On Dwarfs, Dwarves and FortressesPosted by Tom on 28th August, 2012
Oh what? An article? On Oh No! Video Games!? Wow! It’s from our friend Patrick Kidd and it’s all about Dwarf games.
A common trend with creators working in any medium is to make reference to cultural works that have come before them and influenced them. It’s such a common occurrence that I probably didn’t even need to write that sentence, because I imagine you’re all sat there thinking “No shit, Sherlock.”
Video games are, of course, no different. You only need to take a look at the Warcraft III page on the WoW wiki to see its long list of cultural references that make the average episode of Family Guy look sparse in comparison.
Dwarf Fortress is a game that has seen immense success over the last few years since it received significant exposure in the PC and indie gaming communities due to its versatility and complexity.
Like many other games, it has inspired a new generation of indie game developers to have a go at making their own game. Notch, who at this point is effectively vying with the chuckleheads over at Penny Arcade for the title of unofficial Emperor of the Internet, has even stated that Dwarf Fortress was one of the biggest influences on his multi-million dollar juggernaut Minecraft.
While in its original beta form Minecraft shared a lot of similarities with the concepts explored in Dwarf Fortress (albeit having removed the middle men, or middle dwarves in this case, from the building process) the finished product is vastly different and only really now draws the barest comparison to Dwarf Fortress’ adventure mode.
More recently, though, there have been a few games that have come to light that share a lot more similarities with Dwarf Fortress than the final release of Minecraft. The basis of these games tends to be more similar. The protagonists are Dwarfs, or Dwarves depending on the etymology, and the goal is simple: Create a domain.
Dwarfs?!, which is available on Steam, takes a more simplistic, arcade-y slant on the idea, where you use your Dwarfs mining skills to find hidden rooms full of treasure. When you boil it down though, the basic idea is the same, though; use your Dwarfs skills to accumulate wealth and hopefully not die.
Another that came to my attention the other day is A Game of Dwarves, which is due for release by Swedish studio Paradox in Q4 of 2012. By all accounts, the game description, which can be found here: http://www.paradoxplaza.com/games/a-game-of-dwarves, seems to indicate that Paradox are marketing A Game of Dwarves as a sort of Dwarf Fortress for Dummies. Essentially the same goal without the complexity and impenetrability that is inherent in the ascii and hotkey heavy interface that Dwarf Fortress runs on.
I know a lot of people that love the idea of Dwarf Fortress but understandably can’t make it past the clunkiness of the menu system, and it has been mooted that this would be the perfect game for them. It looks quite sharp and is a solid idea, but as Tom from this very site said on Twitter, “Dwarf Fortress is not good because it is about Dwarfs making a Fortress.”
The beauty of Dwarf Fortress lies in the complexity. Dwarf Fortress is exciting and fun precisely because it is challenging. The fact that you can do almost anything with it (See the DF wiki article on Challenges) and that your Dwarfs can (and will) surprise you with their heart, personality and resilience are among the things that make it the game it is. I don’t even play Dwarf Fortress to do these things necessarily. I play it because it presents a challenge, and in building a pyramid, or a town that exists above ground, I learn something new about the game that will help my playing in other playthroughs. The complexity of the game and the way the characters interact with it create stories, and I want to create stories, which is good because that’s the one thing that is guaranteed to happen each and every time.
Whether it was the time in adventure mode that my character beat to death with his shield a bandit leader that refused to die despite the fact that his sword was embedded in her gut for most of the combat, or the Dwarf who, upon failing to successfully complete a fey mood, stripped naked, began ranting and hurled himself in to a rapidly flowing river in front of a number of his friends and family, the fact remains that stories are the driver of that game.
Ask anyone who has played Dwarf Fortress more than a couple of times and I can guarantee that they will have dozens of stories to regale you with. The ones above are just two (genuine) examples from probably 30 that I could easily talk about at much greater length than I did just now.
The community thrives around these stories, and I’ve spent many an hour discussing with other players how fucking annoying Elves are (very), what the worst creatures to come across in adventure mode are (mummies) and how best to create maximum Fun (aka losing). A trip to the wiki is never wasted, and there are loads of examples of snippets that use the kind of humour the community is famous for. This is something that will almost certainly be lacking from the A Game of Dwarves community, even in Paradox’s generally excellent community forums.
As admirable an attempt at recreating the experience as A Game of Dwarves looks, it is simply an impossible task. Dwarf Fortress is a labour of love. It is, essentially, the life’s work of one man. Toady One, the creator, has dedicated pretty much every waking moment of every day of the last few years to create his masterpiece, and confesses to being nowhere near done. Conversely, the teaser trailer for A Game of Dwarves was released in January of this year, and the game is nearly out. Complexity isn’t everything, but in this case it plays a pretty big part.
All this is not to say that A Game of Dwarves isn’t going to be worth checking out. It looks like a fun diversion, but calling it Dwarf Fortress without the complexity is erroneous, because there IS no Dwarf Fortress without the complexity. If you take away the complexity from Dwarf Fortress, you take away its spirit. Anyway, if I’m being honest, if I wanted to play a more simplified version of Dwarf Fortress, I’d just dig up my copy of Dungeon Keeper. If I’m being even more honest, I’d much rather just play Dwarf Fortress.
If that makes me an elitist, well, so be it. At least I’ll be having Fun.