Free to be Weird is a kind of spotlight/written let’s play of small, free, indie games. When most people think small, free, and indie they probably imagine some YouTube fodder making loud sharp noises and calling itself “horror”. We won’t be talking about those. Free to be Weird is going to be about unique ideas from voices that might otherwise get lost in the internet. I can’t guarantee they’ll be any good, but I can guarantee they’ll be interesting.
Preface: The screenshots in this article don’t use the in-game graphics. That’s because the in game graphics looks like this.
Instead I’ll use the graphics pack from the Lazy Newb Pack(yes it’s actually called that and yes it’s almost necessary for a new player to use this).
I wrote in an earlier article about how Demon’s Souls might be the most influential game of the previous console generation. I still hold that to be true… on consoles. On PC this distinction goes to a far stranger and far, far more hardcore game. A game that inspired Minecraft, Terraria and by proxy all the games based on them. If a hardcore indie title isn’t based on Dark Souls, it’s likely based on Dwarf Fortress.
The best way to describe Dwarf Fortress would be that it’s similar to Sim City, if Sim City had the sensibilities of a roguelike from the 1980s. The controls are nearly a keyboard’s worth of hotkeys with only the most minimal (optional) mouse support. The graphics are literally ASCII squiggles on a black background that symbolize hundreds of unique characters(although you can get the game looking bearable by getting it with graphics packs from here). Such a sparse interface is necessary for the game to load a world sized world with milennia of history and eons of geology that seems to all conspire against you.
Also this game is hard. Like, several orders of magnitude harder than any Souls game. The pace is similar to an endless, unwinnable Oregon Trail where the only point is to see how long you can last until every individual you’ve taken care of and bonded with dies of malnutrition, disease and werechameleons(seriously you need a tutorial. This one is pretty comprehensive, but this one is much more watchable and can get you started faster).
Have I scared you off yet? That’s okay. Dwarf Fortress is big, scary and not necessarily worth it for someone who just can’t enjoy this peculiar brand of masochism. There is no shame in not liking this demented game. That being said, if you can handle the raw complexity and bleak, Darwinian nihilism, this game is worth it. So worth it in fact that once you “get” Dwarf Fortress, dozens of disparate titles from Minecraft and Terraria, to Sim City and Civilization just kind of feel lacking in comparison to such a huge and beautifully designed system.
The strange appeal begins at world creation. Like Minecraft it starts by loading all of geologic history in an absurdly huge world (this source claims that a a large map is roughly the size of our moon). It diverges from Minecraft though in two big ways. The first is that geologic history gives way to written history. Depending on your inclination (and patience, seeing how the far edge of history can take up to 45 minutes to load) you can begin at the dawn of history or millennia ahead. You can see whole civilizations rise, conquer and fall to wars, economic collapse or even monsters.
The second and greatest difference is that you can not only choose when to start, but where. The smart idea is to begin on mountainous regions with an abundance of metals but near enough to wood and water, but you’re probably going to get your crew killed horribly no matter what you choose, so you may as well experiment and choose somewhere that looks fun. It’s not necessarily a wrong answer to go to the woods and build your colony on wood alone. Deserts, marshes and tundras have their own pros and cons and going against the grain can be very satisfying.
After customizing the initial seven Dwarven pioneers, which is a complex task in itself, you finally get to play the game proper, which is where the beauty and the horror really sets in. There is so much to do in this game. Dwarf Fortress has more defined city building systems than Sim City, more nuance in it’s politics than the Total War or Civilization combined with a world so pliable it puts Minecraft to shame. The problem with all of this customization is it’s complexity. The interface is a wall of keyboard commands and literally nothing happens directly.
You can’t even directly tell a dwarf to dig a hole. All you can do is map out an area to be dug so then the dwarf most qualified to dig will put the job among his many prerogatives and get to it if he has nothing better to do. It’s both more and less infuriating than it sounds. Many have likened learning Dwarf Fortress to learning coding but I find it’s a bit more like learning the piano. Going in you can bang keys until you find a tune, but that tune is going to be chopsticks. In Dwarf Fortress you can make things happen just by messing around but the tune you’ll inevitably play is “Eaten by animals”. That’s okay though, because losing is fun.
Probably the best run I ever had was waylaid by a single werechameleon. I had setup a formidable militia to take on goblin armies with an impressive fortress that stuck out of the ground just high enough to shoot the bastards from my thick, safe walls. When a werechameleon appeared from the west; a pathetic cursed human to be pitied as much as feared, I was pleased to have a break in the monotony. I did all the right protocols, got everybody to a safe spot… all except for one stupid, Leroy Jenkinsesque bastard. This guy, who we’ll call Hero, just grabbed the nearest pickaxe and went to town on the beast. It was a long, epic fight and gobs of blood were spilled on both sides but, against all odds, the Hero won the day.
Naturally a party was thrown in his honor by the local drinking fountain. Tales were told and mead was drunk. Everyone was happy. Then, in a scene reminiscent of Alien, the Hero transformed onto a werechameleon while eating. Three of the partygoers died putting him down and nobody knew who else was infected. Turns out it was almost all of them.
The hardest part was this kid I checked up on every now and again. He was the first child born on the settlement and sported an impressive red mustache at the tender age of six. He and his sister were the only children so they played together through the fortress with their wooden swords and various other toys. The Kid wanted to craft jewelry when he grew up and was already friends with the local craftsmen. He felt nervous when talking with his mother but felt love when talking to his father. The Kid was one of the dwarves who transformed.
The infected dwarves annihilated the healthy ones, many in their beds, but many fought bravely. In one night, my colony of 75 happy and productive people became a ghost town inhabited by four monsters. When the “survivors” changed back they couldn’t even eat because they were too busy crying… Except for the kid.
He behaved quite normally. He ate slept and even played as though nothing had happened. So I checked his profile. He felt nothing. He felt nothing about the quality of the food or furnishings. He had no strong opinions on his wailing companions. More disturbing was that he felt nothing when his friend the Blacksmith died. Or the Fisherman. Or his parents. The only twinge of emotion he had left was a bit of sadness for his sister dying. He killed his sister and became a sociopath as a defense mechanism from his horror.
All of this happened in a proceduraly generated world I created. Though I abandoned the fortress those last cursed four are still in the world and will affect their neighbors for years to come.
If anything I’ve said here sounds intriguing, it won’t hurt to give it a shot. I cannot stress enough that this absurdly large and deep game is free. You may not enjoy it, it may not be your bag, but Dwarf Fortress is an important and impressive game nonetheless. Also, if you figure out how to make a door in Dwarf Fortress, you are a hardcore gamer and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Full disclosure: I only sort of understand how stairs work