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Dwarf Fortress is no longer PC’s most inscrutable game

The subterranean settlement sim has been a cult favorite since it was first released in 2006. Now, a graphically updated version of the game is hitting Steam and Itch, the perfect entry point for the ‘Dwarf Fortress curious.’

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A screenshot of the newest version of Dwarf Fortress.
Dwarf Fortress got a new look for its debut on Steam and Itch.
Image: Kitfox Games

When Tarn and Zach Adams, the two creators of Dwarf Fortress, were children, their father worked in sewage management just east of Sacramento in the 1970s and ‘80s. Specifically, Tarn explains over Zoom, their dad was the guy who “introduced computers to sewage treatment plants,” helping digitize the measurement of things like “flows, digesters, bacteria,” and grossest of all, “activated sludge.”

For anyone even vaguely familiar with the strikingly complex settlement sim that is Dwarf Fortress, these could plausibly be components of the game. Alas, despite the community calling for the implementation of poop mechanics for years (check out any number of forum threads on the subject such as “Sanitation Abstraction” and “On poopsmithing and urine”), the brothers have yet to relent. Excrement, to this day, remains a straight “nope,” Tarn says. Manure, though, is a possibility — “since manure is very useful.”

Within the Dwarf Fortress community, poop and urine are discussed in rarefied tones

Within the Dwarf Fortress community, poop and urine are discussed in rarefied tones. People have considered the way they might be used for crop fertilizer, dye for clothes, and biological warfare. Mostly, though, players want a sewage system, another complex mechanic to manage amid a game filled with many other complex, overlapping systems. This should tell you everything you need to know about the silliness and seriousness of Dwarf Fortress, a game with a simple enough premise that quickly becomes anything but.

At its outset, you are given a handful of dwarves whose goal is to bed into the earth and make a home. You dig down slowly, carving out a corner of cavernous paradise. Your dwarves love drinking beer, but they also get sad. (You might reasonably ask if they’re alcoholics.) You do your best to make them happy, but life is full of big and small challenges. Indeed, a favorite phrase among the game’s fans is “losing is fun.” Before long, your earthen lodgings will fall, be that at the hands of a vampire, famine, or perhaps most tragically, a burst aquifer that floods your labyrinthine wonder.

Since its release in 2006, Dwarf Fortress has been a hardcore pursuit for two primary reasons: its ASCII graphics and lack of in-game tutorials. Booting up the original version for the very first time remains one of gaming’s most disorientating experiences. At its outset, you generate a procedural world, although this is handled differently from most other games. A timeline whirs on the left-hand side of the screen as a map shifts and shimmers in the middle. Mountains ascend from the earth only to be eroded by rivers and empires rise and fall, leaving behind only crumbling ruins.

This is the first way Dwarf Fortress imparts a sense of “context vertigo.” Once the world has been generated, you select your place in it — where you would like to build your bearded dwellers’ base. Now, you must begin to parse the mass of arcane ASCII icons — austere, yes, but packed with a veritable deluge of digital information. You may see a world teeming with procedural possibility while also starting to feel the prickle of a headache. Like many others, I never learned to play this version. I was perfectly happy admiring it from afar. 

“The cognitive load of the game is so high.”

Tanya Short, co-founder of Kitfox Games, the company publishing the new version of Dwarf Fortress, felt a similar way. In 2014, she attended a workshop on the game in Montreal, learning its basics for a few hours (digging the cave, growing mushrooms), but when she got home, she hit a brick wall. “The cognitive load of the game is so high,” Short tells me over Zoom. “When someone was holding my hand, I could wade in… [but] the cognitive load of trying to boot it up [on my own] was too high, it was too scary, and it felt more like work, even though it’s theoretically only 30 seconds of readjusting your mental landscape.” Now, however, with the newly accessible — and notably cute — pixel art graphics, that “cognitive load is gone — it’s dissipated,” Short says. “It’s just a game now.” Indeed, Short counts herself among the target demographic for the new version: “We call them the Dwarf Fortress curious.”

Tarn admits that the ASCII graphics were “running out of steam a little bit.” For all their dense computational beauty and the way in which they facilitate speedy development (previously, the pair never had to worry about an artist production pipeline), the 255 icons at their disposal posed limitations. “Every character has been used pretty much, and a lot of them are duplicated,” Tarn says. “If you can tell a goblin wrestler from a goose from a mountain goat, you are doing it by context or by using the look command, which is cumbersome in the text version.” If you’re confused, don’t worry — I was, too. “Those are all white G’s,” Tarn clarifies.

The new and old versions of Dwarf Fortress.
Image: Kitfox Games and Image: Kitfox Games

Now, a mountain goat is a pixel art version of just that and a goblin wrestler is, well, a goblin wrestler (who, befitting the depth of the game’s simulation, is able to have children). The challenge, Tarn says, wasn’t creating a variety of art to match the eye-watering array of variables the game can spit out (the dwarf was “nailed immediately,” while variations of hair and, just as importantly, beards came together naturally over time). Rather, it was in representing the game’s subterranean space. “The challenge was, how do you display this 3D environment when you’re doing 2D slices?” he says. The example Tarn provides is for ramps. A point of confusion in the original version, ramps required an upward triangle being placed next to a wall and the space above the ramp being free. “There’s four tiles that have to come together to make the perfect ramp,” he says. “Now, we have a giant ramp tile set that shows hills pointing in different directions. It works but it took a long time to land on that.”

“They are motivated by the craft, the potential, and the dream of making something new.”

With Tarn and Zach not wishing to handle the bureaucracy of an actual game studio, part of the publishing deal involved Kitfox recruiting the necessary artists and composers, many of whom were active participants within the Dwarf Fortress community. Short admits this was a “nerve-racking” process. “You don’t want to seem like you’re playing favorites,” she says. “It’s weirdly political, right?” Barring one unfortunate incident involving plagiarized work (which resulted in over 10,000 sprites being scrapped), working with such modders has otherwise been a hugely positive experience. “They’re very highly technically competent. They tend to be very collaborative and very communicative,” Short continues. “And yet, they’re not motivated by money. They are motivated by the craft, the potential, and the dream of making something new.”

You could describe Tarn and Zach in precisely the same terms, two developers who, in the often entrepreneurial arena of indie game development, are as close to punk rockers as it gets. Since 2006, Dwarf Fortress has been a free game, the pair’s livelihood sustained only by donations made from a page tucked away in a corner of their website and then via Patreon. Prior to signing with Kitfox, they were DIY perhaps to a fault, the money from such donations enough to live on (ranging anywhere between $3,400 to $8,181 per month, according to this Vice article) but little more. Then, a few years ago, Zach contracted skin cancer, having to dip into personal savings to cover what his health insurance didn’t. The Steam version, then, is a means of providing Tarn and Zach, 44 and 47, respectively, with a degree of security — funds for a “very rainy day,” as Tarn puts it. “We don’t anticipate any great changes in the future as to how this country is structured,” he says. “[So] we have to figure it out for ourselves, what we’re gonna do, and this [the Steam and Itch version] seems like the best solution for us.”

A screenshot of the new version of Dwarf Fortress.
Image: Kitfox Games

Judging by the 4,072 (and counting) reviews already racked up on the game’s Steam page (a decent if imprecise indication of a game’s sales), the gambit is paying off. Thanks to the liberating effect of the more user-friendly visuals and interface, a new crop of players are already experiencing procedural stories of the kind they have perhaps only heard about on forgotten pages of the internet or in the Moria-esque depths of forums. One of these is likely Boatmurdered, an epic successional game involving players from The Something Awful Forums whose troubled fortress was plagued by murderous elephants before ending in a fit of madness. Perhaps your story will be less hilariously bombastic, special because of one little dwarf who captured your heart. Perhaps this dwarf will be immortalized as a work of art by the friends and family who outlived them.

“We have a difficult decision between economy and boats.”

Death may be an inescapable fact of both life and Dwarf Fortress’ simulacrum but, as Tarn makes clear, the Steam version doesn’t signal anything close to an end. New features will continue apace, just as they have for the past 16 years. Indeed, with a single breath, Tarn rattles off a decade-spanning to-do list, ending with what sounds like both a maddening philosophical quandary and a nightmare of planning. “We have a difficult decision between economy and boats,” he says. “Boats are very important to make the economy work. Economy is very important for boats to have a reason to be there. Do you do it all at once?” 

Such a question is indicative of a game that Tarn likens to a balloon whose surface area only increases as you blow it up. “If you add something to the game, it interacts with almost every other system, and you can’t put all those interactions in, so you save some and call it the next development arc. We’ve got plans that last 15, 20 years, and there’ll just be more after that,” Tarn says. “That’s something you think about as well. Do you want the project to continue? Do you want to pass it on to somebody? Do you want to pass it on to everybody? We haven’t made decisions there about how or what we’re going to do with it. I mean, we’re not really the type of people that would just kind of squirrel it away and throw it in a vault somewhere. We’ll see what happens, but we’ve still got work to do.”