A friend and I played Dwarf Fortress over Easter. It’s a terrifyingly detailed game in which very simple graphics depict a complex Tolkien-esque world of unimaginable depth and geekiness. It looks so inaccessible I didn’t think we’d be able to install it. Dwarf Fortress is a reminder of what computers really are. They’re not shiny fashion accessories or creative workstations, they are time-eating goblin warfare simulators. Forget user experience design, forget bevelled phones with one button. What you want are copious menus about militias, minerals and mushroom farming, each four screens deep and with 26 options assigned to keyboard letters.
Despite a near-vertical learning curve, Dwarf Fortress is popular. If there’s a reason for this it’s because the game generates stories. Your fortress will inevitably fail and in a spectacularly bizarre way. Over the course of the weekend we were attacked by a hyena and saw many of our caravan die of starvation or thirst. The worst of it began when a corpse turned up next to the kitchen. A purple miasma contaminated what little food we had when the store room continued to be used as a makeshift morgue. Not bad going given that it took four hours for us to decide that the blue part of the screen was sky, not water.
Since some of its elements were brainstormed using narrative, it’s not surprising that Dwarf Fortress creates memorable experiences. One of the creators will write a short story which they both then analyse to pick out elements that might be fun. It seems like a very creative way to develop a game. It’s a long-term project and there’s no pressure to keep the graphics up to date or follow trends so they’ve a free hand to add depth and interest. For the brave, a Dwarf Fortress starter pack is available here.