There are countless games that I could have chosen for this. Sonic 2 with its perfect platforming – a game I know so well that I can literally finish the first level in 44 seconds, blindfolded and using my feet (I’ve been lucky enough to have the chance to do this in front of a live audience, as well as doing it blindfolded on TV. My life is weird) – or the jaw-dropping painted world of Okami, where your brush-god wolf avatar divides her holy canine time between fighting Armageddon and digging for turnips in somebody’s garden. Videogames have helped shape my life, have allowed me to explore worlds so vast and different and extraordinary that my imagination has been forever altered by the stories they held.
I’m going to write about none of those games. I’m going to write about a game I’ve barely played. A game that doesn’t seem to want to be played. A game that, every time I’ve sat down to enjoy it, has chewed me up and spat me out with the cruel disdain of an arts critic demolishing a child’s finger-painting.
I’m going to write about Dwarf Fortress.
For those of you well-rounded enough to have never dabbled in the endless pit of suffering known as Dwarf Fortress, I shall explain. Superficially, it’s a Dwarven stronghold simulator. Sim-City for Gimli and all his buddies. A chance for every gamer out there to fulfil their fantasies of burrowing deep into a mountain and just having a fine old time amongst the rocks.
Sounds good. Sounds exciting. Sounds like a game that’s fun to play.
Dwarf Fortress is an ASCII hellscape. Every character, tile and object in the game world is represented by an ASCII symbol, a nightmare made more complex by endless variant colours. There’s no mouse input, so every movement made and order given has to be done by moving the cursor with your keyboard. It’s not a game. It’s a back-end operating system of a long-defunct nuclear cache.
What’s worse is that it’s hard as nails.
The mantra of the seasoned DF veteran is “Losing is fun”. Once you’ve managed to learn the hilariously complex hieroglyphics and grammar required to actually play the rotten thing, the game actively goes out of its way to ruin your day. Cave-ins, rampaging elephants and seemingly arbitrary Dwarven mania can flood an entire stronghold with magma before you’ve even had a chance to say “Oh. I get it now”. Reading the reports from people who have been playing for a while is like reading letters from the trenches. A blank-eyed horror of the cruelty endured.
In spite of all this, I find it fascinating. Dwarf Fortress is beautiful in the way that giant squid are beautiful. The way that space is beautiful. The way that the vast, inscrutable universe is beautiful in all its unfathomable complexity.
The designer - oh yeah, it’s only designed by one guy - has been building on this game for years and years. He’s added complexity and scope of the kind that would make AAA titles twitch and shudder in fear. In spite of its ludicrously simple graphics, it can reduce even the mightiest PC to a stuttering wreck simply by the amount of stuff that’s going on behind the scenes. All Dwarves have moods, wishes, desires, every animal has its own thing going on, and every passing season brings new history and lore written deep into the world.
For me, Dwarf Fortress is more than a game; it’s a throwback to the time when games were made by obsessive fans, hidden networks of coders hunched tapping over their keyboards, mailing out their latest cassette to a small group of dedicated fans. It shows that endless joy can spring from one man’s obsession, and that games don’t have to feature Sgt. Shoot Gunstorm and the Bullet Brigade in order to transport players to somewhere magical.
I’ll leave you now with a note of hope. Possibly of despair. I’ve tried to break into the world of Dwarf Fortress three times now. Each time I’ve made a little more headway, but each time I’ve been repelled. However, much like a cruel-fingered goblin scaling the walls of a Dwarven keep, I intend to keep trying. I know deep down that one day in the far future I will lock myself in my room, abandoning my life and responsibilities, and I shall become the Dwarven lord I’ve always longed to be.
At the very least, I’ll grow an incredible beard in the attempt.