When Tarn and Zach Adams, the two creators of dwarven fortress, they were children, their father working in wastewater management east of Sacramento in the 1970s and 1980s. Specifically, Tarn explains via Zoom, their father was the guy who “introduced computers to sewage treatment plants residuals”, helping to digitize the measurement of things like “flows, digesters, bacteria” and, most disgustingly, “activated sludge”.
For anyone even vaguely familiar with the surprisingly complex settlement simulator that is dwarven fortress, these could plausibly be game components. Unfortunately, despite the community calling for the implementation of the poop mechanic for years (see any number of forum threads on the subject, such as “Sanitation Abstraction” and “On the Making of Poop and Urine”), the brothers have not yet given in. Poop, to this day, remains a direct “no,” Tarn says. However, manure is a possibility, “as manure is very useful.”
Within the Dwarf Fortress community, poop and urine are discussed in rarefied tones.
Within dwarven fortress community, poop and urine are discussed in rarefied tones. People have considered how they could be used as crop fertilizer, clothing dye, and biological warfare. However, most players want a sewer system, another complex mechanic to manage in the midst of a game filled with many other complex systems layered on top of each other. This should tell you everything you need to know about the silliness and seriousness of dwarven fortressa game with a rather simple premise that quickly turns into its complete opposite.
At first, he is given a handful of dwarfs whose goal is to lie down on the ground and make a home. You dig slowly, carving out a corner of the cavernous paradise. Your dwarves love to drink beer, but they also get sad. (It is reasonable to ask them if they are alcoholics). You do everything you can to make them happy, but life is full of challenges big and small. In fact, a favorite phrase among fans of the game is “losing is fun.” Before long, their earthen lodgings will fall, either to the hands of a vampire, famine, or perhaps most tragically, a burst aquifer flooding their labyrinthine wonder.
Since its launch in 2006, dwarven fortress It’s been an intense search for two main reasons: its ASCII graphics and the lack of in-game tutorials. Booting up the original version for the first time remains one of the most disorienting experiences in gaming. At first you generate a procedural world, though this is handled differently than most other games. A timeline buzzes along the left side of the screen while a map shifts and glows in the middle. Mountains rise from the earth only to be eroded by rivers and empires rise and fall, leaving only crumbling ruins.
This is the first way dwarven fortress imparts a sense of “context vertigo”. Once the world has been generated, you select your place in it, where you would like to build your base of bearded inhabitants. Now you need to start parsing the mass of arcane ASCII icons: austere, yes, but packed with a veritable deluge of digital information. She may see a world replete with procedural possibilities at the same time that she begins to feel the tickle of a headache. Like many others, I never learned to play this version. He was perfectly happy admiring it from afar.
“The cognitive load of the game is very high.”
Tanya Short, co-founder of Kitfox Games, the company that publishes the new version of dwarven fortress, felt a similar way. In 2014, she attended a gambling workshop in Montreal, learning the basics for a few hours (dig the cave, grow mushrooms), but when he got home, she ran into a brick wall. “The cognitive load of the game is very high,” Short tells me over Zoom. “When someone held my hand, I could walk in… [but] the cognitive load of trying to start it [on my own] It was too loud, it was too scary, and it felt more like work, even though in theory it’s just 30 seconds of resetting your mindscape.” Now, however, with the newly accessible – and remarkably cute – pixel art graphics, that “cognitive load is gone, dissipated,” says Short. “It’s just a game now.” In fact, Short counts herself among the target demographic for the new version: “We call them the dwarven fortress curious.”
Tarn admits that ASCII graphics “were running out of steam a bit.” For all their dense computational beauty, and the way they facilitate rapid development (the pair have never had to worry about producing an artist before), the 255 icons at their disposal presented limitations. “All the characters have been used quite a bit, and a lot of them are duplicates,” says Tarn. “If you can tell a goblin fighter from a goose from a ibex, you’re either doing it by context or using the look command, which is cumbersome in the text version.” If you’re confused, don’t worry, I was too. “Those are all white Gs,” Tarn clarifies.
Now, an ibex is a pixel art version of that and a goblin fighter is, well, a goblin fighter (which, commensurate with the depth of the game’s simulation, can have children). The challenge, Tarn says, wasn’t to create a variety of art to match the staggering array of variables the game can throw at it (the dwarf was “immediately nailed,” while variations of hair and, just as importantly, , the beards naturally came together over time). Rather, it was in the game’s depiction of the underground space. “The challenge was, how does this 3D environment look when slicing in 2D?” he says. The example Tarn provides is for ramps. A point of confusion in the original version, the ramps required an ascending triangle to be placed next to a wall and the space above the ramp to be clear. “There are four tiles that have to come together to make the perfect ramp,” he says. “Now, we have a giant ramp tile set that shows hills pointing in different directions. It works, but it took a long time to land on it.”
“They are motivated by the trade, the potential and the dream of doing something new.”
Since Tarn and Zach didn’t want to handle the bureaucracy of a real game studio, part of the publishing deal involved Kitfox recruiting the necessary artists and songwriters, many of whom were active participants within the game. dwarven fortress community. Short admits that this was a “harrowing” process. “You don’t want it to look like you play favorites,” she says. “It’s weirdly political, right?” Barring one unfortunate incident involving plagiarized work (resulting in over 10,000 sprites being removed), working with such modders has been a very positive experience. “They are very technically competent. They tend to be very collaborative and very communicative,” continues Short. “And yet they are not motivated by money. They are motivated by the trade, the potential and the dream of doing something new.”
You could describe Tarn and Zach in precisely the same terms, two developers who, in the often corporate realm of indie game development, are the closest thing to punk rockers. Since 2006, dwarven fortress It’s been free to play, the couple’s livelihood sustained only by donations made from a page hidden in a corner of their website and then through Patreon. Before signing with Kitfox, they were DIY perhaps too much, the money from such donations was enough to live on (between $3,400 and $8,181 per month, according to this Vice article) but little else. Then, a few years ago, Zach got skin cancer and had to dip into his personal savings to cover what his health insurance didn’t. The Steam version, then, is a means of providing Tarn and Zach, ages 44 and 47, respectively, with a measure of security: funds for a “very rainy day,” as Tarn puts it. “We don’t anticipate big changes in the future in terms of how this country is structured,” she says. “[So] we have to figure it out for ourselves, what we are going to do, and this [the Steam and Itch version] seems the best solution for us.”
Judging by the 4,072 (and counting) reviews already racked up on the game’s Steam page (a decent, if inaccurate, indication of a game’s sales), the tactic is paying off. Thanks to the liberating effect of the more user-friendly visuals and interface, a new crop of gamers are already experiencing procedural stories of the kind they may have only heard on forgotten pages of the internet or in the depths of Moria-style forums. One of them is probably Boatmurdered, an epic succession game involving players from The Something Awful Forums whose troubled fortress was plagued by murderous elephants before ending in a fit of madness. Maybe your story is less hilariously bombastic, especially because of a little dwarf who captured your heart. Perhaps this dwarf will be immortalized as a work of art by the friends and family who survived them.
“We have a difficult decision between the economy and the ships.”
Death can be an inescapable fact of both life and dwarven fortress’ simulacrum but, as Tarn makes clear, the Steam version does not indicate anything close to an end. New features will continue apace, just as they have for the past 16 years. Indeed, with a single breath, Tarn rattles off a decade-spanning to-do list, ending with what sounds like a maddening philosophical quandary and planning nightmare. “We have a difficult decision between the economy and the ships,” he says. “Ships are very important for the economy to work. The economy is very important for the ships to have a reason to be there. Do you do it all at once?
Such a question is indicative of a game that Tarn compares to a balloon whose surface area only increases as you inflate it. “If you add something to the game, it interacts with almost every other system, and you can’t include all those interactions, so you save some and call it the next development arc. We have plans that last 15, 20 years, and there will be more after that,” says Tarn. “That’s something you think about as well. Do you want the project to continue? Do you want to pass it on to someone? Do you want to pass it on to everyone? We haven’t made any decisions there about how or what we’re going to do with it. I mean, we’re not really the type of people who would just hide it and throw it in a vault somewhere. We’ll see what happens, but we still have work to do.”