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Dwarf Fortress review – a grand chronicle of inevitable disaster

Dwarf Fortress review – a grand chronicle of inevitable disaster

PC; Bay 12/Kitfox
A graphical overhaul offers a gentler way of playing this vast, strange strategy game of staggering intricacy

The idea of reviewing Dwarf Fortress is inherently hilarious. You might as well apply a tape measure to a black hole. Playable in unfinished form for 16 years and counting, with no end to development in sight, Bay 12’s deceptively lo-fi colony management simulation is as vast and alien as one of its own Forgotten Beasts, rising up through layers of terrain to obliterate the miners burrowing down for sapphires and platinum.

It’s better understood through the stories whispered about individual, player-created fortresses, preserved in the amber chambers of online forums. The tragi-comedy of Boatmurdered – almost doomed when a butterfly flew into a door mechanism, granting access to bloodthirsty elephants. The horror of Glazedcoast, where the puppy pies are always extra-flakey. The humble history of Paddledclimax, my own creation, flooded when I tunnelled through a riverbed to escape a goblin siege. Tales from the trenches like these sell the game’s fecundity more compellingly than any overview. Still, the release of a relatively accessible Steam edition, published by Kitfox, is as good an opportunity as any to assess the whole.

Dig up as many glittering minerals as you can before some accident or demon destroys you … Dwarf Fortress.

The premise is straightforward: stake a claim in a vast, procedurally generated fantasy landscape; expand it into an underground metropolis with mod cons such as tiled floors; dig up as many glittering minerals as you can before some accident or demon destroys you. What sets Dwarf Fortress apart from the likes of SimCity is a blend of attention to detail and twisted personality, with unrivalled depth both in terms of geology and the inner lives of your pioneers.

This is a game in which characters are sporadically gripped by artistic mania, locking themselves in workshops to produce amulets and cups carved with images of loved ones or enemies. It’s also a game in which you can divert magma flows and rig switches to create a mountain-sized analog computer. Mega-projects like those require immense foresight and luck: more likely, you’ll succumb to a vampire infestation, a cave-in or a civil war triggered by a shortage of booze.

The initial barrier to entry has always been the game’s text-based graphics and interface. I think the original Dwarf Fortress aesthetic is beautiful: a dense, occult palimpsest of primordial glyphs waiting to be excavated and deciphered. It speaks to the idea of the computer itself as an archaeological blackbox, formed by generations of overlapping coding languages, all the way down to the metal. But the Steam edition’s more user-friendly visuals and interface are liberating, all the same.

It supports mouse control and features a crisp, colourful set of bars with roll-over tooltips, plus tabbed menus and alert notifications. The new pixel-art graphics do a wonderful job of conveying the staggering variety of building materials, together with simple practicalities such as whether a barrel is empty. You can distinguish dwarves at a glance rather than having to dive into their biography screens: I’ve become especially attached to my senior carpenter, a cat-lover with a knack for ornamental chairs.

Dwarf Fortress video game screenshot.

Probably best of all, it has rudimentary but effective tutorials to walk you through things like drafting a militia, lining corridors with pressure plate traps, or defining areas for sleeping, storage and dining. The learning curve remains steep – you’ll still need to Google things like how to mollify a dwarf whose unmet personal needs include “thinking abstractly”. But next to the original text-based game – which is free to download, and will continue to receive updates – it feels effortless. The Steam edition’s only current shortcoming is that it doesn’t yet include Adventure mode, which lets you enter a previously generated world as a lone traveller and experience your once-teeming fortress as a ruin.

You could summarise Dwarf Fortress as a game about the meticulous cultivation of downfall. There’s no victory condition beyond the satisfaction of bolting together another grand chronicle of inevitable disaster. It’s this joyful fatalism as much as the simulation’s richness that makes it timeless.

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