Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Peter has been feeling ecstatic lately

I downloaded Dwarf Fortress again last night. I haven’t played it in months… It’s still on the same release as when I was last playing it, so I guess not much has changed. I haven’t been keeping up with his latest developments on the DF blog, but I gather he was working on poisons, internal injuries, alternative liquid types… All sorts of cool stuff. Those rivers of blood will soon be a possibility…

So, for those of you who don’t know, Dwarf Fortress is an absolutely astounding game. It’s kind of a cross between Sim City and Dungeon Keeper, with elements from many other games (like The Settlers, Civilisation, and even The Sims) thrown in. It has been called a Roguelike, but if you know what that means you’ve probably already heard of DF.

UPDATE: Looking back over this, I’ve ended up writing a review… Meh, nevermind.

The basic premise is that your party of Dwarves (7 to start with, with more immigrants arriving each season) has decided to leave their current home and set up on their own. The game generates an extremely detailed (and huge) world map; everything from the effects of river erosion and weather to wars and political strife is simulated, with your fortress taking up only a minuscule fraction of the overall map; what’s more, all of your games take place on the same world map. This means, for instance, you can reclaim old fortresses to save you tunnelling out a mountain again (well, so long as you clear away the scattered remains of the previous occupants).

You get given a handful of points to train up and equip your dwarves, then you’re dumped in the wilderness… The rest is up to you. You set tasks for your dwarves, they run and do them. Tunnel out the mountain, start chopping down trees, mining precious ore, smelting metal, smithing goods and weapons, trade with your neighbours, harvest food, train up an army…

Your first few fortresses will, inevitably, end in disaster; my first fortress had me accidentally tunnelling through into a channel connected to a river and flooding my fortress (fortresses, being underground and made of stone, tend to fill up from the bottom). You’ll run out of food, become wiped out by besieging goblins, or simply succumb to the stench of death as dwarves start locking themselves in their rooms and starving themselves. You’ll get the hang of it with time, though, and as you gain more experience, you can tackle more ambitious projects. Maybe you could try running an entirely underground fortress; it requires a source of mushrooms to grow in caves for food, an underwater water supply, magma to use as fuel (you’ll have no trees!) and a healthy breeding program (you can’t rely on immigrants!). Or you might decide to try the infamous water/lava cannon to hose your opponents. And, like all dwarf fortress players, you will spend hours fashioning intricate traps and defensive fortifications to stop marauding kobolds and goblins (the notorious Boatmurdered fortress had a magma channel rigged up which flooded the outside world with molten rock to ward off Goblins and… well, and Elephants).

The true stars of the show, however, are the dwarves themselves. You don’t have any direct control over their actions; they more or less go where they want, when they want. This can be frustrating when you just want them to finish moving those last couple of stone blocks out the way so you can continue laying down furniture, but it does mean you don’t have to worry about them starving to death. Well, most of the time.

Much of the enjoyment of the game comes from the interaction of the surprisingly complex and in-depth dwarf behaviour with the procedurally generated content. The dwarves’ odd behaviour is easy to interpret as all-too-human character quirks, and your collection of sprites soon take on their own personalities. One of my stonecrafters, for instance, got a reputation as morbid when he repeatedly carved menacing spiked balls out of obsidian. Or there was my self-obsessed engraver; he had worked his way up to Legendary level, and repeatedly carved masterpiece images of himself carving masterpieces. What an image to have on your bedroom wall. You’ll care for them, and when you start reading their thoughts as saying things as ‘Snorri has seen too much death recently’ you’ll not be sure whether to laugh or cry.

Actually you will; it’s laugh.

Okay, so the graphics aren't great. Still, that's one sweet-ass dining room

So, what’s the catch? Well, the learning curve of the game is almost vertical but, for me, the learning is what I enjoy. Not to sound shallow, but the graphics are as bad as you can get; the game is based around ASCII characters (though I generally use a graphical tileset mod) and the user interface is pretty much non-existent (That said, the engine behind it is complex; there are proper fluid mechanics, for instance, which allow you to create artificial waterfalls, irrigation channels or wells). And, really, that’s about it for downers. I haven’t even talked about Adventure mode, which is a whole other game mode where you can explore the world with an individual character.

To sum up, Dwarf Fortress is a game for serious gamers who want to lose hours of their life watching little computer people. The game is free (yes, free) so you have no excuse not to check it out. Two thumbs up!

1 comment:

  1. oh were you aware? apparently Dungeon Keeper 3 is in development... can't for the life of me remember where i read that, or if i'm propogating a myth, but hey... exciting if true!