Man cancels life: went insane, part 7

I learned Dwarf Fortress the hard way. (First, previous.)

Now that I have experienced Dwarf Fortress for myself, I thought I’d finish by summing up my thoughts on some of the common conceptions relating to the game.

Dwarf Fortress is very difficult to learn

This reputation was, of course, the primary reason for this entire exercise. I wanted to see for myself just how hard it would be to learn to play Dwarf Fortress without the benefit of tutorials and guides. I couldn’t do it completely blind, mind you, since I had read several Dwarf Fortress Let’s Plays and learned at least some things from them. Of course, chances are that any prospective Dwarf Fortress player has done the same, so I trust my experience can serve as a useful guideline.

Quite frankly, I expected to produce a narrative of groping along blindly and failing to achieve anything while snarking at the game. While there was some of that, it wasn’t all that bad, really. I lost my first fortress to invaders but my second one was fairly successful and I only abandoned it out of boredom. It’s true that I didn’t get around to doing any crazy mega-projects but I believe I have learned how to establish and maintain a stable, productive colony. I know my way around the interface and I have toyed with most of the game’s systems. There are games I’ve found harder to learn.

It certainly helped that I have played a lot of strategy and management games before, but, again, I imagine most people interested in playing Dwarf Fortress have similar backgrounds. It probably also helped that I’m an old school gamer: there are some indications that people used to more user-friendly modern games haven’t developed the skill of learning how to play strange and impenetrable games; a skill that was so essential in the olden days.

If you have been thinking of playing Dwarf Fortress, but have been put off by the idea that you need to get a guide book or watch hours of tutorials, hesitate no more. None of that is necessary.

I wouldn’t recommend doing it like I did, though. By all means do read some quick-start guide to get an idea of how to go about establishing a new fortress. It can also help you avoid some common pitfalls, like cooking your plump helmets and losing all your seed stock; luckily I knew about that one from the Let’s Plays. And do keep Dwarf Fortress Wiki handy for reference. There are two ways to figure out, for example, what different crops are good for and how they should be processed. One is to order crops to be processed in different ways and see what gets hauled in and what out, and ordering all sorts of things to be produced to see what the ingredients are, which is what I did; the other is to look it up, which is what you should do. It’s not like the game is going to bother telling you any of that.

So, okay, maybe there was a bit of effort involved. It’s a complex management game and all games like that require some work to learn. It’s a lot like playing the violin: you cannot start off to be Yehudi Menuhin.

Dwarf Fortress is very difficult to play

Again, I’d heard the horror stories about the horrible mouse-averse interface and incomprehensible symbols. Again, it isn’t really all that bad.

As an old roguelike player ASCII graphics weren’t much of a stumbling block for me but reading the display is a skill that needs to be learned. Or you can install a tileset instead.

The interface could use some work, certainly, but it is functional enough. Mouse look and context menus would be nice, and the game could make better use of screen estate and be more proactive in providing the player with information, but it isn’t the most horrible interface I’ve had to contend with. Back in the day this was business as usual. I didn’t really miss the mouse that much and if you play the game enough to learn the keyboard shortcuts by heart I believe the general operations become fairly painless. It isn’t that difficult to play Dwarf Fortress.

What it is, is arduous. The game allows you to micromanage things to a level very few games do, but, unfortunately, it also requires you to micromanage things to a level very few games do. It’s astonishing, and disheartening, how much player effort just maintaining normal day-to-day operation of the fortress requires. Dwarf Fortress allows you to do many things but it makes you work for it. That isn’t an interface issue, though; it’s a design issue.

Dwarf Fortress is a very difficult game

No, not really. Since the game is open-ended difficulty depends on your goals, but at its most basic it’s about not losing; not having the fortress die on you.

My second colony never died and to the best of my knowledge it could have continued to trudge on indefinitely. Or until a freak accident precipitated a tantrum spiral.

My goal was essentially survival in a fairly favourable locale, of course. You can make things harder by trying to achieve more difficult things under more adverse conditions, but that is true of any game. Creating a self-sufficient colony insulated from outside threats is much too easy for Dwarf Fortress to be considered an inherently difficult game.

Dwarf Fortress is a deep world simulator

Well, it does contain complex models for many things. Complex doesn’t mean accurate or sensible, however; the way things work in Dwarf Fortress land is based more on Toady’s whim than any reality. This is why you get killer carps, perpetual motion devices and ancient beasts made from snow that have somehow survived for hundreds of years – next to a sea of magma.

To produce a suit of plate armour, you need to mine appropriate ore, smelt it in a blast furnace which requires fuel and flux stone – and a smith to craft it at a forge. Your dwarfs can do all that in a manner of hours. Then an opponent with a sword made from a slightly harder metal will slice through it like it was paper. At which point your armed and armoured dwarf will forgo their weapon to somehow bite their opponent’s toes off. And then throw them at the opponent, piercing their brain and killing them.

The level of detail is also highly variable. You can produce a legendary artefact sock that menaces with spikes of lemur tallow soap (the production of which requires rendering fat, obtained from butchering a carcass, for tallow and burning wood to ash and processing said ash to get lye) with pictures of pictures of cheese on it, but after all these years of development alcohol production still doesn’t require water.

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Dwarf Fortress is a crazy story generator

Well, yes and no. Yes, it does produce crazy incidents and accidents from its combination of mad mechanics and deeply stupid dwarfs, but true highlights come about rarely. Primarily it generates tedium. If you are looking to play it for the zany madcap hijinks, you are probably better of reading somebody else’s stories. They’ll probably have most of the boring edited out.

Losing is Fun

No, it isn’t. Really, this isn’t such a hard concept to grasp. Losing isn’t fun. Losing sucks. This moronic catchphrase represents a tragic misunderstanding of the appeal of roguelikes. Arguably, it represents a tragic misunderstanding of games in general.

Learning is fun. In good roguelikes you lose a lot, because they are complex and difficult; but you learn from every death and do better the next time. This is because a good roguelike is not capricious: it doesn’t kill you unfairly. After every death you can review your actions and figure out how you could have avoided that death. You die, and learn, and – one day – win. And you will know you bloody well earned it.

Dwarf Fortress doesn’t really have that. It has impressive breadth as a simulated world, but it isn’t really all that deep as a game, and it isn’t balanced like one. There is plenty to learn about the general mechanics, the creatures and workshops and items, but it doesn’t need to be learned at the cost of losing. My second fortress, had I continued playing, probably would have eventually died, and I’d have lost. It would have died because I did something I knew was dangerous and likely to kill the fortress, or because some unlikely confluence of events started a tantrum spiral. There isn’t really much to learn from either alternative.

Losing isn’t fun, but since Dwarf Fortress lacks a win condition, losing is all we have.

Seven is an appropriate number of points

Definitely.

What is fun?