Trouble Thinking

October 13, 2010

Dwarf Fortress

Filed under: Game Reviews — Tags: , , , , — Durandal @ 6:47 pm

Dwarf Fortress is the game I wished for when I was eight, granted by a sinister monkey’s paw. I want to love it, in fact I do sort of love it. But the simple fun of the game’s premise is squandered by the inaccessible and unnecessarily obtuse user interface. If the game would just allow you to play it, it might be less infuriating.

I should preface this by mentioning that the game is free, so I can’t actually complain too much. It’s made a single person building a game for no real money beyond donations. That doesn’t mean I won’t complain a lot, though.

Dwarf Fortress is built on a simple concept: making a big castle is cool, and it’s even cooler if that castle has a working drawbridge that can catapult the goblin hordes into a pit filled with lava and also lava sharks. You play by designating areas in a mountain for various tasks, and assigning your automated Dwarfs to useful roles.  So for instance, if you designated a part of a nearby mountain for mining, your little Miner dwarfs would go in, dig it out, and leave you with a cave and some leftover rock. Perfect Dwarf House. Any dwarf not doing a job spends their time drinking as much as they can.

You begin the game by… well, to be honest you probably begin the game by not playing it ever. Because this is the opening screen:

What’s that? You’re old school, you can deal with a shitty text menu with keyboard-only navigation? Yeah, I played DOS games too. It gets worse. The next several screens after you decide to start a new game are basically impenetrable unless you’ve already been playing for a while. For one thing, you don’t click “Start Playing” in order to start a new game.

First you have to make the world. Which is cool! It creates itself according to some really complex machinations, even drafting a long history of the fantastic Planes of Stuff. Of course, you have no idea what’s happening, and you don’t really care. Note that at no point has the game explained what exactly any of this has to do with anything. Nor does it make it entirely clear what the hell you’re doing.


This is from an unofficial tutorial.


Now you can press enter on “Start Playing”. Ignore the two options besides Dwarf Fortress, they’re only there to trick you. You get a mostly impenetrable map from which you can choose your starting location. Note that umkh and UMKH are tied to different commands because obviously. Actually starting is “e” even though moving forward a menu has been “enter” until now. “Enter” does nothing. Get used to that. Hotkeys change without warning, and are sometimes conspicuously absent for no apparent reason.

You then get the option to either prepare carefully and pick and choose supplies/skills, or just go with whatever the game gives you. Some new player packs offer pre-made parties that seem to work well. If you’re a new player, going with the pre-made parties is the sensible choice because there is absolutely no indication what you might need, what any skill does, or how the point allocating system works anywhere in the game proper. Once you hit “e” again, you’re whisked away to adventure!

Oh man it’s so nice to be out of that awful menu system and into the actual gam-


What is this shit


Yeah. The entire game is controlled primarily by a linked list of interlacing menus you access by hotkeys that change at random. If you’re lucky. Some menus, you just get to traverse at a sedate pace through dozens of items. Mercifully, you can resize the window and get rid of the completely useless map on the right hand side. Note that the only reason you’re seeing a few little dwarfs in some trees on the left is because I’m using a texture pack produced by a fan. Normally Dwarf Fortress uses text characters for graphics.

Okay, so it’s ugly as sin, but I said it was fun right? Some things are like that! A terrible looking menu system or something, but then it turns out that really when you get to know it it’s easy and sensible to use. That’s the apologia I’ve seen over and over again for DF, that if you’d only play it a whole bunch until you know every hotkey it’s really pretty fast to use and makes managing the complex gameplay of Dwarf Fortress much easier!

That is true, sort of.

When you’ve played for a while, the menu stops being quite so obstructive. That doesn’t, however, mean that it’s any good. First of all,the learning of the menu is a hell of a time sink. It takes at least a few hours and some consulting of online tutorials to have even the remotest hope of keeping your little fortress alive through the winter. I remain uncertain how to make the military function, as the only tutorial addressing it was for a previous version.

And even when you’ve gotten more used to the menu, it’s still pretty awful. Menus are haphazardly arranged on the screen, using hotkeys that bear little if any relation to the menu item. Aspects of menu navigation change at random, without warning, and without purpose. Some menus loop back around for no reason. Most of the time you spend in menus, you spend scrolling through lists one item at a time in order to perform routine, repetitive tasks that a better UI would allow you to do in a few broad strokes.

For instance, let’s say you want to make your dwarfs happy by giving them each their own little bedroom. First you need to designate rooms to dig. Which is a bit repetitive because there’s absolutely no cut/paste/copy of any kind. You want 40 identical bedrooms? Then you’d better be ready to tap them out one by one. Then, you need to place beds in all the rooms. That’s pretty easy, just b->b over and over, hitting enter over where you want them placed. Then, you hit q, scroll to one of the beds in one of the rooms, hit r to make it a bedroom, choose the room size, hit enter, hit a to assign the bed to a dwarf, and scroll through a list of your entire population, including the ones you’ve already assigned to beds. You do this every time.

Eventually, your fortress grows to a large enough size that you need to use a third-party dwarf manager add-on called Dwarf Therapist in order to have a hope of keeping your dwarfs various jobs and statistics straight.


So much simpler!


That’s the game in a nutshell. Simple, understandable, and fun ideas obscured by an awful UI that makes these simple ideas into an overly complicated alphabet soup. The system by which you build your fortress is actually rather elegant, consisting mainly of you designating areas for some certain activity or another. It’s great fun to watch your dwarfs carve out the floorplan you gave them and decide that oh here’s the kitchen, and the dining hall, and the bedrooms and the trading post and the workshops… and then watch your little guys get to work on building a bustling fantasy fortress. It’s like drawing the graph paper fortresses I made when I was little, only it is magic graph paper. It’s engaging, and it takes very little work to understand the basic concept of designating areas for activities.

But that “charming” UI torpedoed most of my fun. Even after hours of play, after doing the tutorials I could find online, and getting to the point where I can tap tap tap out the various bits of my fortress with reasonable speed I just can’t get over how annoying it is to play a game that actively hinders my attempts to enjoy it.

A lot of people who play the game seem to think that the awful UI is due to the game’s capital-D Depth. That people asking for a simpler to use interface are just trying to dumb down the game. I think people look at any game with lots of text and assume it must be Deep. Dwarf Fortress isn’t deep. It’s a great game with easy to understand concepts and fun gameplay. Sure there’s a lot of random added cruft, like the 40 jobs that never really come into play, but for the most part it’s on par with a lot of other management games, if not more streamlined. It’s just got a badly designed interface. There’s nothing Deep about having to scroll through lists instead of using a drop down menu or typing in a search string. There’s nothing Deep about simple tasks being atomized into a dozen repetitive or unnecessary actions for no reason.

I knew I should have wished on a goddamn shooting star.

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