Neo: Is that…
Cypher: The Matrix? Yeah.
Neo: Do you always look at it encoded?
Cypher: Well you have to. The image translators work for the construct program. But there’s way too much information to decode the Matrix. You get used to it. I…I don’t even see the code. All I see is blonde, brunette, red-head. Hey, you uh… want a drink?
In the ‘three UK prime ministers’ since my last Split Screen article, the gaming marketplace continues to deal in remasters, reboots, remakes and repeats. So let’s pick up that old brand familiarity, shine it up real nice and sell that sucker again. Want to resell a game that was a copy cat from the get-go? Here’s your re-engineered Dead Space. Want to sell that recent release again? Here’s your faster-to-load Last of Us. Never want to stop selling the same game? Well, Grand Theft Auto V enters its 10th year of development, now hijacking and driving itself into its third generation of console.
Meanwhile, a reclusive king emerges from deep within the mountains. A legendary beast unto its own. Dwarf Fortress surpasses all others entering its 17th year of development with this new Premium Edition release, resplendent as it is with all the bleeding edge hallmarks of a 2022 videogame including a graphical tile set, mouse & keyboard support, a tutorial, and a user interface. Why hotwire ray tracing into an ageing game engine when one can dazzle and delight simply by using the arrow keys to navigate menus instead of the ‘ukhm’ keys?
This isn’t a remaster, no. Nor is it the “full release” – the game sits at v0.50.07 and continues to be freely available in its infamous ASCI-based Classic mode. This is something more impressive. This is the unlocking and pushing open of the cryptic stone doors that prevented me from getting into Dwarf Fortress. The veil of code is lifted from my eyes and, yes, I can see a blonde dwarf, brunette elf and red-headed forgotten beast from the abyss.
Do you always look at it encoded?
Dwarf Fortress: Premium Edition is an unbridled success. For the Tarn brothers, it’s a six-figure financial success and they more than deserve to reap the rewards of their master craft worka six-figure financial success and they more than deserve to reap the rewards of their master craft work. For me, it’s the success of being able to cross the starting line.
My prior attempts at playing the game all failed. The community motto of Dwarf Fortress is “losing is fun” because most forts succumb to failure as the many interconnected systems eventually give rise to some game-ending scenario. Maybe it’s a lack of food, or some forgotten beast decimating the army. Or an attempt to create an aqueduct floods the whole fort. Or the game grinds to sub-PowerPoint speeds as even modern CPUs strain under the task of tracking the game’s shenanigans.
But you see, I didn’t even make it to “losing”. Even with the support of community starter kits like LazyNewb pack and beginner-friendly tutorials, I could not make it more than an hour into my fortress before I wanted to dig and bury my own head in the dirt. What is the difference between an ‘up stairs’, ‘down stairs’, and ‘up/down stairs’? Why are the options to dig under a menu called ‘designations’? It wasn’t the ASCI visuals that bamboozled me. It was the keyboard-only input and unintuitive menus that made me feel like I’d been dropped into the middle of a B&Q megastore after an earthquake had toppled every shelf and jumbled every aisle: I know I’m supposed to build something with all this but even if I get the right tool in my hand, where do I even start?
What a difference a mouse makes! The Premium Edition has something that can legally be called a user interface. It’s still quirky – but the underlying game systems are quirky. This sounds like feint praise, and maybe it is, but Dwarf Fortress: Premium Edition is at the level of Microsoft Word: Loads of menus, submenus and buttons with questionable icons, but I can generally find what I’m looking for in the place it should probably be.
The image translators work for the construct program. But there’s way too much information to decode the Matrix.
Deep in my Dropbox, I found an abandoned folder from 2018 of my attempt to play what is now referred to as Dwarf Fortress: Classic Edition. This time I tried to engage with the story-telling perspective of Dwarf Fortress by generating a world and using the Legends mode to explore the history of its geography and people.
I was floored by the detail. Dwarf Fortress is often described as a fantasy world simulator, and simulate a world it does indeed.
The whole thing is just bonkers. Procedurally generated with a splash of random noise here and there? Sure. But to say it is random and disconnected? Nah. I’ve come across some shallow elements of the pool. For example, many nobles in my fort ask for weapon and armour racks in their rooms but they then didn’t hang any weapons or armour on them. I spent some time fumbling in menus before finding out it is a known and documented bug from thirteen years ago. And should it ever be fixed, another connective piece of tissue latches in place and more of Dwarf Fortress comes to life.
You get used to it.
Yes, the basic tutorials in the Premium Edition introduce many of the systems at play, and the guided tutorial for your first embark held my hand as I started my fortress of Rainedroof. But praise be to Armok for Google. Read my Google searches and you see another historical account of my time establishing Rainedroof through a different lens.
A tour of the fort Rainedroof
Morpheus: This is a sparring program, similar to the programmed reality of the Matrix. It has the same basic rules, rules like gravity. What you must learn is that these rules are no different that the rules of a computer system. Some of them can be bent. Others can be broken. Understand? Then hit me. If you can…. Good. Adaptation, improvisation. But your weakness is not your technique.
In the twenty hours of gameplay since this video, I’ve learned that I failed to equip my dwarves with a uniform. Turns out a uniform isn’t only their clothes but also their weapons and shields. So my hastily thrown together militia squads could only train as wrestlers. Picture that: those Goblins with their metal armour, shields, and swords were chased off by a dozen bare-knuckle boxers swinging hard for their homeland.
See? Dwarf Fortress makes story telling easy if you know where to look.
You get used to it. I…I don’t even see the code.
I’m hooked. Finally, I’m playing Dwarf Fortress and loving it. It’s scratching that classic Rollercoaster Tycoon itch with its charming visuals and the sense of achievement that comes from building something from small to large and watching it all run. In coming to grips with a seemingly impossible challenge, this must be what it feels like conquering Dark Souls for the first time or surviving a job promotion long enough to unpack your bags, set up fort and rule over the people without some self-inflicted calamity knocking you out in a matter of days.
Cypher: You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.
Agent Smith: Then we have a deal?
We have a deal.