By almost any measure, Dwarf Fortress is a classic that pushed the boundaries of what a video game could do. When it was originally created back in 2002 by developer Tarn Adams and his brother Zack, it was easily the most complex and complicated game ever made. Even today, few titles can match it in terms of the complexity of the deep system running underneath what is essentially a society and city-building simulation.
But all that complexity came at a price. The learning curve required to get into the original Dwarf Fortress was immensely steep. Players had to learn how all of those intertwined systems worked, and how they all operated together. In many cases, even those who put hours into trying to manage a dwarven society of their own probably only scratched the surface of what the game could offer. It took dedication, observation and precision to figure out, for example, why cats in the fortress were getting alcohol poisoning. This happened to be the result of the cats walking around in the taverns and with the old blood footprint code of the game, they would get spilled alcohol on their feet from the taverns’ floors. The cats were programmed to lick themselves clean, and they ingested the alcohol while doing so which led to their poisoning. It was even harder to try and do something really complex like configuring an automated mining cart system in a process that was not unlike designing a computer circuit board.
And then there was the issue with the graphics. Everything in the original game was represented with ASCII characters, so it was not very pretty to look at and kind of difficult to tell what everything was. Players were basically designing and managing an entire society using a text-based interface. Over the years, various filters and add-ons have been released to insert a little more definition to the graphics, but even then, they were still basically fancy computer characters.
Even with all those challenges, the depth of Dwarf Fortress was worth plumbing. Our original review of the game back in 2012 took months to write while we learned the system, but ultimately awarded Dwarf Fortress a highly respectable 4 out of 5 GiN Gems. We even reviewed an O’Reilly computer-help type book, normally reserved for things like decoding programming languages, that was solely dedicated to helping people learn to play Dwarf Fortress. Given that playing the game is somewhat akin to learning how to program, that makes sense.
The influence of Dwarf Fortress on modern video games can’t really be overstated. Many of the systems and inner connections between game elements have become commonplace today. Beyond that, the title showed what was possible within a game world, and game developers often cite Dwarf Fortress as one of their influences. Even so, it was never a runaway hit, and the number of players has always been limited by both the complexity of the interface and the simplicity of the graphics.
Now, Dwarf Fortress is getting another shot at the mass market. Tarn and Zack have been working to produce a Steam version of Dwarf Fortress, which was recently released. And after spending some time with the Steam version of the Dwarf Fortress, it’s clear that this is not a stripped-down version of the classic, but a full port of the game over to a new medium so that it can run on modern systems with many of the same advantages of other, newer games. That said, there are some key differences that both veteran players and those who may have never heard of the title before should know.
The first thing that everyone will notice is the graphics, as in, the game actually has them now. The new Dwarf Fortress graphics are hardly cutting edge, but they look good. It’s easy to tell now at a glance what everything, everyone and every creature actually is just by looking. In many ways, this also makes the game a little easier to play because you can tell things like why dwarves are concentrated in a certain area, or if you have any bottlenecks in your production chain somewhere. Sure, you could see that before, but having actual graphics instead of just ASCII characters, which did not always clearly represent what they were, is nice.
The other big shift in the Steam version of Dwarf Fortress is the fact that you can now use a mouse to control things on the screen, and various objects are grouped intelligently into menus like with most games these days. While this will make the title easier to access for new players used to a more modern interface, most console commands and shortcuts that veteran players probably have memorized (or even committed to their muscle memory) no longer seem to work. If you are a longtime player who can run their kingdom using hotkeys, you will have to relearn the new interface. For new players, memorizing those shortcuts is no longer something you need to do, although I suspect that those old school players will probably miss them.
Wonderful music has also been added to accompany the upgraded graphics. Composed by Dabu, the 20 or so unique tracks really set the mood of Dwarf Fortress now. It’s amazing how a soundtrack can really enhance gameplay.
The other amazing thing about having Dwarf Fortress on Steam is the fact that in addition to the core game, players also have access to the Steam Workshop where they can effortlessly install or remove mods made by other players. Some of those mods are practical, like adding an audio tone to in-game alerts. Some are cosmetic, like increasing the different breeds of dogs you can have in your fortress. And some are total conversion mods, attempts to turn the game into something else altogether or fundamentally alter the way it plays. As of this writing, there are almost 100 mods available so far, and the game has only been out for a couple days.
And the Adams brothers, the longtime developers and creators of Dwarf Fortress, have also promised many updates for it in the future, or maybe even something like a DLC. Having it on Steam gives everyone an easy platform to experience whatever new updates and features they have in store for their players. Because of that and the support for player mods, having the title land on Steam is probably less of an ending for Dwarf Fortress and more of a first step towards a new beginning. And that is something that many gamers, like me, will be truly thankful to experience.