Man cancels life: went insane, part 1

I have, of course, been long aware of the game known as Dwarf Fortress. I know people who have played it, or tried to play it. I have read several Dwarf Fortress Let’s Plays – such as the classic Boatmurdered, the awesome Matul Remrit and the hysterical Glazedcoast – and by and large I figured that was the best way to experience the insanity. I’d heard the game was ridiculously ambitious, hideously difficult, murderously hard to learn, tortuously unpleasant to play and riddled with bugs. I’ve been intrigued by the complexity and discouraged by the stories of an obtuse interface and a developer apparently more interested in creating ever more elaborate hair-growth models than in fixing glaring flaws or finishing half-way implemented features.

Glazedcoast and Bronzestabbed were the final straw. Against my better judgement I decided it was finally time for me to play the game, and I decided to do it hardcore. No Lazy Newb Pack, no tilesets and no Dwarf Therapist because, goddammit, a game should be playable without external utilities.

And no 240-page guide books or internet tutorials or Dwarf Fortress Wikis either. Surely I could figure out how things work by myself; it’s just an elaborate management game, after all.

I did have a number of advantages going in. I’ve played roguelikes since the last millennium, so I wasn’t going to be put off by ASCII graphics, and I’ve played strategy and management games and simulations for longer than that. I wasn’t going in completely blind, either: though the Let’s Plays rarely go very deep into the mechanics of the game, they’ve given me a general idea of what’s involved in the running of a dwarf fortress, what is desirable and what is not, and warned me of some common pitfalls.

Above all I have a Charles Atlas superpower that by my observation the current generation of gamers, raised with tutorial levels and ready access to Internet guides, largely lacks: the uncanny skill of figuring how things work by trying shit out. This all but lost art common to my generation of old-school gamers was honed by learning to play countless games with horrible interfaces and non-intuitive mechanics, usually without the benefit of a manual. If I learned to play Civilization and Railroad Tycoon without a manual and barely knowing English, surely Dwarf Fortress couldn’t be a harder nut to crack.

So I installed the game and fired it up. It promptly crashed. I started it again and this time it didn’t. After the rather charming opening animation I was presented with a menu without an option to start a new game. The reason for this was that I first had to create a world to start a game in. There were some parameters to fiddle with for world generation, but as I had little idea what impact they’d have I left them at default for this first run, hoping they’d result in something reasonable. I didn’t even look at the advanced mode.

Now, the idea of a large, persistent game world with procedurally generated geography and history really appeals to me. Procedurally created content is something I’d like to see more of, so looking at Dwarf Fortress generating a new world, seeing the settlements pop up and roads form between them in all their ASCII glory, tickled my inner simulationist. It took my quad-core computer minutes to craft the world before I was back to the main menu, now with an option to start a new game. Hooray!

Here’s an important thing you should know about Dwarf Fortress: it is a different game for the developer compared to most of its players. Toady, I gather, is interested in creating a roguelike game where you adventure in a persistent dynamic world and most of his development time these days is spent on this adventure mode. By contrast most players are chiefly interested in the Dwarf Fortress mode wherein you guide a bunch of dwarfs as they build a fortress. Either way, both game modes utilize the generated worlds. You can run only one game at a time in a given world, and the changes it causes affect subsequent games in that world. You can, for example, visit a former fortress as an adventurer. In principle, pretty cool stuff.

Here we see the world of The Eternal Realms, a huge world with two and a half centuries of history, with over a hundred thousand recorded historical events. At this stage I was chiefly struck by one fact: almost all of it was unsuitable for the founding of a fortress.

Now, an expert Dwarf Fortress player could probably start a successful settlement just about anywhere, but this was my first rodeo. I wanted a prime location so I did what every other Dwarf Fortress player does: use the site finder. I listed my requirements, representing my best guesses at what a good embark site should be like, and the game scanned the map to find a location that satisfied them. It didn’t find a suitable site. After a few iterations of relaxing my requirements and running the minutes-long search again, I finally found a handful of suitable locations.

Look at that screen shot again. Notice how one ASCII character on the world map corresponds to a four characters by four characters area on the Region map. Notice how one character on the Region map corresponds to the 16 by 16 characters local map. Note also that the little 4×4 rectangle on the local map represents the actual embark site which will be the sum total of the world accessible to me for the lifetime of my fortress. Of all that real estate I finally managed to find three or four locations that fell only a little short of what I was looking for.

It might occur to you that things are done backwards here. Since I have specific attributes in mind for the site of the fortress, wouldn’t it make more sense to have me input them first, and then generate a site to satisfy them, rather than first spend minutes generating a world and hoping it would contain an area reasonably close to that? Why yes, yes it would. Were Dwarf Fortress actually the fortress management game most people (possibly unfairly) view it as, it probably would work like that. In fact, it probably wouldn’t have world generation at all, since it’s almost completely fucking pointless if you just want to run a fortress. The only features of that huge world that actually matter once you embark are the local geography and geology and the list of neighbouring civilizations; neither requires the generation of an entire world.

And this mythical fantasy fortress management game probably wouldn’t have aquifers, either. Nobody likes aquifers. They spell doom for newbies like me, and while experienced players can deal with them most prefer not to, some going so far as to modify the game to remove them altogether. The game gives you a warning if you head out to a site containing one, meaning even Toady recognizes they are a pain in the ass. Yet almost every square character of that world map that isn’t mountains or ocean contains one. Why are they even in the game?

Because it isn’t a game.

But at last I had found a place to start my fortress in and I embarked on my adventure in The Fair Hills. Dwarf Fortress offered me two options at this point: I could carefully choose my initial team of seven, tweak their skills and starting equipment, or go with the default. Since I had only a vague idea of how things worked or what awaited me at the site I had chosen I went with the default, hoping that as a responsible developer Toady had carefully crafted a default set that should be suitable for most situations.

 Next: I strike the earth.