game complex, with endless intricacies to the controls and systems, but it’s incredibly archaic-looking, especially for a game released this millennium. Its cast and environments are all rendered in colored characters of ASCII symbols (apostrophes, letters, mathematical symbols). It’s a puzzle constructed in code, a throwback to games like Kroz. Calling it Dwarf Fortress is almost misleading at first—you won't see anything resembling a traditional dwarf here.
While I implicitly understood Dwarf Fortress to be difficult, I couldn't imagine why it was said to be sohard. It seemed counterintuitive to make a game so obtuse it might actually drive people away unless the developers at Bay 12 Games were the Pai Meis of game design, accepting only the most dedicated/masochistic of players. I’ve played complex simulation and management games before (Civilization, SimCity). I’ve won some endeavors and lost others, but the general structure, strategy, and type of thinking involved with these titles has always appealed to me. Could another simulation seriously be that much more difficult to understand than the ones I already knew?
There are rewards to playing a game like Dwarf Fortress: from reading the forums and articles about the game, it's clear that once you have a grasp of the mechanics, the wide-open nature of the game gives you flexibility to do more or less whatever you want. Similar to Dungeons and Dragons, once you overcome the technical execution hurdles, the only remaining major limitation is your imagination. In one account from a now-defunct site, a player builds a coliseum for holding gladiatorial goblin fights to the amusement of the kingdom's rulers; at RockPaperShotgun, one player imagines a deep history for a quiver that is used to fell a clutch of demons, and once its owner dies, the quiver kills every new dwarf that tries to claim ownership.
I decided to give the game ten hours of my life. I set a goal of doing my legit best to avoid using external guides or hints and to hold off using internal explanations unless I felt lost. I’d experiment and explore, seeing what I could ascertain from the user interface and environment and making as much progress as I could by my wits alone. And I learned one thing well: Dwarf Fortress is not a game that will hold your hand.
Disclaimer: Graphical skins and other such add-ons can make the game more palatable, but for the purposes of this piece, I attempted to play it in its original, stripped-down state. There are instructions within the game, and without in the form of wikis and forums, but I wanted to begin at the most basic level, if only to come at the game from a recently trendy (if controversial) design paradigm on discoverability that's flowed from mobile apps to many new indie games: "if you see a UI walkthrough, they blew it". This is admittedly extreme, but I wanted to begin at the bottom to let the game be its most challenging, and then work up from there.
Our hero awakens in unfamiliar typographical surroundings
As my first playthrough begins, I find that I can move around the screen, but I’m not sure to what end. As far as I can see, I’m moving from one obscure symbol to the next. Playing this game is, visually, not entirely unlike reading a quantum physics textbook. I spot some square root signs in the “distance.”
My HUD, so to speak, would have me believe they are the “badlands.” Here there are no trees or vegetation but the surroundings are “mirthful." It’s not clear what they’ve done to deserve that adjective, but it’s a morale high point, so far.
Options have opened up to “embark” or “find desired location.” I embark, and the game warns me to prepare carefully for the journey to “Atêkirth." Possessing little knowledge of what that place is, how I will get there, or what I’ll find upon arriving, I steel my nerves for the worst.
Apparently “embark” means “cease movement around the map of Greek symbols,” because now the game is telling me that seven companions and I are here to make an outpost for “the glory of all Kêshshaksem.” The game tells me I have no supplies and it’s Spring now, but I need to get my sustenance act together “before winter entombs me.” Someone’s been reading too much Game of Thrones.
Now the map is punctuation marks, with a few happy faces scattered around. Ah, I think I get it—I chose a location to dig a hole in the ground, and now, having dug a hole in the ground, I have a Dwarf Fortress. So far the only narrative instructions in the game that I’ve gotten so far are the two words in the title.
I now have an overwhelming number of options for modifying my fortress and directing my dwarf peons. Looking at my list of residents, I see a couple of woodworkers, a couple who mainly deal with fish, and an “expedition leader.” Since our expedition has just ended, I make a mental note to eat him first if our winter preparations go awry.
I lose focus and manage to send a text message to my brother about a pregnant, mutual friend and send pictures of Claire Dane’s crying face to another pal. I start cleaning my keyboard with a piece of sticky-tack before I remember my one true purpose: build my fortress, with dwarves. (I think.)
I realize I have an option for a military and worry that things could get serious. I further doubt the utility of an expedition leader in this game. Then I stumble into a menu where I can see the relationships my dwarves have with others. The expedition leader worships two gods but is only long-term acquaintances with his fellow dwarves. Now I worry he’s not only useless, but possibly a vigilante who may be plotting my death. I discover somewhere in the menus that I have a wagon.
The only apparent action I can take is to make a burrow. I accidentally create two burrows in immediate succession. I find out I can put dwarves in them. In goes the expedition leader. Live burial.
While I was moving my smiley face icon around the screen before, I can’t seem get it to do it again. I want to put burrows everywhere and put dwarves in them because that suddenly feels like enormous progress in this game. Stockholm syndrome is swift and unforgiving.
The game has been paused this whole time, so I decide to let it run to see what happens. Happy faces, d’s, W’s, and c’s mill around on the screen. I let them run for a few minutes and then check various menus to see if there have been any fruits of the labor that may or may not have happened, theoretically represented by the busy icons moving around on the screen. I can’t find anything. My dwarves may be, for all I know, dying in slow and very low-resolution motion. Time to read some instructions.
The problem is the solution is another problem
I searched out a game guide online, which told me that my goal is “to extract every last ounce of wealth from the mountain.” Finally, a goal I can latch onto! But then I realize my fortress is not in a mountain at all, but in the badlands, and I wonder how that will affect my wealth extraction and immediately decide the answer is “irreparably.”
According to the in-game guide, dwarves get their orders from the buildings I construct in the fortress. And yes, they will die if not cared for. Memories of failed Oregon Trail missions come rushing back. A feeling stirs in my gut that may be maternal instinct or may be hunger.
I continue to read the instructions and realize, while they’re giving me a sense of purpose, there’s painfully little detail on how to do anything or how the game's (many) pieces fit together. I can build buildings, but if I don’t have the right land or materials to build them, then what? Do I have to make a different kind of building first? Do I have to start over? How will I know when I have the right kind of land for the optimal combination of buildings? How many buildings do I want?
I’m beginning to think I'm being too cautious about this. The instructions do say, somewhere, that “losing is fun.” This naturally fills me with dread in anticipation of the moment my screen becomes flooded with a torrent of Wingdings meant to represent invading elves. I'm afraid that my carefully built series of meaningless burrows with dwarves who have nothing to do (because I can’t figure out what to do with them) are all... inevitably... doomed.
At this point, a couple of hours in, I've accomplished nothing except to put a dwarf in a hole. I should just start playing and see where the game takes me—I have no vested interest in maintaining a fortress forever, after all. But that would require having some clue as to what it is I have to do in the first place.
I add a couple more dwarves to the two burrows I’ve made and let the game run. To my surprise, icons start running downward to a different corner of the screen. I don’t even remember putting anything there. Suddenly a message pops along the bottom of the screen: “The Stray Water Buffalo (tame) has starved to death.” There are a handful of tiny z’s in the corner of the screen that I’m not sure were there before. Can my dwarves… eat the water buffalo? Do dwarves eat water buffalo?
I look in the Announcements and see that a couple of my dwarves were apparently trying to feed and water the buffalo, but they failed because there are no food or water sources in the fortress. I go back into the buildings menu, where I saw an option to build a well. Apparently, this requires “blocks” and “mechanisms.” The following punctuation will have to substitute for the expression on my face: …???
Let anarchy reign
This long into the game, I have made zero progress beyond digging a large hole into the ground, then digging some more holes inside that hole (as best I can figure it). I am hesitant to involve more outside resources in learning how to play. My initial aim is, after all, to do battle with and hopefully overcome the game’s steep learning curve through sheer wherewithal and stick-to-it-iveness. I’m sure there’s a wiki out there with some plainspoken step-by-step approach to starting your first fortress, at least setting players on the right track, but I resist its siren song.
I’m nearly resigned to declaring emotional bankruptcy on this fortress and letting it run unguided just to see what happens. Hopefully it won’t take my dwarves too long to drift into eternal sleep or have their blood smeared on the walls of their home by mortal enemies.
Gray X’s start streaming in from one wall of the fortress and settle into the clump of icons that were already displayed on the screen. They blink aggressively. One turns into an R, maybe. The rest disappear. I receive no alerts. I have no idea what just happened.
Somewhere in one of the menus it appears I have materials: fish and meat barrels with a bit of food in them, seed pods, an anvil. There are no menu options to give these objects to one of the dwarves or put them directly to use. My dwarves now seem very dumb for ignoring these food sources when trying to feed themselves, or the buffalo, or both, or neither. They must know about them; they brought them into the fortress (I think).
I check my “unit list” and suddenly find many more dwarves than the seven I started out with (ha—I just got that joke). Several more, actually—a “dyer” and a “spinner,” skills that are hardly in my desert island top five list for a company of dwarves attempting to build a successful civilization from scratch. There’s a clerk—see above—and also three farmers. This would be profoundly useful if building a farm were not, as far as I can see, functionally impossible in this particular fortress.
There are also a few, ahem, Dwarven Children. They’re multiplying. Good job, dwarves. I’d say rule one in a civilization that started out bad and is getting worse is “don’t make more mouths to feed,” but I guess we haven’t invented or discovered birth control yet. It’s clear these dwarves are never going to invent it, either, since I can’t get them to do more than bash their icons together while I stare helplessly at the lists of things I can’t get them to interact with, build, or use.
Several tiles have turned into blinking blue and red arrows. More purple z’s encroach on the screen, blinking, though they don’t travel. More alerts say that dwarves tried to “give” food or water but cancelled the action because there are no sources for those things. According to my unit list, two dwarves are “hunting for a small creature” and only one is attending a meeting. Since no one else is attending a meeting, that dwarf may be certifiably insane. The “dyer” is “on break.”
A dwarven child goes berserk, says a new alert. He must be the blinking red exclamation mark. The child moves very little for someone going berserk. Calm down, kid, it’ll all be over soon. You need only watch me standing idly by while you perish for a few minutes longer—or so I hope.
The decline of this not-quite-a-civilization actually takes a really long time. It occurs to me that even if there were a “commit graceful and unobtrusive suicide” command to speed things up, I wouldn’t know how to use it. Three dwarves have apparently died and the game did not tell me. (A dwarf’s status does not rank as highly as that of a stray water buffalo, evidently.) Dwarves must be the bipedal equivalent of camels, because only now, several months into the game, do they all start to die of thirst. About three hours in and my work here is done—per the game's only clear instruction, I've lost.
I give up and navigate to the Dwarf Fortress Wiki, where I find a quick start guide. The guide lets me know that having no idea what to do is “understandable”—thanks—but creating a sustainable fortress is “not as hard as you might think.” Hmm. A sidebar notes it can be easy to kill off all your dwarves by accident on your first couple of tries. Given that my band of dwarven followers refused to die in a timely fashion, I’m not sure if I’m a natural at this game or so profoundly terrible I can’t even accomplish this simple step.
According to the wiki, I did indeed do a terrible job of picking a fortress site earlier. A good site has a number of features, including no aquifer, abundant trees, warm temperatures, shallow metals, clay, and soil, and most of the other land features you might guess are needed to foster life. It turns out there’s a tool to search for the right combination of landscape features, but this mainly transforms the window into a swath of blinking red x’s that is painful to look at and not at all easy to process. I start a new game but after searching for 15 minutes, I can’t find a square that fits all the requirements. One of the only absolute requirements of the guide is “no aquifer,” so of course nearly every tile is an aquifer. Finally, after endless searching, I find a tile with metals, soil, trees, and a warm climate that’s near a stream but not an aquifer. I dig in.
The area immediately looks less desolate than before. The masses of green icons are much more inviting. The guide explains that there is no way to tell the dwarves in the game what to do directly; rather, I am supposed to designate things that need to be done and the dwarves will figure it out themselves. This should have been brought to my attention many, many hours ago.
The guide tells me how to highlight an area to dig a mine (press d, press d, press enter on an area of my choosing, then enter again to select a rectangle), and of course, this doesn’t work. A link in the guide professes to show me more about how to create a fortress; that link takes me to a 14-minute video. Ever so slightly, I slump in my desk chair.
I create a “channel” instead, a shallow pit. Once I read further, it turns out you have to dig a hole and then mine into the walls of the hole, as mines are horizontal. I forgive myself for not even beginning to understand this earlier based on the menu or the very basic instructions. This game is a testament to evolution; kudos to whoever even got this far and was able to explain it to others, let alone document their progress in a guide. One puzzle piece down, several thousand to go.
I designate more rooms and hallways to be dug into the ground, and my dwarves make short work of my instructions. I’m feeling that unwarranted godlike feeling begat only from executing commands in games like Civilization or SimCity. This is somewhat mitigated by the fact that if my dwarves aren’t scurrying around the screen, their icons are more or less indistinguishable from the landscape.
I have to make sure dwarves get assigned to certain essential skills, such as wood burning, plant gathering, and metal crafting. I do this by selecting them, going into a skills menu, and toggling their duties on and off. To do that, I have to track them down and select them first. This is my “I told you this game is unnecessarily complex to the point of stubbornness” moment.
At this point in the quick start guide, a sidebar helpfully points out there is an external utility called “Dwarf Therapist” to “make the UI for managing dwarves easier." I wonder whether this utility would help me realize my parents never thought I was good enough or smart enough, and that's why I'm torturing myself with Dwarf Fortress.
I create a pen for animals, a refuse pile, and a woodpile. I have to build an area for a farm that is “accessible from inside my fort but not reachable from the outside.” The instructions are woefully unclear about whether I do that underground, inside my fortress, or above-ground, maybe tunneling out into some kind of pit. I’m told to set this farm to grow “plump helmets” for all four seasons. My wait for the moment when the learning curve ceases to steepen and this game makes some intuitive sense continues.
I make workshops for a mason and a jewelcrafter, and I dig a stairway down seven or eight levels where I make bedrooms for each dwarf. According to the instructions, I also need a room for a bookkeeper, I presume because someone needs to keep track of what’s going on and I am certainly doing a bad job of it.
I designate my expedition leader for three managerial roles (manager, bookkeeper, broker) and go to look for the chair and table I ordered to be made in the mason’s workshop. Of course, I find no chair and table. According to my game alerts, they weren’t built because I need “non-economic hard rock.” Economic rocks everywhere, apparently, but not a single economically inappropriate rock to build furniture out of. After only a couple more hours and a streak of low-level progress, I'm stuck, again.
At this point, I’m failing to grasp the higher order ideas behind how this game works—how to examine things, check on progress, fix problems, or see how everything fits together. I’ve got the commands for mining down but everything else is a blur. Where’s the command to build a table? Which workshop is the mason's? How do I figure that out? Should I just build another mason’s workshop because that may be faster than trying to find the right menu to identify the mason’s workshop? Will this fortress eventually be nothing but a trail of single-use mason’s workshops, a microcosm of our disposable-luxury economy?
The existential woes of the misunderstood
The problem with this game, for me, is that obstacles like this arise about every 30 or 40 seconds. I'm constantly scrolling back through the quick start guide to the place where I first did the task. But if every 30 seconds I have to break away from the game to pore through a text, it feels like I’m making no progress. Every time I break away is an opportunity to lose interest—I’m losing interest twice a minute. If I do happen to understand an instruction or a way to accomplish a task, I don’t have a larger picture to fit it into and I almost immediately forget it. Repeat ad nauseum and I’m soon pressing buttons with no rhyme or rhythm.
To feel like you’re not getting a game in the beginning is standard, especially when it’s a game of the complex civilization-management type. As I said earlier, I’m not averse to a game where you more or less have to play in windowed mode so you can have a browser open with external resources telling you what to do (see: multiple years of World of Warcraft). But with Dwarf Fortress, I've never felt so lost and powerless, still, so many hours into a game.
What Dwarf Fortress really lacks, aside from a built-in tutorial that at least gets you started, is the ability to learn from tinkering. I would never have figured out the first step—digging a mine—on my own, let alone the dozens of following steps that apparently are crucial to building an effective, or even rudimentary, fortress. And I’m still not done. And I’m still hitting major roadblocks.
Despite the fact that my colony is sitting in the middle of nature, where there must be virtually limitless piles of stone, I can’t uncover them or direct my dwarves to them to build a simple chair. This is like sitting in the middle of a grocery store and being unable to figure out how to make a sandwich.
I went into Dwarf Fortress knowing the barrier to entry was dizzyingly high, but I consider (or considered) problem-solving, iterative experimentation, and quick learning to be among my personal strengths. In Dwarf Fortress, I feel like I’m trying to build a skyscraper by banging two rocks together.
I'd like to think I’m not the problem here. Dwarf Fortress wants to be understood about as much as the average teenager. The more it confuses you, the more accomplished it feels. Perhaps that’s too harsh an assessment. It is possible to tinker, after all. But tinkering is endless instead of productive, and there are so many ways to go wrong.
Open-ended games with no particular instructions remain a welcome part of the gaming landscape;Minecraft comes to mind (and some clones have even cited Dwarf Fortress as an influence). But you can poke around and experiment and accomplish some things in Minecraft, or at least eke out a basic existence dodging Creepers in the night and praying one doesn’t spontaneously appear in your makeshift earthen room. In Dwarf Fortress, the controls are so numerous and dense and the relationships between them so inscrutable that the initial game is really Watch These Dwarves Die, You’re Powerless To Do Anything, Maybe Just Pretend This Is TV and Grab a Bucket Of Popcorn.
There are plenty of enjoyable games out there that don't hold your hand when it comes to learning the ropes. Many games have mechanics that are so intuitive that they don’t even require a tutorial. Even the difficult-to-learn games still have a place in many players’ hearts, because the investment can be rewarding. But Dwarf Fortress isn’t just hard to learn; for me, it’s a fight every step of the way. I’ve been at this for a total of probably eight or nine hours now, between reading and executing commands. I’m no closer to autonomy or agency than when I started, and it seems clear that I’m still many hours away.
Fighting back with documentation
I’m already in this thing, eight or so hours deep, so, time to solve a problem. Googling the "non-economic stone" error takes me to the wiki. This error can happen “when a dwarf walls himself into a corner and is unable to leave to get more rocks. Be careful where you build your Mason's workshop, as some parts of it obstruct movement.” Otherwise, there may just be too many kinds of economic rock around (stone reserved for a special purpose) or a stockpile might block the loose stones that might be used for making things. I should be able to mine more and generate more loose stones, but I try mining around. Not a single thing changes.
Out of curiosity, I look up what kind of stones might be around but unsuitable for building furniture. I find this chart.
Several things could be preventing me from turning abundant loose stones into a simply piece of furniture: physical availability, correct inventorying, and type of material. When I check my material stocks screen, sure enough, next to “stone” the amount is listed as “none.” How is this possible? I’ve excavated a maze of rooms from the solid earth and the dwarves didn’t find, or keep, one stone? Did the rocks get up and walk away? I have no doubt there is an easy, even stupidly easy, answer to this problem. But it’s just not coming across.
This quick start guide is really taking the presence and harvest of stone for granted. It is, literally, leaving stones unturned, and it’s ruining my game. New Google search: “how get stone dwarf fortress.” Nothing is enlightening.
I dig another room on another level, and see the area the dwarf is clearing is made of gray apostrophes and quotation marks, rather than the red of the levels above. As he digs, more dwarves show up, running in and out of the room. I move back up a couple of levels, and, sure enough, the icons designating my stone stockpile are turning from gray equals signs to gray bullets. Little rocks.
I issue my tenth round of commands for someone to make a table and chair in the mason’s workshop. A dwarf scurries over, picks up a stone from the nearby stockpile, and carries it into the workshop for transformation.
For some reason, the dwarves won’t dig out the rooms I designated several levels below, but the room where I finally found stone looks like it could be an ideal throne room/accounting-cum-manager-cum-broker’s office. I place the table and throne in the room. A dwarf comes to set them up. The chair looks like the character for pi. Dwarves take turns coming in the room and sitting in it. Now at least there’s a place to sit for a ruler who can help run this operation.
An alert pops that some migrants have shown up on the edge of the world map. Will we be ready by the time they approach? Probably not. But we’re getting there.