Dwarf Fortress, Art, and how I learned about Simulationism as a creation myth

I am mildly obsessed with Dwarf Fortress, a crazy little computer game that has been in development for over a decade. (LINK)   I say mildly because I am not playing it right now, so I only think about it now and then. It is the sort of game that stays with you, and that you will likely pick up again and again or at least feel tempted to read about on the DF subreddit to see how it is progressing. It is opaque to outsiders, seeming at first glance like a harmless, but crazy cult obsessed with lava, kittens, and fun. It is however one of the most complex and interesting simulation games I have played. Players set parameters and create a world. The worlds terrain and population is procedurally generated and then run through a fully simulated history until it is ready to play. The history generated is so detailed and intricate that a subset of players just generates worlds to view the history and legends for interesting legends and events. The game is so detailed that great events show up again and again in artworks, another fantastic feature.

A single level of a fort without a complex tileset or 3d viewer.

Dwarf Fortress is such a superb game that it has made it into the Museum of Modern Art, despite its relatively obscure (but fiendishly brilliant) following and lack of compelling graphics. This New Yorker piece does it some justice, but only after playing  can you really begin to understand why people love this game. The UI is currently opaque to most beginners and the difficulty curve is notorious. Fortunately the community is amazingly helpful.

In Dwarf Fortress Mode you take seven Dwarves out into the wilderness build a new outpost for your civilization. You choose a spot on the map and give it a go. For most novices it barely matters where they choose to dig in, they’ll likely die from starvation, thirst, or have all their equipment stolen by giant keas and lose their fortress before the end of the first year. After a few tries or some good play, a player will survive long enough to get wiped out by ambushes, necromancers, floods, disease, or horrible/funny procedurally generated monsters called forgotten beasts. Veteran players who learn to savour the mad challenge of the game often choose the most difficult or “fun” spots for their forts. Places where it rains blood or the ground has that pet cemetery thing going on.

If your Fortress survives for a few years you will create an impressive, sprawling domain that gradually fills up with more and more dwarves. These dwarves all have a randomly generated personalities and your control over them is very limited, much like other sim games, but far more nuanced. They form attachments and their mood can effect the fortress more than you might think. You will be busy planning layouts, industries, a military ,and maybe even complex projects like a lava trap, some mad treasure room, or a grand mega-project. Meanwhile your dwarves will be getting into trouble, forming relationships, engaging in politics, doing stupid things with waterfalls and caves, searching for love and job satisfaction and so much more. It is layer after layer of complexity.

What makes it fun for me is the narrative that the simulation can create. I love the story of a good fortress. Tales like that of the fortress Bronzemurder, or massive, sprawling epics like that of Boatmurdered are what inspired me to try the game. Most of my Dwarves are rather boring and live short, brutish lives because of the hostile nature of the game’s universe. However, every now and then I find a Dwarf I like. A brilliant, fearless warrior, a cunning artisan, or an inspired inventor, that Dwarf seems like an Alexander or an Einstein. These great Dwarves seem to me to guide their fellows into a new age of prosperity or at least help them dig in against the grim darkness that is bearing down on them.

My favourite personal tale is of a relatively young fortress that dug deep into the ground, seeking magma for the best forge I could make (and other goodies). I encountered a system of caves, cleared them out with my lowly militia and set to farming spider silk for my industries. I made sure I was safe, walling off every way into the fort with trap doors and retractable bridges, traps, and deadfalls. A forgotten beast arrived, some long lost creature that resembled a twelve legged spider with wings made out of green glass. I set off some alarms and closed off the caverns, recalling all my dwarves to safety. Little did I know that one of the wall’s I’d ordered sealed off wasn’t done yet. The Green Glass beast made a beeline for this vulnerable point while I frantically tried to get a dwarf to erect a wall that would stop it from getting in.

Naturally the beast beat me to the punch. It scrambled into my tunnels, killing the Dwarf trying to put up the wall by spitting glass shards at him. The effect on the poor dwarf seemed to be like being hit by a shotgun blast at close range. The beast chased the remaining dwarves up into the great hall where it destroyed my loyal wardogs and faced off against the remains of my militia. The beats was quick, deadly, and hard to hurt. Within moments half of the militia was dead, dying, or incapacitated. I was watching the fight, waiting for the it to eliminate the last six, valiant dwarves. After a moment I realized that no one had died. Upon looking at the combat logs I realized that the dwarves were grappling the beast, hold down its deadly legs and shard spewing mouth. My militia captain emptied his crossbow into it while the others held it down. This proved ineffective so he bashed it with the crossbow when he ran out of ammo, eventually smashing it to a pulp. Two of the dwarves holding the beast down succumbed to their wounds shortly after (I wasn’t that  good with hospitals at that point). I was amazed by that struggle, which took places over several days of game time, and the tenacity of the dwarves in defence of their hall and their more cowardly (sensible) brethren. I even wrote a poem about it and used the beast in my writing. I created superb tombs for those lost in the struggle, picked up and carried on. Later on the incident started showing up in the artworks of the fortress, reminding me of that awesome moment, over and over. Until that fortress fell, that is.

There is far more to the game than I could do justice to with what I am willing to write before dreams claim me. I could go on about the Fortress I made which got cut off from the mountainhomes (settlers stopped coming). It is also a constantly evolving game, only a third of the way to readiness as the creators deem it.  Sitting there watching my Dwarves, trying to guide them through their tribulations and triumphs, did remind me of something I’d read before.

There is an idea floating around that if we are able to create a truly complex, lifelike simulation with independent actors and functioning systems then there is a high probability that reality could be a simulation of some sort. This makes for an interesting creation myth for a fantasy world. Instead of a benevolent god or nothing at all we have have a complex game set up and created by someone interested in observing it. This is a truly fascinating idea for fiction at the very least. Here are a few basic ideas.

1) A person who realized that they were in a simulation could discover the code, which could give them power, much like neo in the matrix.

2) Some of the sims could start a religion worshiping the game creator, creating new sources of inspiration and conflict.

3) The game creator could fall in love with the sim or something in it and thus try to insert themselves into the sim in some way.

4) The sims could become aware that the game creator is trying to” turn them off” and end the simulation, and might try to do something about it.

5) Could complex simulations become protected by laws. If the sims are considered sentient, feeling creatures might a benevolent society protect them from harmful events? If so would the bad elements of that benevolent society run “depraved” illegal sims?

Meaty ideas. Perhaps that is why DF is great food for narrative: it is thought provoking. Perhaps one day I will write a full tale based on a favoured fortress…


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