Dwarf Fortress or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Losing a Whole Lot


Savannah investigates why watching weeks of hard work in Dwarf Fortress go down the drain can actually be fun.

Dwarf Fortress has been described in many ways, most of them revolving around micromanaging a group of alcoholics who are rather prone to insanity and, despite the first two, serve as magnificent builders and tinkers.

The game has a sizable learning curve, and consequent to this learning curve, your dwarves will die. A lot. Even when you’ve gotten comfortably good at the game, you’ll probably still be dying, assuming you’re playing ambitiously. The game’s unofficial slogan, “Losing is fun,” is still a hard pill to swallow at first, even though it’s a widely known “feature” of the game.

The game has a sizable learning curve, and consequent to this learning curve, your dwarves will die. A lot.

For my first play-through, I carefully read through many tutorials, hoping to forestall my sure to be untimely and inevitable doom. My fortress wasn’t the most attractive thing.

Really rudimentary, at best. But it had food, it had shelter, and most importantly, it had a booming booze business. The intrepid few who chose to pioneer my fortress weren’t living off the fat of the land by any means, but they had food, drink, and friends, and their home was on its way to becoming a respectable subterranean hamlet by any standard.

There was one thing they didn’t have, tragically. The main entrance of many a fortress is built so as to enable traders to enter the fort and trade with your people. Trade is oftentimes essential to survival, so it’s something always considered. Humans, elves, and other dwarves all have things to trade.

Unfortunately, goblins also like to trade. In exchange for your children, they give brutal violence and serve as a cruel reminder that a fortress without an infirmary, soldiers, and a drawbridge to keep the monsters out is doomed to fail.

Thanks to the attention to detail built into the engine, I got to learn about every injury my dwarves suffered in the brief and brutal campaign against them.

AW-SIIICK

Pretty much my reaction to the after action reports.

And so I started over, after taking a lengthy hiatus. When you pour your heart and soul into a game, picking yourself back up after substantial loss can be hard.

When you pour your heart and soul into a game, picking yourself back up after substantial loss can be hard.

Pictured at the top is my second fort, Twilightgems. I’d learned from my mistakes and was ready for the big leagues. Magma everything. Magma everywhere.

So, long story short, magma kills everything and it didn’t occur to me that lava-falls are an obscenely bad decorating choice. Things like this happened a few times before I managed to get a better hang of the game. And so I started over, again, each time. As it turns out, losing gets easier.

Permadeath is a feature I love and hate in video games. There is little more exhilarating in a game than surviving by the skin of your teeth knowing that death would full and well ruin your entire play-through.

There is also little more frustrating than watching whatever serves as a game over screen taunting your save file giving its last breath. And in Dwarf Fortress, it definitely takes some getting used to.

In order to get good at it, you end up putting in hours and hours of gameplay just to likely lose a lot. When I first played, I hated it. Died and didn’t touch it for months. I was the same way with Dark Souls.

Eventually, though, I learned to enjoy the high risk gameplay. It is actually rather rewarding to learn from your mistakes and see that learning pay off. And when something new happens, you learn some more and start again.

You died.

At least Dwarf Fortress doesn’t gloat about it.

With games that have free-saving and checkpoints, any death can be quickly revenged by summarily killing the person or creature or what have you that killed you.

You don’t get that chance with Dwarf Fortress. Instead, you get your revenge by living well the next time around. It’s not as immediately gratifying, but finding yourself in a similar situation as you did before, except armed to the teeth with traps and drowning chambers and magma cannons, is so much more gratifying than a simple reload ever could be.

You don’t get that chance [to quickly revenge your death] with Dwarf Fortress. Instead, you get your revenge by living well the next time around.

Dying can suck, but it doesn’t have to. As you get better and better, you can engage in more and more ridiculous hijinks and schemes.

I don’t want to spoil some of the more fun things that have been done, but one only has to read about the famous dwarven expedition Boatmurdered to see the appeal in getting so good as to be able to flood the world with liquid hot magma.

If you play, you will die a lot, and that’s okay. To quote the Operative from Serenity, “This is a good death. There is no shame in this, a man’s death, a man who has done fine works.” And considering that the only limit to what you can do is your imagination, the works you make may be very fine indeed.

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About Savannah Winter

Contributor for Gamemoir.com, professional internet surfer, and shippaholic. Seriously, don't ask me about my favorite ships unless you want me to eat up half your day gushing about them.

There are 4 comments

  1. Nick Verboon

    “Magma everything. Magma everywhere.”

    I think you just distilled the essence of fantasy cool, right there. This game sounds fantastic. I need to get with it one of these days.

    1. Savannah Winter

      Lol, it really can be. One time a guard dog died in a raid and I decided to memorialize him with a trap tunnel that enemy sieges filtered into while attempting to enter my fortress. The entrance and exit would seal and a statue of the dog at the end of the hallway would spew magma out of its mouth and flood the room with post-mortem vengeance. I never finished due to construction issues, namely a siege that breached before I’d finished, but it would have been the stuff of legend.

      I had another map that was pretty much a thriving necropolis of sorts. The game has biomes that operate on two axes, good to evil and wild to calm. I was in an evil calm area, I think, but the quirk of this area was that the dead never stayed that way long. Another had elf blood rain from the skies. Anywho, the necropolis had hundreds of memorials for the poor souls in the above world who died trying to join my civilization.

      Also for the poor souls in the fortress who went mad and died. I had elaborate trap rooms and arenas for the walking dead to fight and/or truly die in. Really macabre. Really cool. Especially since the mayor ended up being a vampire who lived on the surface and walked among the dead salvaging the cargo of the unfortunate above-grounders.

      1. Nick Verboon

        Okay, that was probably the greatest combination of words I’ve ever read on the internet.I want to party in your fortress, Savannah. I don’t understand how all of that stuff is even possible to depict with those graphics, but clearly this game needs to be a part of my life.

      2. Savannah Winter

        Lol, it has a very in depth look function and everything operates on layers, so a dog statue would be several levels high and would only look really look like a dog if run through one of the many 3D rendering programs people have developed for it.

        The animal taming system is something else I really love. You can do this with practically anything, all the way up to dragons. And if you get lucky enough to trap a male and a female, baby dragons. Replace your army with dragons.

        Note: Dragonfire will annihilate most anything it comes into contact with. As such, dragons are not meant for urban and close quarters combat, or for mixed unit tactics.

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