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[Comments] (3) Mini-Game Roundup: Dwarf Fortress: Sumana never reads my Game Roundups. She thinks they're boring. Okay, fine. But it turns out that if I start talking about a game I played, she thinks that's boring too. Last night I was talking about Dwarf Fortress and she fell asleep (admittedly, this was when we were going to sleep). But this morning when she didn't remember what I'd said last night, I tried to fill her in on the details of my argument, and she refused to listen. Thus, this entry, which is of a genre I'm already accustomed to her skipping.

I'd heard of Dwarf Fortress for a while but never played it because 1) it's a Windows game and 2) I was writing a book. But the book is done and the game runs perfectly under Wine, so I played it yesterday. The other day, Dwarf Fortress came up in a conversation between me and Adam Parrish where I claimed it was a roguelike game. Well, it does have a roguelike game in it, but that's nothing special. What's really interesting is the other game, a real-time strategy game based heavily around emergent properties.

You control a few dwarves trying to make a home for themselves. The dwarves themselves have a lot of autonomy: it's not like Warcraft where you're always telling individual units to move around. But you can give a dwarf a profession, you can show which rocks need to be mined, and once you build a workshop you can give jobs to the workshop. Each dwarf decides which open job to fulfil at the moment.

Each dwarf also has an internal monologue that describes how things have been going for them lately. You can make the dwarves happy by having the society produce booze, nice places for them to sleep and eat, and interesting things to do.

So I go along for a while, making buildings and inventing agriculture and bartering with caravans. The dwarves are perfectly happy in a state of primitive communism, assisted by me, the omniscient game player that reads their thoughts and directs their actions. Every year there are some migrants, so the population grows. And then civilization shows up.

Civilization (in the Huck Finn sense) comes in the forms of Dwarf Fortress's "nobles". These Balins-come-lately think they know better than me and my dwarves how society should be run. They demand better living quarters than the other dwarves, and contribute nothing to society except ridiculous demands and trade restrictions (they also unlock some interface features, which creates a weird metagame element that I could do without, given the shaky state of the existing interface).

This is the point at which I stopped playing. Apparently the nobles go on to create punishments for dwarves who don't meet the quotas. (Snippet from sheriff's internal monologue: "She was worried by the scarcity of cages and chains lately.") Then they create an economy and start charging rent for other peoples' rooms, and really why should I play a game when the people in the game have so much autonomy they can force me to do what they want but not vice versa? You can arrange for the nobles to meet with "accidents", but you just get another noble of the same type in a later year's immigration.

There are also some pretty big interface problems: inconsistent ways of sizing and selecting, as other reviews have pointed out. Other reviews also complained about the extended ASCII interface, but I think it's great. Very old school. However the ASCII art chosen for the workshops doesn't look like a workshop: it just looks like a mess on the ground. This makes it impossible to tell what kind of workshop you put in a certain place without moving the cursor over it.

The creator of DF is also the creator of many other games, including "WWI Medic" and "Liberal Crime Squad". LCS has a Linux version, I played it for a bit and was again impressed by the emergent properties. I was also struck by the BBS-door quality of the juvenile humor and the resemblance to the fun 80s roguelike "Mission: Mainframe".


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