Dwarf Fortress as Spectator Sport
When the Museum of Modern Art announced it was going to be adding 14 videogames to its collection, I was startled to find Dwarf Fortress on that list. This is not because I don’t like Dwarf Fortress, or think it’s not worthy of cultural preservation, but rather because I have no idea how a museum could ever go about exhibiting Dwarf Fortress to the public. After some thought, I realized that while I don’t know exactly how they are going to exhibit it, exhibition seems to be a very appropriate place for Dwarf Fortress, as my relationship with the game consists almost entirely of watching it from the outside.
While exhibiting any kind of videogame in a museum will likely pose a challenge (one I’m sure the professionals at MoMA will be equal to), Dwarf Fortress might be the least museum-friendly game I can think of. Its mechanics are impossibly complex, games take hours upon hours to play, and even trying to correctly read the screen of Dwarf Fortress is a bit like trying to read the source code of the Matrix: to the untrained eye, it looks like gibberish, garbage characters thrown together apparently at random.
I’ve been paying attention to Dwarf Fortress for about three years now, and I still have to squint to read this screen. When I do play the game, I use a graphics tileset, a mod which replaces the ASCII characters with rudimentary sprites. Hardcore purists will probably scoff at this, but the game is hard enough to understand even with this crutch.
Dwarf Fortress is a very weird game. The interface is deliberately obtuse – without a guide handy it is very hard to know how to issue even the simplest orders. The game creates an entire world for you to play in, modeled all the way down to the level of the hearts and livers of the vicious wildlife, with procedurally generated history and politics, most of which you will never need or want to interact with. The game requires you to embrace a sort of foolhardy philosophy of play (Losing is fun!), as conservative play is dreadfully safe and, therefore, dull. Any goals are self-set — the game has no end condition other than failure. It is the world’s most elaborate set of tinkertoys.
MoMA is going to have a rough time making Dwarf Fortress comprehensible to spectators in the museum. They are, of course, aware of the difficulty:
But difficulty remains. Yet the more I think of the game’s selection, the more I approve of it. While there are other games which might be more obviously comprehensible in a museum setting, there are very few games which are quite as geared towards being enjoyed from a position outside the player’s chair.
Dwarf Fortress is one of my favorite games. I love reading about it. I love talking about it. I love reading Let’s Plays and listening to stories generated by that magical point where the player’s choices and self-selected objectives meet the uncompromising nature of the game’s rules. I love the weird AI, the patently absurd level of detail, the bizarre glitches which render trout incredibly dangerous.
I do not, however, love actually playing the game. It makes me want to pull out my teeth. I do not regret having played it – I expect you have to play it at least a little in order to understand what other people are talking about – but I do not imagine I will ever play it again. I do keep it fully updated, just in case, but haven’t started a fortress in years.
I am terrible at setting my own goals in games. Give me a large sandbox to play in without any direction and I become paralyzed and self-conscious. I have never been able to play Minecraft for more than ten minutes. For this reason, I’ve never hated linear games — the much-reviled corridor shooter doesn’t inherently bother me. I like always knowing what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m sure a therapist could make much of this trait.
I am also incredibly conservative in strategy games. I’m often beaten in RTSs due to my obsession with losing the smallest number of units possible. When I win in Starcraft, it’s through one single overwhelming attack with extremely careful micromanagement (I don’t win in Starcraft very often against very good players). In these games I either lose, or win with a 10:1 killed/lost ratio. I play Civilization as an imperialist, warmongering menace, but only attack if I’m at least one tech level above my target and move with methodical slowness so as to lose the minimum number of soldiers. This innate conservatism carries over into other genres, as well: I’m good at Amnesia: The Dark Descent, which is all about hiding in corners and memorizing escape routes, and terrible at Max Payne 3, which is all about jumping out of windows and shooting seventeen people before you hit the ground.
This conservatism, when combined with the aforementioned paralyzation when faced with an open world, makes the actual act of playing Dwarf Fortress very similar to torture. There is no game without risky, self-selected goals. Conservative play is boring and uneventful, eventually devolving into a sort of construction site foreman simulator with obdurate workers and no pay. The mantra “losing is fun!” is not just a way to keep up the spirits of those players whose dwarves have fallen to rampaging elephant hordes or accidental magma floods, it’s a statement of identity. Basic logic: losing = fun, fun = losing. In Dwarf Fortress, you play to lose. I don’t know how to do that. By rights, I should not enjoy this game.
Everything about playing Dwarf Fortress is alien to how and why I play games, but everything in the game is engineered to make me want to read about it. The game’s complex mechanics and player-generated goals combine to create some wonderful stories and strategies: the rise and fiery fall of Boatmurdered, or what happened to the dwarves of Bronzemurder when they dug too greedily and too deep. Or how about a (now-fixed) exploit wherein anything underneath a drawbridge when it closes is utterly annihilated, whether dwarf, garbage, or horrible monster from the bowels of the earth. Players called this the “Dwarven Atom Smasher,” and used it for everything from a garbage disposal to a weapon of war to a technique for assassinating recalcitrant nobles. There are many such assassination methods, as nobles are worse than useless, but you can’t actually order one dwarf to kill another. So you build them fancy quarters which periodically fill with water, drowning anything inside, or perhaps just oubliette them deep beneath the earth and listen to them starve. Dwarves which spend too much time underground develop an aversion to the sun, and will spontaneously vomit if forced to go aboveground. At one point, Boatmurdered suffered a vicious attack because it couldn’t close its main gate since a monarch butterfly had spontaneously gotten jammed in the mechanism. Sufficiently motivated players can literally burrow down in the caverns of hell.
The game is designed to produce memorable and hilarious situations, but the catalyst for this reaction is a certain amount of patience and dedication which I seem to lack. You can make stories with Dwarf Fortress that are more interesting than most feature films, but only if you have spent an inordinate amount of time learning the game, and know how to take the right kind of risks.
In this way, reading about a neat game of Dwarf Fortress feels very similar to looking at a completed sculpture – you know someone started with just a block of marble, and applied skill and talent and vision and just absurd amounts of work until he or she produced something beautiful. The actual mechanics and rules of Dwarf Fortress become a platform on which art is made in addition to being art themselves. Dwarf Fortress becomes a medium as well as a work of art.
Most games are like this to some extent, and there are some obvious examples of games which are particularly so: Minecraft, Civilization, Far Cry 2&3. But something in the inherent difficulty of playing Dwarf Fortress holds my attention more than similar stories in these other games. Perhaps there is no accounting for taste, but it seems to me that Dwarf Fortress isn’t just sculpture, it’s sculpture performed with a toothbrush and one hand tied beyond your back. Less facetiously, it’s not just poetry, it’s a strict Petrachan sonnet.
Does the rigidity of the form make Dwarf Fortress games better art or better stories? Probably not, any more than Mozart’s strict sonata-allegro symphonies are necessarily better than Louis Armstrong’s trumpet solos. But it’s appealing to watch someone struggle with tremendously restrictive rules and make something beautiful out of them, and that’s what grabs me. I enjoy my friends’ water-cooler stories from Far Cry 3, but I don’t hunt them out on the Internet. I’d rather just play the game and make my own. But I can’t (or won’t) make my own Dwarf Fortress stories.
I’ll say again that I’m not sure how a museum can exhibit Dwarf Fortress in a way which does it justice. But I hope they can figure it out, because the beauty of this game is something special, something unique, and I want more people to be able to appreciate it. Some games can foster creativity in their players in a way most other media don’t, and any exhibit on videogames will need to acknowledge and celebrate this fact. I can think of no better example than Dwarf Fortress.
 Technically, Dwarf Fortress is actually two games packaged together – Fortress Mode is what I’m talking about, where you build a fortress from scratch and keep it going as long as you can. Fortress Mode is the more popular mode, and is what people usually mean by Dwarf Fortress, but Adventurer Mode is just as absurdly detailed. It’s also a completely different game, more like an old roguelike than Fortress Mode’s Sim City on steroids. I mean, I think. I’ve never actually played Adventurer Mode.