Published On: Sat, Mar 16th, 2019

Dwarf Fortress Is the Craziest Game You've (Probably) Never Heard Of

It’s easily the deepest – and maybe most harrowing – sim game out there.

Dwarf Fortress is the most incredible and impressive video game you’ve probably never played. Under continuous development since 2003 (!!!) by Tarn Adams, with assistance from his brother Zach, anyone who has enjoyed games like Rimworld, Factorio, and Prison Architect has experienced a portion of the video game DNA that Dwarf Fortress pioneered and has been refining for over 15 years.

Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up: Dwarf Fortress’s procedural world generation is the most sophisticated and complex in existence, simulating thousands of years of geology, history, myths and Gods, songs, civilizations, animal life, and everything else. Then you get to build a dwarven fortress in this world, capable of a matching level of fanatical attention-to-detail. This detail extends to the smallest minutiae – body parts can be bruised or torn off entirely in combat, dwarves might vomit or pass out at the site of blood, or maybe all the towns cats will get alcohol poisoning from drinking spilled ale; the level of simulation feels endless. But these details also extend upward, to the highest levels of macro simulation as well. Wars can be provoked or prevented. World economies can be shifted.

All this detail comes at a price. As you might expect, Dwarf Fortress is notoriously dense and unfriendly to newcomers. Although this complexity can be worked through – I’ve been playing and enjoying the game for over a decade, both in its original ASCII graphics and with mods (see below) – at first glance, DF looks like you’re staring at the code in The Matrix.

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And this is why the announcement that Dwarf Fortress is finally ready emerge from its semi-mythical status and enter the limelight, via a paid release on Steam, is so exciting. Quality-of-Life features including a brand-new graphical tileset, new music, and easier modding via Steam Workshop integration, should help make the game more accessible and friendly to newcomers. This won’t be a magic bullet – even as a big fan, Dwarf Fortress’s UI and nested menus are…. something else – but it’s a start.

For a little window into how this highly complex simulation actually plays out in practice, in a real game, I chronicled the journey of my (spoilers) ill-fated fortress Helmedstabs. It starts with my dwarves realizing they forgot to bring axes to the new world, and things only get worse from there…

You can view their story in slideshow format (above) or read the full article below.

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When creating a new world I found a huge dwarfy-looking mountain range – The Dominant Tooth. I found a location there that had a river, deep metals, flux stone, the works.

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I embarked with digging implements, many barrels of wine and rum, seeds, and ostrich meat for some reason.

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There’s a HUGE goblin civ to my immediate East, and the embark screen warns of saltwater crocodile attacks, but that’s probably just for flavor. With a fortress name like Helmedstabs, what could possibly go wrong?

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I immediately struck the earth, digging into the side of the hill and then digging (where else?) downward several levels, beginning work on a modest central fortress stairway. I moved my food underground into temporary storage while beginning to plan a more permanent solution.

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Priority 1: Food (& booze) supply, via an underground farm. In Dwarf Fortress, water+stone makes mud and farmable tiles. There’s fancy ways to do it, via pumps and mechanized floodgates.

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Instead, I just dug out a big pit under a muddy pond, then drained the pond into the pit.

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With food established, it dawns on me I have zero axes and zero ways to make axes. This means no cutting trees, no wood (except what I brought with me), and thus very few beds. Dwarfs go crazy with no bed. I hope to hold on long enough to trade for axes. Migrants are already arriving.

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I immediately built some workshops (outside! Sorry dwarfs – desperate times call for desperate measures) to begin making rock trinkets to hopefully trade for some axes in the Fall. I also began digging out a huge food production complex under my farms, and started digging out a huge, semi-impractical 52-bedroom dormitory complex far deeper underground. It’ll look great when all the stone is smoothed and engraved.

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The #1 rule of Dwarf Fortress is everything you make has to be huge and semi-impractical. I opted to check in on a dwarf personally and…

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I may not be doing that again. I also began digging out a truly huge, semi-impractical (see above) dining hall beneath my food production facility. Traders arrived, but they had no axes. I traded for wood to tide me over and asked for axes (and lots cheese) if we’re alive in a year when they return. A craftsdwarf was struck by a strange mood, took over a workshop, and is screaming for metal bars. I don’t have any.

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The dwarf went CRAZY with no metal to finish his project. He B-LINED into the dwelling and literally knocked a child’s head off w/ his pickaxe before I could militarize some dwarfs to take him out. They beat him to death.

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Blood is everywhere. I’ve started coffin production.

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An undead skink (medium-sized lizard) has appeared. The wereskink killed two wrestlers and maimed one more outside my fort before being overcome. There are pools of blood, bone, and mutilated corpses just outside my fort. I’ve ramped up coffin production.

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New migrants immediately arrived from the mountainhomes to the west, exploding my population to 56, including 22 kids. They had to walk by the piles of fresh viscera to get in.

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My dwarfs can’t care for the wounded because I have no buckets and no wood to make more. An additional bit of bad news: the dwarves bit by the wereskink turned into werebeasts on next full moon.

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They tore through my fort, killing several, before they were subdued. There are the remains of 10 dead dwarfs in the dining hall, mixed with blood and vomit. The living dwarfs are mostly too horrified to work. I took a million screenshots of what followed and intended to give y’all a play-by-play, but I’ll cut right to the chase – more and more dwarfs were turned into were-dwarfs, and eventually 50+ dwarfs were killed.

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Only 9 adults are left alive. In the days that follow, the situation worsens – I present to you three vignettes from my subterranean death maze:

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An unattended baby dwarf crawling through pools of blood.

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A visiting human bard had his head “dented” and neck torn open.

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I ran out of coffins and began piling bodies outside. It took so long a thick odor is filling the fortress.

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But then, MIRACULOUSLY, the fortress begins to stabilize.

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Monster hunters asked to move in. With their help, all undead dwarfs were killed and no more turned. More migrants arrived, providing much-needed raw labor.

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Also, the fortress is haunted as shit now.

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It took weeks to make enough coffins to entomb everyone. All the bodies are in a sad cramped tomb, but at least it put a stop to the hauntings.

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I finally traded for axes and finally have wood to craft with! Fortress life is mostly returning to normal. I’m digging out deluxe bedrooms deep underground for my worthless dwarf nobles, building a HUGE expansion to the dorms, and finally finished smoothing the stone in the dining hall. Children keep making elaborate animal bone crafts.

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I now have 105! It’s tough to keep up with their demands for booze & goods. But luckily now that I have managers and bookkeepers I can create bulk work orders to keep things under control. I’m digging deeper looking for magma and working on an outer wall/moat.

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A goblin “siege” showed up, but it was just a few strays and some beak dogs. They will return in greater numbers next year. 10 Dwarves are now dedicated military, outfitted in leather, and are training with crossbows and hand-to-hand. Unrelated, while trying to create a sheer rock wall entrance to my fort I accidentally shaved off an entire huge overhang. It collapsed, killing several, and (more importantly) destroying several masterpiece crafted coffers.

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When digging out my moat I planned it wrong, and when digging out the final block, the onrush of water swept up my dwarf and slammed him into the loamy wall. He passed out in the deep water. He survived but was “very annoyed” by the whole thing.

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The next year went by quickly. I search for and (finally) found magma and began prepping a smelting/metal production operation. I began securing my outer fort with some walls and constructed upper levels. I finished the lavish quarters and lavish tombs for my worthless nobles.

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The following Spring the goblins returned. My heart sank. It’s a HUGE siege force. 20+ beak dogs and 35+ goblins, and that’s before 9 trolls waltzed on screen. Brutal for year 3. I mobilized my meager fighting force and stationed them in an entrance choke point.

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The military dwarves are rapidly overrun. I have no more defenses. In moments the goblins are spilling blood in the dormitory.

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The fighting goes poorly, but I do relish a few small victories. One dwarf latched onto a goblin w/ his teeth, and tore his head off.

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The Dwarves fight valiantly, but they just haven’t been adequately prepared for this. While the final few adults fight, the children play games and tell stories in the deeper bedrooms. I’m not going to lie – this made me a little emotional.

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Almost everyone is dead. A visiting human diplomat lets me know he’s leaving. Thanks, dude. Just three dwarves remain: two adults and Sodel Fencedrills – an 11-year-old. That’s him, avoiding the fray in the bottom-center bedroom:

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I give in, succumbing to the invasion. This save game – and the entire world within it – is deleted upon defeat.

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Although unlikely to the point of being nigh impossible, I like to imagine that the final living Axedwarf and Marksdwarf found Sodel and spirited him away to safety.

For three years, fortress Helmedstabs scratched out a perhaps glorious, perhaps unremarkable existence in a remote mountainside, before being discovered and snuffed out by the forces of evil.

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That’s Dwarf Fortress.

Dwarf Fortress doesn’t have an estimated release date on Steam yet. But if the above tale of dwarven violence and overseer incompetence made you want to give the game a shot, you don’t need to wait. Dwarf Fortress is (defying all reason) completely free to download and play. Graphics packs to help the game look very close to how it looks in the Steam screenshots are very easy to manage and install, even for newbies. If you do give the game a shot, make it past the learning curve, and end up putting 500+ hours in, the Adams Brothers maintain a Patreon to allow fans to those their appreciation.

Justin Davis is an Editorial Manager at IGN. He first fell in love with Dwarf Fortress before it had a Z-axis. You can follow him on Twitter at @ErrorJustin 

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Dwarf Fortress Is the Craziest Game You've (Probably) Never Heard Of