Jon Gracey's

Games That Rocked…Fred Crawley’s World – #24: Dwarf Fortress

In Mac, PC on January 30, 2013 at 2:32 pm

Today’s post is by Fred Crawley:


Title: Dwarf Fortress

Format: PC, Mac

Released: August, 2006 (Alpha version)


A cyan full stop flickers clumsily across a field of green punctuation on a black screen, and I push my tongue out of my mouth in concentration as I search for the right key.

Open next to the game window is a browser tabbed to the gills with wiki pages, and a wordpad document of my own confused notes – by the time I have finished rustling through them for the information I need, however, the little bright dot has disappeared.

When it blinks up again, I triumphantly stab the pause button and rattle the arrow keys until the cursor is hovering over my adversary. With a newfound sense of confidence I press the ‘k’ key (k stands for ‘look’, of course) and watch as the word “dragonfly” appears in a sidepanel.

I have identified an insect, and feel the warm cortical spasm of a rat receiving a pellet after leaning on a lever. In any other game, this feat would be too minor to even feature in gameplay, but here it is my first triumph over a notoriously baroque interface, and I am genuinely excited.

I unpause, and watch the dragonfly flutter around the edge of a blob of wibbly blue tildes demarcating a stagnant pool. Moments later, it is rushed by a grey lower case ‘c’ and disappears, only to be deposited elsewhere as a tiny purple ‘z’ which the ‘k’ key tells me is ‘dragonfly remains’.


It’s the summer of 2006, and I’ve just watched a cat killing a bug in Dwarf Fortress, the most astonishing game I have ever come across.

There are a lot of articles out there explaining exactly what Dwarf Fortress is and how it came to be – in essence, a game of mind-boggling scope that an extraordinary man called Tarn Adams, with help from his brother, has been adding bits on to with otherworldly diligence for seven years now.

Its code is like a city formed from oil tankers full of baying madmen, lashed together with cable and constantly being augmented with crudely welded-together towers, gantries and avant-garde theatres.

I guess it’s a god-sim, or a city builder, or a management sim. It has an RPG mode. And it’s also a roguelike, in that it’s displayed entirely in stark 16-colour ASCII and maintains the genre’s fatalistic, live-by-the-sword approach to permadeath.


Really though, it’s an exercise in metagaming. As a flashing ampersand denoting an Anteater Brute wades through the lower caverns scattering severed Lower Left Arms in its wake and a grand master soapmaker cowers from the elephants trampling the dining halls into a swamp of vomit and blood, one comes to remember one’s first ‘dragonfly’ moment and realises “good grief; to have got to a point where I can have fucked up in such a spectacular manner I must, at some point, have learnt how to play Dwarf Fortress.”

It genuinely is, I can only assume, like being one of the scruffily-jumpered hovercraft pilots in The Matrix, suddenly able to understand cascading jumbleshows of green digits as a convincing and detailed simulacrum of reality.

Where to a casual observer there is only a blinking π superimposed on a row of =s, while a B jerks around nearby, the hardened DF player sees a cabinet discarded on a bridge over a chasm, in the aftermath of its maker’s dismemberment at the hands of a giant bat. Closer inspection might reveal upon the cabinet’s surface an engraving of a famous champion, being disembowelled by the very megachiropteran now fluttering a few lines of text away.


In an era where games are increasingly judged for their capacity to sustain massive, joylessly competitive online multiplayer communities, Dwarf Fortress remains resolutely singleplayer – the only thing it pits you against is your own incomprehension and, later, your own incompetence.

“I’m not playing it until it has a decent user interface” complains one friend. “I can’t be arsed to spend months learning to play a game” complains another. They’re missing the point; who would say these things about learning Russian, or taking up the French Horn?

OK, it’s a slightly dishonest analogy, but the pleasure in learning to play Dwarf Fortress resembles more the satisfaction inherent in picking up fragments of a foreign language than it does a lead-riddled bout of Borderlands 2, made all the more bittersweet when you realise you can only ever practise your new language with yourself.

Don’t let the internal voice that stops you from attempting difficult things stop you from downloading this game immediately. You will thank me when the Olm Men come.



Fred Crawley writes about business for a living, but has been known to play games in his spare time. He also draws things like thismakes short movies and does other cool stuff.


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