Sunday, April 13, 2008

Dwarf Fortress

I loved "The Sims." I loved "Zangband." I also loved "Sim City" and "Alpha Centauri." I have a thing about games that let me build and micro-manage a situation, especially on a microscopic level.

But rarely does a game possess me so entirely that I can literally spend an entire weekend (and perhaps more) playing it, dreading even the thought of MAKING DINNER or doing anything else that might take precious minutes away from The Entertainment.

I was reading old friend Ian's blog and one of his first posts was about "Dwarf Fortress," described as the most complicated game of all time. I didn't want to delve into some hackneyed freeware game with a steep learning curve, but the premise was intriguing: you manage a settlement of dwarves as they build and defend their fortress.

So I downloaded it and started playing. Wading through the countless menus and options was daunting. I didn't understand what any of the symbols were supposed to mean. The manual was sparse and unsatisfying. I couldn't get anywhere. So I sadly closed the program and resolved not to play it again...

...until I discovered the Dwarf Fortress Wiki, and in particular the "Your First Fortress" page. I followed the suggestions and I began -- haltingly -- to learn the logic of the game's user interface. Each small step revealed another wealth of possibilities until -- as of yesterday morning -- I became totally hooked.

I've got this handful of dwarves, see? Each one of them has a unique and detailed personality, included quirks and religious leanings, along with a huge set of potential skills.

Then I've got this enormous, fractal-generated world full of realistic geology and overlapping biomes. I've got to dig this huge fortress, find a place to stockpile my stones and food and a place for my dwarves to throw their garbage. I need to cut down trees so I can make beds, I have to build their dining halls and kitchens, I have to organize them into military squads.

But dwarves don't like to be outside, so I need to get them to plant crops underground. Since they can't sow seeds into chert (one of the dozens of types of stone you're liable to encounter, each with its own uses), I need to dig channels from a far-off river, diverting the water so that it creates an underground lake under my mountain. Then I need to build floodgates and attach them to gears and levers, which my dwarves can pull in order to selectively irrigate my underground chambers. Then the dwarves plant the crops, harvest them months later, eat them or brew them into alcohol, save the seeds, weave some of them into fiber which can then be made into clothing, sewn with images, dyed, made into ropes which are attached to buckets and blocks to create wells...

...and your wood furnace can be used to make ashes, which can be mixed with water to create potash...or turned into lye and made into soap in the alchemist's workshop...but to build that workshop you need to create glassware, which means collecting sand and heating it in a glassworks...and on and on and on.

Meanwhile the dwarves are interacting with each other. Some of them fall in love and have children, who gradually grow to have lives of their own. They sit and chat, they wrestle, they play with the dogs, they go out to chase the wildlife or fish by the water. They grieve for lost friends, especially when those friends drowned in the water supply and started belching up great clouds of pink, corrupting miasma.

This description doesn't even begin to scratch the surface. I've been playing constantly for three days and I STILL don't really know what I'm doing.

My advice? DON'T PLAY IT. You will either hate it or you'll be unable to stop, so either way you lose.


Hilda said...

I totally understand the whole getting lost in a computer game. This very weekend I have spent most of both days playing World of Warcraft - completely addictive!

Muffy St. Bernard said...

How long has this obsession lasted?

I've been doing this for just over a week, and it STILL pains me to do things that don't involve the game (such as eat or sleep).