The best of games / The worst of games

by | Dec 16, 2021 | Games | 0 comments

I don’t feel like I’m doing it a disservice to call Dwarf Fortress the game with the worst user interface in the history of successful games. Especially now that it’s getting an overhaul as its creator, Tarn Adams, readies it for a Steam release, it’s OK to look at the byzantine, nested, weirdly hot-keyed menus with a wince and a cringe.

Dwarf Fortress is not for the fainthearted. There are hours-long fan-made tutorials online just to walk newbies through the basics. Even veterans will occasionally watch their painstakingly built creations implode beneath the weight of negative feedback loops.

The game’s motto is “Losing is fun!”

So why do people put up with its shortcomings?

To put it bluntly, Dwarf Fortress is the best simulation game there ever was as possibly ever will be. You start with a band of seven dwarves (yes, the cliche is intentional) and a few supplies, dropped at your choice of spots in a fully-generated world custom to your playthough (though sharable with friends using a seed number). Your mandate: survive.

Each dwarf has a personality, likes, dislikes, friends, enemies, skills, injuries, beliefs, and opinions. You can check each one, and there are reams of information for everyone. This band of companions will follow your directions to mine/chop/haul/dig/build/craft/fight to carve out a home in the wilderness. Over time, if you don’t all die of hunger, thirst, accident, or attack, your colony will grow and attract visitors ranging from traders to minstrels to refugees looking to make a permanent home.

Your dwarves will form relationships. They’ll remember slights. They’ll get jealous if someone else has a nicer bedroom than them. They’ll fall in love, raise families, and mourn their dead.

The world is immense. Even just the snippet you use for your fortress covers a huge area not only north, south, east, and west, but up and (most importantly) DOWN too. Oh, the digging you’ll do. Oh, the caverns you’ll discover. Digging down, you’ll carve out dormitories and amphitheaters, throne rooms and taverns, warehouses and workhouses and armories. You’ll expose veins of ore and gems that you’ll need to understand at a Geology 101 level in order to properly smelt and blacksmith into the tools and weapons you’ll need and the artwork you’ll create.

Oh, did I not mention the artwork yet?

Your dwarves are, at heart, craftspeople. In addition to your assigned sculptors and carvers, any dwarf might enter a strange mood, commandeer a workshop, and make outlandish demands for exotic materials. Supply them, and your artisan is liable to craft an artifact–a masterpiece. Though the masterwork might be anything from a steel hammer emblazoned with visages of demons to a stone barrel carved with a scene from that time your worst enemy got stabbed by a goblin, the results are fully realized by the game’s inexhaustible imagination.

In short, Dwarf Fortress is the closest you’re going to get to having an ant-farm peopled with bearded miners.

It is gaming’s most frustrating and rewarding delight.

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