Articoli per agosto 2011

A review of Dwarf Fortress, based on a few very short games

It's good, it's terrible. It's complex, deep and great. And I don't want to play it anymore: the stray cat “c” killed curiosity.

I tried playing Dwarf Fortress a couple of times in the past. First with tutorials, then with video tutorials, maybe just pressing keys as a blind gamer. It did not work: there are no easy ways to learn to play DF, only the hard way. You go on their wiki and read the entire introduction, then read the entire key reference, then listen to your brain scream in front of the largest flowchart in this arm of the galaxy. Sorry, no links, I don't want to look at those pages ever again.

ASCII is not the biggest issue, I discovered. It takes about half an hour and you learn to read the Matrix: you see the little dragonfly on the grass, you see rain, dirty floors annoy you and dwarves are ordered to smooth the stone. A little chunk of your brain dies, and ASCII makes sense, it's almost beautiful.

The interface, however, is made of Pain. Not just the shortcut keys, not the confusing menus, not the lack of headings or context. The flow of interaction with the elements of the game itself is agains you. An example? You have zones, workshops, stockpiles, etc., they are all rectangles on the maps, but each type is defined in a different way, through different menus. Sometimes you select the area, then the type, some others you first choose the type, then a region on the map.

Each map command will show an X on the map, your cursor. It always appears in the centre of the screen, forcing you to type your way toward the area you are interested in. Repeat this for each command, each door you build, each bed you place. Each time you want to look at a square to understand what that little symbol mean. Oh, you can also view units and animals, but that's a different command, so you have to move around the map again, and again. There is some kind of “mouse support” but, no, it doesn't work for selecting things on the map.

Still, you clench your teeth, type a bit more, and dig a few more rooms. The stray cat “c” wanders around the corridors littered with broken stones you didn't have the time to clean. You build a couple of essential rooms, hiding most of the largest flowchart in this arm of the galaxy outside the screen, so that your brain doesn't threaten to leave your skull.

After 30m, you might have a door to your fortress. A wooden door, left ajar so the cat can sneak out. There is a command for leaving doors ajar. You have learnt about 40 different key combinations, several modes of interaction, navigated two dozens of menus and screens. And you have a door. It doesn't get any easier, as you slowly scroll down the flowchart.

Let's take fish. You can't eat fish if someone doesn't catch it, someone doesn't clean it, and someone doesn't cook it. You set up all the necessary roles and workshops, painfully typing. You repeat a similar process for meat, plants, and every other non-basic element of the game. You learn all the shortcut, you learn not to fear the flowchart.

At this point a question may pop up in your mind —Why?! If it does, you might not find a good answer. Well, that's good! You can stop playing, and you will not look back.

You are free. And this might be the only way to win the game