Arts and Entertainment

Dwarf Fortress and Its Influence on Gaming

What is Dwarf Fortress, and how did it spark the sandbox genre?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Andrey Sokolov

Over the past 20 years, countless groundbreaking events have transpired across the gaming world. From the decline of single-player experiences to the rise of streaming, the industry has found itself transformed under the influence of time. One thing that has remained constant, however, is the passion of two brothers working together to create the most complex simulation in the history of interactive entertainment.

“Dwarf Fortress,” the brainchild of Tarn and Zach Adams, has rocked the gaming sphere ever since the beginning of its development in 2002. Officially titled “Slaves to Armok: God of Blood Chapter II,” the initial idea behind the game was to create a procedurally generated world in which the player would find themselves tasked with taking care of a group of dwarf colonists as they embark on creating a new fortress, while also tending to the dwarves’ needs and various external threats.

Though the pair had previously tried developing an advanced game world in “Slaves to Armok,” their lack of experience combined with intense ambition caused Tarn, the main programmer of the duo, to take a break from working with Armok. On his own, Tarn began the development of various smaller-scale projects, one of which would eventually become “Dwarf Fortress.” Initially believing the development of the game would take two months, Tarn would continue to develop the game until he felt that it was truly complete, something that he has been unable to achieve since its initial 2006 release.

The objectives of “Dwarf Fortress” are essentially just your standard, dwarf-centric videogame fare. At the start of each playthrough, the player’s main objective is to secure basic resources such as food, water, and alcohol, either through farming or trading. As the player progresses through the in-game years, the gameplay loop shifts from the juggling of basic resources to the defense of the fortress from various hazardous events. These events include some immediate dangers, such as raids, and more long-term dangers, such as vampire infiltrations and fortress dwarves going berserk for a variety of reasons. While it’s initially easy to tackle all the dangers that the game throws at the player, in the end, all fortresses fall. But players shouldn’t feel bad if their sanctuary crumbles. The community around DF recognizes that no fortress is perfect, which is why the slogan, “Losing is fun!” has been adopted by the player base as a light-hearted way of letting go when they eventually fail.

Construction management simulators existed long before “Dwarf Fortress,” with titles such as Intellivision’s “Utopia” (1982) and Maxis’s “SimCity” (1989) attempting to simplify and gamify the concepts of ruling over a group of people. What separates “Dwarf Fortress” from older titles is the fact that the Adams brothers’ determination to ensure that all aspects of the game were as complex as they are in real life. From the big-picture systems such as seasons and flow of time to the in-depth systems of combat and economy, “Dwarf Fortress” outshines its competition by the amount of thought that is put into every facet of Dwarf dwelling culture.

The downside of the emphasis on attention to detail is that throughout development, Tarn completely overlooked one of the most important game design principles: intuitiveness. To start off, “Dwarf Fortress” does not have graphics that most casual players are used to. Instead, the game uses ASCII characters to represent everything in the game world. Additionally, while DF gives its players almost unlimited freedom in terms of what they can do, it never teaches the player how to use anything. Just choosing the starting location of the player’s fortress will likely force new players to visit DF’s external wiki. “Dwarf Fortress” is difficult to learn and almost impossible to master because Adams decided to focus more on the absolute freedom given to the player, rather than the graphical aspect of the game. Thankfully, the problem of initial difficulty was addressed by Tarn recently. In 2019, the brothers decided to port the game on Steam, fixing issues with graphics and unintuitive UI in the process.

The amount of freedom “Dwarf Fortress” gives to the player largely redefined the sandbox genre. Tarn’s attention to detail made DF gain a cult following, along with recognition across the entire gaming industry. Nowadays its core ideas of resource gathering and players directly altering the game world can be seen in almost all genres, from battle royales like “Fortnite” to sandbox games like “Minecraft.” In fact, “Dwarf Fortress” was the game that inspired Markus Persson (Notch) to start developing the concept that would later become the voxel-based masterpiece. “Dwarf Fortress” has had so much influence on the gaming sphere that in November 2012, it was included as one of the 14 games acquired by the Museum of Modern Arts for its history of video-gaming collection.

Despite its almost 19 years of development, Dwarf Fortress is likely ages away from completion. Tarn estimates it to be around 44 percent complete, with features such as magic and creation myths yet to be added. With such a long way to go, DF still manages to blow its competition out of the water with the number of features it already possesses. If you are interested in experiencing the grandfather of all sandbox games, “Dwarf Fortress” is free to download at Bay12Games’s website. Just remember that every fortress fails eventually, and losing is fun!