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The Mines of Mania

By (May 1, 2010) One Comment

Bay 12 Games

Popular culture tends to believe that video games are generally incompatible with interpersonal relations. This belief needn’t be as extreme as the vitriol spouted by conservative crusaders like Jack Thompson, whose infamous hysterical outbursts and delusions of persecution make him and an object of pity and scorn (in unequal measure), but you can see how it might come about. One need not claim that Nintendo turns you into a psycho-killer to feel that video games may be detrimental to one’s personal life; after all, many games are legendarily time-consuming and borderline addictive. This vision – that of the exasperated wife/girlfriend, arms crossed and lips pursed, watching her husband/boyfriend staring vacantly at a screen, his fingers twitching spasmodically at keyboard or controller – is one that floats in the collective cultural consciousness.

I can’t speak to any of this, not because I don’t have an opinion (like that would ever happen!), but because I am lucky enough to have a significant other who also appreciates games and thus understands my occasional absorption. Those games we don’t play together, the one of us can often watch the other play while remaining fairly entertained. Additionally, as a general rule, I regularly lack the mental energies to lose myself so thoroughly in a game as to induce the vacant eyed state I just described.

Rules, however, always have exceptions that emerge to prove them, and even my angelic spouse has her limits. My rule and her limits were both tested by my encounter with Dwarf Fortress. My obsession with the game tried even her patience and swallowed regions of my brain I normally reserve for any number of other cognitive functions. That I may redeem hours upon hours lost in the depths of an electronic earth, I present to you, reader, an exploration of those deep, digital caverns and the curiosity that is Bay 12 Games’ magnificent, maddening, and entirely free game.

It was during my stay in Austin that I was exposed to this game’s dangerous gravitational field. To be fair, it was an act of Old Testament justice. Since I was responsible for a friend’s descent into finger-twitching social isolation after introducing him to Ambrosia Software’s impeccable Escape Velocity: Nova, he decided to turn the tables by pointing me towards DF. Foolhardy as I was, I downloaded the game’s Mac iteration and began to get acquainted. It wasn’t love at first sight because, to be honest, the game is, by most normative standards, ugly as sin.

Dwarf Fortress doesn’t have graphics in the sense most people presently use the word. It has ‘lifelike graphics’ less in the sense of James Cameron’s Avatar and more in the sense of the OED’s definition 4. b. ‘Of a mineral: Presenting on the surface, or in the fracture, an appearance of written or printed characters.’ First, in that the game is represented wholly in modified ASCII characters (the kind you can type on a keyboard). Second, because much of the game’s action is spent delving into the earth, searching for precious ore and gems, sparkling in the chthonic darkness.

The learning curve for DF is very steep, and while there are various fan-developed aids and additions, overlaying the cryptic interface with a more user-friendly alternative, its player base remains limited to those who possess the determination necessary to learn the ropes, which ropes often hang above a gaping chasm filled with Tartarian black. Such a player base is, by sheer necessity, a devoted and dedicated one, without whom less fanatic players (such as myself) would not have likely overcome the game’s difficulties.

Difficulties that are tied in with the game’s incredible richness and depth, mind you. Dwarf Fortress‘s core is its world-building engine, a mechanism that can produce countless geographically distinct game worlds, complete with continents, oceans, biomes and terrain types, civilizations and trade routes, and centuries-old histories. A single small section of the entire vast world is chosen as the location gameplay, after which a party of seven dwarves is assembled, with equipment, supplies and abilities selected by the player but limited by a certain budget. Trusting in the wisdom of their choices, the player strikes the earth and begins construction of their dwarves’ new home.

A new layer of complexity emerges at this level, a mix of urban planning, civil administration and mechanical engineering. Winter comes on swift wings, and you’d better have food to last until spring. If your fortress has no soil for crops, you must reroute a local river or brook to provide irrigation, lest your dwarves starve. Beware! A poorly planned irrigation system will flood your fortress and drown your dwarves. You also need some level of industry, preferably something properly dwarven, like metalsmithing. If you’re lucky enough to have built nearby a volcano or magma vent you can channel the lava into your workshop and use it to heat your forges, obviating the need to mine for coal. Beware! A poorly planned magma channel will flood your fortress with lava and incinerate your dwarves.

Once you’ve managed to establish stable food production and have some manufacturing basics in place, you’ll likely still be missing something or other. Maybe there aren’t enough trees in your area, and without wood you can’t build beds, and without beds your dwarves will sleep on the cold stone floor, shivering and miserable, and that just won’t do. You’ll have to wait for the seasonal trade caravan to arrive and offer them some of the trinkets you’ve hammered out of the copper and iron you managed to smelt. But watch out! Goblin raiders and kobold thieves are eager to plunder those merchant wagons and your own fortress’s storerooms as well. You didn’t build a militia to deal with them? Let’s hope your miners can use those picks for something other than digging.

Should you overcome these difficulties, you can look forward to an influx of migrants, all looking for warm beds and steady jobs within your fortress’s halls. Satisfy their needs or prepare to put down a riot. Soon the nobles arrive, demanding that you provide them palatial accommodations, a royal guard to enforce their arbitrary will and otherwise making a nuisance of themselves. Add to this a system of dwarven economics that essentially requires you to create subterranean slums for those commoners for whom there simply aren’t jobs and the regular sieges by armies of bloodthirsty goblins, and one can see why the official motto of Dwarf Fortress is ‘Losing is fun!’.

Don’t worry. Should your fortress fall, you can revisit its defiled halls in the game’s ‘adventure mode’, donning warrior’s raiment and braving whatever horrors claimed your bastion in the first place. An adventurer is also free to traverse the whole of the game world (at his or her own peril), and it is from this viewpoint that the insane breadth of the game can be experienced, much as ‘fortress mode’ lets you plumb its insane (and quite literal) depth.

Part 1 of a 40 episode Dwarf Fortress video tutorial from YouTube

Much as the worlds of Dwarf Fortress are vast and open to exploration, the game itself appears not unlike unmapped territory. With not much in the way of a manual, the best guide to the game and its operations has been compiled on the Dwarf Fortress Wiki, a communal effort on the part of the game’s dedicated fanbase. Meticulously piecing together a body of common knowledge, verified through practice, DFWiki stands as a testament both to the spirit of collective experience, a true artifact of gamer culture. It also demonstrates the level of engrossment the game is capable of producing in those susceptible to its unique, labyrinthine charms.

At a certain level of familiarity the game challenges you to push it limits. Want to build an artificial waterfall powered by windmills to cheer your dwarves with its soothing mist? You can do that. Want to build your fortress on artificial islands surrounding by moats whose water levels are controlled by a series of screw pumps and floodgates linked to a master control room bristling with levers? You can do that too. Want to transform your entire fortress into a programmable, digital computer? Someone did.

As if the game alone were not astounding enough, the further wonder is that it is almost entirely the handiwork of a single man. Tarn Adams began the project with his brother Zach back in October of 2002, and the first playable version of the game was released in August of 2006. Since then it has been the the object of Tarn’s tireless determination and limitless labors, culminating most recently in the release of the full-version change at the beginning of this April. As the game is distributed free, the entire eight year project has been supported by Tarn himself, and through the donations of the die-hard fans.

What strikes me in particular is the strange kind of divinity this confers to Tarn, alias ‘Toady One’. While Dwarf Fortress is not by any means the only digital world to be created (though it is one of the most versatile and open), it is one of the few designed almost exclusively by a single individual. An individual, too, that created a mechanism for the generation of many, many, unique worlds. Tarn outlined a governing body of physical laws, a system of actions, reactions and interactions, from ones that were tectonic in scope down to the specific preferences of each single dwarf, their likes, dislikes, their religion and their loved ones.

One has to imagine the sheer amount of work this must have taken. Like Jehovah and the Flood, one small flaw, be it in the hearts of men or just in the physics of rivers, could drown unlucky worlds. And each system of rules, a veritable self-contained digital ontology, is pushed to its limits by the players and fans who will explore (and exploit) every nook and cranny of that system. From such a vantage the process becomes a strange epochal metaphor, sedimentary like the stones a fortress is carved from, and one best reflected in the construction of the wiki. The knowledge of past versions of the game, each with their own sets of rules, is preserved, fossilized if you will, while the latest version sits on top, subject to the active accumulation and amendment of knowledge. When the next version is released, the process will continue, leaving another layer for some digital archaeologist to burrow into.

If I wax poetic, it’s because this game inspires me. And inspiration brings with it the risk of obsession. Therein lies the the difficulty of such experiences, shared only by those who are inclined to be inspired. What looks like glassy eyed vacancy might well feel like sublimity to the mind behind those eyes (though its no less strange to those witnessing it). But while one could spend an age wandering the great vaulted caverns, and feel delighted by the wonders one finds and makes, I guess there’s something to be said for coming back to the light of day once and a while.

Phillip A. Lobo is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His extensive writing on video gaming can be found here.

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