The latest PC Gamer UK (June issue), had a rather large feature on free games. On the top of one of the pages a stark screen shot greeted me, and I was suddenly reminded of the existence of Dwarf Fortress. I had never encountered the game in any form, and had only gained by osmosis a vague sussurus of impressions. It was hard, it was deep, it was ugly. But it was also on the disk, and I had all of Sunday afternoon stretching out before me.
So, with some considerable trepidation, I loaded up Dwarf Fortress. This is what happened:
I watch in fascination as the game renders an entire world from scratch. Budding mountain ranges spring into life. Rivers and lakes appear, etching out valleys as they flow from newborn mountain peaks. Real water dynamics and aeons of time shape the terrain, creating a balanced and realistic world. Occasionally the program discards whole half created but imperfect lands, and it starts again, evolving a new planet to better match its mysterious expectations. Ten minutes and 17 worlds later, everything is set. I am ready to go, so I press enter and wince as a stark three-column stream of text and lurid punctuation barges its way into my eyeballs, shimmying up my optic nerves to kick me repeatedly in the frontal cortex. Soon I recover, and begin to see how the scattered array of colons and plus signs represent terrain. The world coheres before me.
My dwarves, indicated by small bearded blobs, dash about the place, apparently doing things to the commas and speech marks that surround my hashed out yellow rectangle, which the game optimistically labels a wagon. A list of things that I can apparently do are laid out in the central column. There is a shortcut to pretty much every key on the keyboard. Foolish FPS instincts find me trying to navigate with the wasd keys. It takes me several minutes to find my way out of the menus I accidentally open.
A few minutes later, and Fisherdwarf Cog Sholidkol runs into difficulty.
Damn, is the werewolf that small grey letter ‘c’ that’s been dashing around the place so exuberantly? It’s impossible to say. All I know is a few minutes later that heartless red text informs me that Cog Sholidkol has bled to death. Disaster! The ability to ‘cancel fish’ was presumably a necessary one.
Another few minutes pass. I mistakenly break down the dwarves’ only shelter, the wagon, into a pile of logs, and accidentally conscript all of my remaining dwarfs into a makeshift army. I am bad at this game. On the positive side of things, I have found out how to access each dwarf’s personal profile, and even more importantly, discovered the command that enables me to change their name and title. Moments later and I look with pride upon the new leader of my band of cold and hungry adventurers. Enter Chief Shinkicker Frizbane McHenry Drunkard. It’s a she.
It should be pointed out that the game decides on the Dwarf’s personality by itself, providing an in depth character description of each member of the party, including their current mood, likes, dislikes and religious beliefs. I favour Frizbane because of her casual approach to Idor the Rites of Zeal, and for the fact that she doesn’t have a severe aversion to inclement weather. Exposure is something my Dwarves are going to have to learn to live with under my rule. Like all of my party, Frizbane is an alcoholic, possibly because booze is the best way to stay warm when your wagon has been dismantled by an incompetent idiot.
It is in these character descriptions that I find that Cog’s gory demise is having more than economic effects on my party. Cog was a very close friend to the Jeweller, who is now extremely distressed because, as the game informs me, he has witnessed the death of a dear friend, and then also witnessed said friend’s body slowly decay on the doorstep of his home, because I have no idea how to bury dead dwarfs and cannot be arsed to find the menu that will instruct someone to do it for me.
For the first time, though, I taste the game’s potential. Those little beardy fellas begin to mean something to me. I am starting to actually like the little blobs scampering around (or in the case of Cog, staying very, very still). There’s story there, they have relationships, fairly warped and distressing ones given the circumstances, but relationships nevertheless. This alone is enough to tempt me back in
Having said that, there is a reason that I have called this post ‘Ludo vs Dwarf Fortress’. The graphical interface is utterly hideous, and a game has never tried so hard to alienate me with obscure menu navigation and an interface based on nonsensical keyboard shortcuts that change from screen to screen. There are so many processes involved that I have found it impossible to even build a bed, let alone construct a place for my Dwarves to live, and the in game help is pretty much useless.
However, there is a wiki in existence, and I am told there are graphical overlays that could make the experience all the more paletable. All I can say for sure is that this won’t be the last post on Dwarf Fortress, and I can’t shake the nagging feeling that I may have stumbled onto something great. Grab it here if you fancy a go yourself, if you figure out what’s going on, let me know.