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The New York Times Discovers The Brilliance of Dwarf Fortress
July 21, 2011 9:27 PM   Subscribe

This Sunday's New York Times Magazine interviews the creators of epic ASCII megagame Dwarf Fortress......and Metafilter credited as the "popular blog" which fueled public awareness of DF!

What is Dwarf Fortress? Previously: 1 2 3 4 5 6

Also see the Dwarf Fortress Wiki
posted by Bwithh (71 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm not even ever going to bother trying this game but this looks like a good read, thanks.
posted by tumid dahlia at 9:31 PM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I asked Tarn when he thought he and Zach would reach version 1.0. “Twenty years from now,” he replied. “That’s the number we talk about.” He chuckled at the prospect, adding that even when that milestone arrived, Dwarf Fortress would keep growing. “This is going to be my life’s work.”
[emphasis added]

That's fantastic.
posted by grouse at 9:31 PM on July 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


One thing that wasn't apparent to me at first about Dwarf Fortress was how readily it can be modded to taste. I'm currently absorbed in a game of one of the most twisted fandom collisions I've ever had the good fortune to run across.
posted by darksasami at 9:44 PM on July 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


Put me down in the 'love to read about it, can't imagine playing it' category. There have been some gorgeous graphical LPs recently... can't remember where though. One was in a local gaming magazine, and another was linked on RPS.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 9:47 PM on July 21, 2011


Uhh just to clarify, I wasn't trying to be dismissive or condescending, it's just this game looks like way too much work for me, personally, though I'm sure it's a hoot for those wanting to invest the time.
posted by tumid dahlia at 9:47 PM on July 21, 2011


There's a shoutout to Boatmurdered as well.
posted by kenko at 9:49 PM on July 21, 2011


The lengths the NYT will go to these days in order to get a post on MeFi...
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:49 PM on July 21, 2011 [17 favorites]


Fact: Tarn Adams is one of the, like, three people who have finished the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
posted by daniel_charms at 9:57 PM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, it is now official; MoMA confirms it: video games are art - This week, the Museum of Modern Art will include Dwarf Fortress in a major design exhibition called “Talk to Me,” which Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at MoMA, describes as being about the “communication between people and objects.” Suck it, Ebert!
posted by daniel_charms at 10:08 PM on July 21, 2011 [6 favorites]


Ah, the article's in print. The guy who wrote this called me up on the phone to talk about it! Haven't read it yet so I don't know if any of my stuff has made it in.
posted by JHarris at 10:10 PM on July 21, 2011


Also, it is now official; MoMA confirms it: video games are art - This week, the Museum of Modern Art will include Dwarf Fortress in a major design exhibition called “Talk to Me,” which Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at MoMA, describes as being about the “communication between people and objects.” Suck it, Ebert!

The Australian Centre for the Moving Image has hosted game exhibitions before. I remember randomly making a trip to Melbourne and ending up playing a pre-release version of Aquaria.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 10:12 PM on July 21, 2011


Darn you New York Times! I visited the site once to confirm it was the guy who called me who wrote it, then I go back and it wants a log-in! GRAR.
posted by JHarris at 10:12 PM on July 21, 2011


Darn you New York Times! I visited the site once to confirm it was the guy who called me who wrote it, then I go back and it wants a log-in! GRAR.

The reporter/author is Jonah Weiner. (and to get past the NYT paywall, just delete all the gibberish stuff in the address bar after html)
posted by Bwithh at 10:15 PM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I saw it was Jonah Weiner on that first visit, when the page actually loaded. Now I can't get back to it, even after deleting all the stuff. Even worse, I do have a log in but it's not working, and it won't even let me reset my password, complaining of a "System error." Argh!
posted by JHarris at 10:20 PM on July 21, 2011


I'm still waiting for someone to make an intuitive-GUI game inspired by DF (in the same way that Diablo was inspired by various roguelikes)...and pocket tens of millions of dollars. Seriously...all you wannabe game creators out there...get to it.
posted by jet_manifesto at 10:30 PM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Diablo was inspired by exactly the wrong roguelikes. The game mentioned in its credits is UMoria, which is the ancestor of Angband, which has a fanbase but isn't what I'd call the most interesting game. It shows in play too.
posted by JHarris at 10:38 PM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


and Metafilter credited as the "popular blog" which fueled public awareness of DF!

Yeah, we got a nice note from a NYT Mag researcher wanting to verify the whole "Boatmurdered posted to Metafilter" angle. I managed to just write back in the affirmative with a link to the appropriate thread and not go on at multi-paragraph length about have fucking amazing DF is as an ongoing work of generative narrative art and blah blah blah. God bless Tarn.
posted by cortex at 10:45 PM on July 21, 2011 [8 favorites]


JHarris, I agree. I would have much preferred a big-studio game inspired by ADOM or Nethack. Come to think of it...wannabe game creators - make those too!!
posted by jet_manifesto at 10:51 PM on July 21, 2011


Ok, maybe a slight derail but, I have been meaning to ask metafilter this for awhile, and JHaris is here.

So, i have recently reentered the wonderful world of roguelikes (via the wonderful world of unemployment), and have been spending a lot of time with, Dungeon Crawl, and been somewhat spoiled by it's lovely mouse driven UI, and tileset, and documentation, etc, and ended up sort of spoiled.

I would love to sample a little more of the genre, and maybe even get to the point of actually finishing a game of DF, but in the meantime can someone recommend a good stepping stone to some other games? I am fine with ASCII, but would love some good UI that will acknowledge my mouse, and be happy on my limeted laptop keyboard.

Are any of the many versions of nethack good? Has anything in the Moria, 'Band world been kept updated? What even is ADOM? (that one seems intimidating), Is there a good website to tell me about these things?

Or should I just try to find a job?
posted by St. Sorryass at 11:10 PM on July 21, 2011


Huh. I had already heard about a MoMA exhibition once today, so I checked and sure enough it's the same one these guys are in with a tweeting/phoning plant project for which my employer makes a kit.

While a tweeting plant is miles less cool than Dwarf Fortress, I'm still kind of pleased with the association.
posted by brennen at 11:25 PM on July 21, 2011


St. Sorryass: RogueBasin is a great resource for everything roguelike. There's a database of (probably) every existing roguelike and a list of recent releases.

Also, holy crap, looking at the main page there, I see that Thomas Biskup has released (an early development version of) JADE! I never thought this day would come!

posted by daniel_charms at 11:27 PM on July 21, 2011


Sorryass: well, Dungeons of Dredmor just hit, which is available on Steam for Windows and OSX platformers. It still needs some serious polish, but it's cheap and pretty fun. Definitely leans towards the casual end of the genre.
posted by curious nu at 11:42 PM on July 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


Easiest way to leap the paywall: get Readability (as an extension or bookmarklet) and run it on the one-page version. It'll format it beautifully, too.
posted by BungaDunga at 11:55 PM on July 21, 2011


While a tweeting plant is miles less cool than Dwarf Fortress

How about a tweeting plant implemented in Dwarf Fortress? There has to be a way.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 12:08 AM on July 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


well, Dungeons of Dredmor just hit, which is available on Steam for Windows and OSX platformers. It still needs some serious polish, but it's cheap and pretty fun.

I tried this - they need a more user-friendly interface/gameplay mechanics philosophy. it's a bit too finicky for me at the moment.
posted by Bwithh at 12:16 AM on July 22, 2011


In case someone missed this: Bravemule is a brilliantly executed, ongoing DF tale.
posted by kasparhauser at 12:17 AM on July 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


Well someone asked about Nethack, so....

I think vanilla is still the best version of Nethack for a beginner. It's easier than it seems, but only once you've learned an awful lot about it so that time is still at least months off for most people. Yet, once you've learned enough, winning is definitely in reach.

Re: Bravemule:

GONE
A GRIM CAT WITH FLUFF
IT HAS A CURLING TAIL AND MOVES FURTIVELY
ON THE CAT IS AN IMAGE OF FINELY DESIGNED STRIPES

BEWARE ITS CLAWS
MITTENS IS ASSOCIATED WITH SNOOZE, THEFT AND MURDER

posted by JHarris at 12:57 AM on July 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


I swear that one day I'll get a handle on this game. These guys are living the Mike Watt ethos. They jam econo.
posted by tmt at 1:21 AM on July 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


ASCII, huh? So I could play from work on my home machine via ssh? Hypothetically?
posted by DU at 5:11 AM on July 22, 2011


I downloaded the very first version of Dwarf Fortress back in 2006 and I maintained a low-level obsession with it for a couple of years. I think the moment when I realized that Toady had gone completely off the rails was when he proudly announced that he finished programming meteorologically correct rain shadows for mountains in the world creation stage, an upgrade that had approximately zero effect on anything other than how the world map looked when you exported it, when there were still basic control issues in the main game. I love Toady's insane ambition and his ability to commit his ideas to code (more-or-less), but somewhere in 2008 it started being more fun to read the development updates than to actually play the game.
posted by theodolite at 5:46 AM on July 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


Dwarf Fortress is, by all accounts, a great game. I am not smart enough to defeat the interface, however, and so my attempts to play have all met with failure.
posted by DWRoelands at 6:01 AM on July 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


Dwarf Fortress is one way of travelling through time. You start it up and the next thing you know it's 3-4 hours later.

For me it's like Nethack is supposed to be, only I'm pretty terrible at Nethack, so DF gives me that much longer before my characters' inevitable deaths.

I know I was wise to uninstall before school started and not to pick it up again until my schedule calmed down. And then? New version since I quit the first time. And yet here I am, with a dispensary full of limping dwarves and a ton of beehives giving them compensatory mead.

DU - it is ASCII, but I don't know anyone who plays without an overlay to make it intelligible. It's also a massive resource hog and I'm glad in some ways, because that means my netbook is a DF-free zone.
posted by cobaltnine at 6:21 AM on July 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thanks, this article has nicely cleared up my confusion as to when Mine Craft got all those fancy-pants graphics.
posted by fatfrank at 6:22 AM on July 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think the moment when I realized that Toady had gone completely off the rails was when he proudly announced that he finished programming meteorologically correct rain shadows for mountains in the world creation stage, an upgrade that had approximately zero effect on anything other than how the world map looked when you exported it, when there were still basic control issues in the main game.

You know, I actually like this aspect of the game; I like how detailed the history and legends can get. In fact, I will not be fully satisfied until Toady implements plate tectonics in worldgen.
posted by daniel_charms at 6:32 AM on July 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


Though I'm baffled about what possible editorial rationale approved it for the NYT Magazine, this is a really good article — true, it grossly understates the baroque awfulness of the game's UI, but it's more important that it does such a great job explaining what makes it unique and interesting in a way that should be accessible to a non-geeky audience. It really captures Toady One's love for surprising emergent properties, and the game's generative approach to story and world-building, in a way that I think non-gamers and non-obsessives will be able to appreciate.
posted by RogerB at 6:46 AM on July 22, 2011 [5 favorites]


I think the moment when I realized that Toady had gone completely off the rails was when he proudly announced that he finished programming meteorologically correct rain shadows for mountains in the world creation stage, an upgrade that had approximately zero effect on anything other than how the world map looked when you exported it, when there were still basic control issues in the main game.

He's really a character is some kind of post-modern novel, isn't he?
posted by empath at 6:48 AM on July 22, 2011 [6 favorites]


DeLillo, without a doubt.
posted by RogerB at 6:50 AM on July 22, 2011


I'm wondering what God's change logs look like.
posted by empath at 6:54 AM on July 22, 2011


It isn't actually ASCII in the sense that the computer treats it as such. It is simply sprites drawn to look like ASCII characters. That is why it is very easy to substitute them with something that is a bit more illustrative and which has no effect on performance.
A lot of things has happened with the graphics treatment stuff in the last years so this might have changed but that was how it was some time ago.
posted by Catfry at 6:55 AM on July 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


NYClean - just drag it to your bookmark bar in Firefox and you won't have to manually delete anything.
posted by longdaysjourney at 7:05 AM on July 22, 2011


It's not really that hard to deal with the interface, is it? The main problem is the lag you get from too many dwarves, at least for me.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 7:30 AM on July 22, 2011


I love Toady's insane ambition and his ability to commit his ideas to code (more-or-less), but somewhere in 2008 it started being more fun to read the development updates than to actually play the game.

Seconding the love for the dev blog. It's endless fun to load it up and see, oh look, there's going to be werewolves in the game now, and other characters won't know they're werewolves (weredwarfs? dwarfwolves? weredwarfwolves?) at first, so they can end up living a double life, productive member of society during the day and bloodthirsty killer at night, and the other dwarves won't notice until the bodies start piling up. Which implies a dwarven Carl Kolchak wandering around gathering evidience, or a dwarven Henry Armitage out throwing his power of Ibn Dwarvzi....

Er yeah. The dev blog is aces.
posted by JHarris at 7:31 AM on July 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


I played a game of DF up until the point my dwarfs started stitching up their wounds with incredibly valuable and rare adamantine threads. I'm pretty sure it was that act of hubris that inspired all those demons that came and ate my dwarfs and their many cats.

This is the best game in the world with the worst UI in the world. I hope Tarn realizes that the only thing keeping the game a cult favorite instead of something making him a million dollars is the inscrutable and inconsistent UI.
posted by cirrostratus at 7:40 AM on July 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm wondering what God's change logs look like.

He hasn't updated lately, as he's still stuck trying to figure out a way to counter the influence of mass media. He's considering fixing the problem in worldgen which would mean the rest of us are pretty much doomed.

This is the best game in the world with the worst UI in the world. I hope Tarn realizes that the only thing keeping the game a cult favorite instead of something making him a million dollars is the inscrutable and inconsistent UI.

I'd say this is not true. Dwarf Fortress is excellent but it requires a certain minimum level of intellectual complexity. It could be a lot more popular, but we're not talking about Farmville here. You have to have a certain purpose and self-assuredness to play Dwarf Fortress I think, the game doesn't direct you at all.

The UI isn't actually that bad I think, but then I'm a multi-ascender at Nethack. "Q means drink? How obvious!"
posted by JHarris at 7:48 AM on July 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


Fact: Tarn Adams is one of the, like, three people who have finished the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

...

What? Is this like that "nobody's ever heard of Kunming" thing?
posted by kmz at 7:49 AM on July 22, 2011


Really, what Tarn should do is just write Dwarf Fortress as a server, with a publicly defined api, so that the interface (which he obviously doesn't want to pay any more than the bare minimum of attention to) could be separated out from the actual running of the world. There are a few utilities, like dfhack, that offer something like this capability, but direct, supported access would be much nicer.
posted by Pyry at 7:49 AM on July 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


And then someone will write an api bridge into the minecraft server and that's it guys, civilization's over we're just going to simulate it from now on.
posted by Skorgu at 7:54 AM on July 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


(Q)uaff. It's plain as day.
posted by absalom at 8:18 AM on July 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


Fact: Tarn Adams is one of the, like, three people who have finished the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

...

What? Is this like that "nobody's ever heard of Kunming" thing?
Maybe it's an oblique reference to all of those terrible Koei games.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 8:31 AM on July 22, 2011


And then someone will write an api bridge into the minecraft server

I'll tackle that as soon as I finish getting Windows 7 to run on this TI-99/4A.
posted by straight at 9:02 AM on July 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


The UI isn't actually that bad I think, but then I'm a multi-ascender at Nethack. "Q means drink? How obvious!"

I always figured mastering Dwarf Fortress required one to be at least a SLASH-EM ascender, if not a Stone Soup 15-rune ascender. Maybe I should give it another shot.
posted by IjonTichy at 9:18 AM on July 22, 2011


Though I'm baffled about what possible editorial rationale approved it for the NYT Magazine

I'd bet it starts with the MoMA angle
posted by Bwithh at 9:22 AM on July 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


...although honestly, it wasn't UI complexity that made me stop playing. Does anyone else find the game incredibly depressing? I mean, I found myself locking in a room and starving a psychotic child whose parents had been trampled to death by elephants so that the rest of the god-forsaken colony could survive for another winter.
posted by IjonTichy at 9:33 AM on July 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


Quite the opposite, actually. I found the depression, destruction, and fuckups of a new fortress very compelling (losing is fun, but so's surviving by the skin of your teeth) but eventually hit a boredom plateau once I was able to make complicated fortresses basically self-sustaining. Once you're set up well enough so that goblin armies are automatically trap-smashed into small bits before they make it anywhere near the dwarves, only the occasional forgotten beast from the depths remains to provide entertainment-generating peril, and you're left with a game more like SimCity, where the main entertainment is fussing over how to set up the most efficient fabric-dyeing or panda-farming or platinum-crafting operation, engraving all the walls with masterpieces, or just building overcomplicated machinery.
posted by RogerB at 9:50 AM on July 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


ASCII, huh? So I could play from work on my home machine via ssh? Hypothetically?

It isn't actually ASCII in the sense that the computer treats it as such. It is simply sprites drawn to look like ASCII characters.


Actually, there is an text output option using ncurses.

I'd say this is not true. Dwarf Fortress is excellent but it requires a certain minimum level of intellectual complexity. It could be a lot more popular, but we're not talking about Farmville here. You have to have a certain purpose and self-assuredness to play Dwarf Fortress I think, the game doesn't direct you at all.


I always find this fun at first and then annoying. For example, the process required to make clear glass or (at various iterations) farm is completely non-obvious and does not follow from some rational exploration of game mechanics. I end up having to look things up on the wiki, which sort of defeats the point.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 10:05 AM on July 22, 2011


I was reading ToadyOne's dev blog for at least a year before I actually played Dwarf Fortress. There is something exhilarating about the extent of the project.

Remember that old old interview with one of the founders behind Alta Vista, the one where he says something like "my ultimate goal is to have English language processing to the point where it can tell me what this means" and gestures at a three tome set of The Lord of the Rings.

I've been playing DF for six months and I'd say I'm barely competent (almost never ready for the first goblin siege). That said, it's great fun.
posted by Prince_of_Cups at 10:29 AM on July 22, 2011


...

What? Is this like that "nobody's ever heard of Kunming" thing?

It's a reference to the [old, no doubt] joke that only three people have ever read the Romance cover to cover (since it's so damn difficult to read): the translator, the editor, and one other person. Coincidentally, it's also the number of people who have heard this joke.
posted by daniel_charms at 10:47 AM on July 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


Q stands for "quaff." What's difficult about that?
posted by 7segment at 11:24 AM on July 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Prince_of_Cups, one key, I think, is to watch your population. A lot of things begin happening once your population reaches a certain level. And your population growth, I think, depends on the amount of goods you export. I've not tried it, but if you put just a little more effort into preparing defenses over making goods it might help.

I have a friend (he's here, username hatefull) who has far surpassed me in Dwarf Fortress. I'm usually the go-to guy for Nethack help among our friends, but he's definitely the guy to talk to about DF. His trap setups are awe-inspiring, and have taken out most of a dragon before. (Literally: by the time it got to his fighters, his serrated blade traps had taken out most of the dragon.)
posted by JHarris at 11:50 AM on July 22, 2011


There's nothing that can be done about the water/magma lag, probably, but I wish the economy worked.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 12:15 PM on July 22, 2011


thanks for the hints, JHarris.

Looks like I dropped a thought in my comment: wouldn't it be something to run the Legends output of Dwarf Fortress through a literary analytic engine.
posted by Prince_of_Cups at 1:12 PM on July 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


What's that other game you guys play? Oh, yeah, MINECRAFT.

Why doesn't DWARF FORTRESS generate MINECRAFT levels, or have an "export to MINECRAFT" option at any point? Then MetaFilter would be ALL MINE!
posted by alasdair at 1:59 PM on July 22, 2011


Someone has, in fact, written a DF->Minecraft level exporter. The results aren't actually very interesting, not least because of scale differences and the fact that the dwarfves and various systemic interactions that make DF interesting don't really come with, and Minecraft doesn't support a billion different carved stone varieties.
posted by cortex at 2:22 PM on July 22, 2011


I mean, I found myself locking in a room and starving a psychotic child whose parents had been trampled to death by elephants so that the rest of the god-forsaken colony could survive for another winter.

I was all ready to shout "no spoilers!" until I realized this wasn't the Game of Thrones thread.
posted by Gary at 4:47 PM on July 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


My takeaway from the article was the enormous personal sacrifices these two guys are making (no partners no sex no kids no real home) in the name of the game. It's very much like a kind of Bhuddist monk (I say, knowing nothing of Bhuddism). This kind of personal sacrifice sounds awe-inspiring, but honestly, you have to take care of yourself first (and that often means setting some time aside to take care of someone else). I can't envision them still doing this, in the same mode, when their say fifty.
posted by newdaddy at 7:54 PM on July 22, 2011


It seems like a big sacrifice but only if these things are something that you desire. From the passage about partners and having kids he did seem very reluctant and even unwilling.
posted by Catfry at 5:50 AM on July 23, 2011


I mean yes it sounds very unusual to not have base desires like sex and nice furnishings, but I just think it can be possible to enter a mind state where these things seem unimportant. As you say, like Buddhist monks.
posted by Catfry at 5:52 AM on July 23, 2011


IjonTichy, I'm a multiple Stone Soup 15-runer and I quit DF (possibly permanently) after about a half hour. I don't think they're related. St. Sorryass indicated why: DCSS has an amazing interface, a comprehensive and useful manual, and interactive tutorials to ease you into it. DF, to the best of my knowledge, isn't nearly so newbie-friendly. I like the idea of DF, but I found it utterly bewildering, and I taught myself Vim years ago.
posted by valrus at 10:06 AM on July 23, 2011


The one thing about DF that makes it, IMO, much easier than learning vi is that it has onscreen help that explains what all the keys do. I have never played without that side window open. hatefull plays with it off now. Gah.
posted by JHarris at 12:53 PM on July 23, 2011


My takeaway from the article was the enormous personal sacrifices these two guys are making (no partners no sex no kids no real home) in the name of the game. It's very much like a kind of Bhuddist monk (I say, knowing nothing of Bhuddism). This kind of personal sacrifice sounds awe-inspiring, but honestly, you have to take care of yourself first (and that often means setting some time aside to take care of someone else). I can't envision them still doing this, in the same mode, when their say fifty.

Eh I vaguely live like this, and it seems like other people in their 20s and 30s futz around in bands that go nowhere or sit around playing videogames and not doing much. This guy is working on a game that is so beloved it he can live off donations. I'd say he's winning.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 7:31 PM on July 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


Coming soon, from Nintendo: Elf Treehouse! Bravely build a ladder of steps into the canopy. Plan out platforms on which the bedrooms, kitchen, armory will sit. Bend the wood into beautiful bows. Whittle twigs into razor-sharp arrows. Build your treehouse, then defend it, especially from dwarves raiding from their nearby fortress. Strike the birch!
posted by mark7570 at 5:29 AM on July 27, 2011


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