Ode to Armok

By Collin Brown
Tags: gaming, dwarf fortress, review, love letter, other

I would not be the first to say that Dwarf Fortress is a game unlike any other. The depth of its gameplay, the interweaving of complex mechanics, the simple pleasures of watching drunk cats stumble about taverns, having licked a bit too much dwarven beer from their fur—it all builds an unsurpassable world in which you, as a player, may simply dip a toe. You might build the greatest fortress ever known, with a moat of lava around the golden walls, or you may become the most renowned hero, having slain the old beasts of the deep, but you won’t have witnessed half of what the world has to offer: the wanderings of a dwarven hunter through the backwaters, searching for the child kidnapped two years prior by the encroaching goblin horde; or perhaps you missed the elf, taken prisoner in war in her youth, who rose to become queen of the very people who stole her away; the reunion of two children, separated by the destruction of their home by a wandering colossus; the song sung in a tavern by a gathering of weary dwarves as night descends upon the hillocks.

There is a special loneliness to Dwarf Fortress that sets it apart. Even games like the Witcher 3, dense with sudden encounters and interesting characters, cannot hold a candle to the vastness of a world in Dwarf Fortress. Swathes of land exist beyond your sight. Whole civilizations rise and fall beyond the confines of your fortress, each with thousands and thousands of tales of wonder and might and beauty. But even those you do encounter—the human bard who forgets himself and vomits across your tavern floor or the elven diplomat you treat to a dunk in your magma moat—those mark only the surface. Perhaps that bard lost his child to a kidnapping a decade before and this has left him with crippling guilt. The loss of his wife in a recent siege drove him to wander the world, arriving in his sorry state at the gates of your fortress. The elven diplomat has a family tree sprawling across the continent, with more cousins than you can count, and maybe just one of them will bemoan the loss of their distant relative and throw themselves to the fated occupation of beast hunter, dying at the hands of a dragon on a snow-capped peak.

Every choice you make, however trivial, ripples out into the world, and in this way Dwarf Fortress mirrors life in a way that no other game can. Let me give you an example. Your brewing methods might appear to affect only those dwarves within your subterranean hold, but the fact that you brew piss-poor mushroom beer or that you passed on importing the finest whiskey that human caravan had to offer, will have more ramifications than you first foresaw. They’ll drink their piss beer, but over that mug they might begin an argument with their friend over the loudness of the forges and the slop they have to eat every goddamned night—an argument that spirals into a brawl, which in a tragic twist leaves this dwarf with a permanent limp. When the next siege comes, he might find himself with a clamoring horde of goblins closing in. He decides he cannot handle the stress of it all (the piss-beer, most of all) and charges ahead of his squadron, flinging himself upon their spears. And all because of your choice of beer.

Dwarf Fortress, unlike any other game, makes you feel guilt over the deaths of these little ASCII characters. I know, when I unspool someone’s guts onto the floor, that they had a family; they had dreams; they had a meal that they ate, ten years ago, that made them particularly pleased; they were rained on, just two months ago, and they still recall the dribbling of droplets down their beard and grumbling as they stripped out of wet socks. For all that you encounter goblins and elves and dwarves and ettins, these characters playing out their dramas in miniature keyboard characters are more real than the vast majority of digital characters you will encounter in your gaming experience. You wonder how many wars the marauding band of mercenaries who accost you on the road have seen. How many drinks have they shared back in their rickety fort? How many songs have they sung in wayside taverns on the road to battle? So when you are busy parrying their blades and barricading behind a great iron shield, you’ll question—more than in any game you’ll ever play—whether it wouldn’t be right to dash away and leave them to their little lives, however short and cruel. Every bandit you’ve cleaved in two as Geralt of Rivia is little more than a few variables stored in a game object that winks out of existence the moment you leave the area, but these bandits in Dwarf Fortress will live on long after you’ve gone—could live on, if you so decide—and the world will remember, not in hard-coded encounters or twists of a pre-written tale but in the long arcs of history and the little lives therein.

Dwarf Fortress is a game unlike any other. That much is clear. For all that one can bemoan the archaic UI and the lack of those high-definition graphics that have saturated the gaming world as of late, it is impossible to deny that Dwarf Fortress provides an experience that you won’t find even in the best that modern gaming has to offer. And with a new Steam version coming in the near future, providing remedies to the UI and spectacular sprites to replace the old ASCII art, it is a better time than any to pick it up.

Soon you’ll be able to experience this game without the shackles of inscrutable hotkeys and indecipherable characters that have kept so many curious players from sticking with it. Now is the time to dive into worlds innumerable, into worlds that exist far beyond the limits of your sight, into worlds where your choices sway not only the lives of your dwarves but the path of history towards renaissance or ruin.