Dwarf Fortress is SimCity’s evil twin, Gabriel Winslow-Yost says:
Dwarf Fortress puts the player in charge of a fledgling Dwarven colony, initially comprising seven dwarfs — a number that can, with the births and immigration that come with successful play, rise into the hundreds, but just as easily plunge to one or zero. You watch from above, pausing the action at will to give orders using a byzantine array of menus, but never directly controlling any of the dwarfs. The central principle of the game is an attention to detail that is frankly obsessive. Dozens of plants and animals are simulated, and hundreds of types of ore are modeled in the soil. Every dwarf has individual character traits, religious beliefs, affections, moods, and skills, and every limb and tissue layer of their bodies is modeled and tracked. (For a while, the melting point for the fat layer of the dwarves’ skin was set too low, resulting in instant death for any creature that got damp and then entered a warm room — baroque and violent bugs like this are very much in the spirit of the game).
Your dwarves can marry and reproduce; suffer from P.T.S.D.; bond with pets; or be taken by “fey moods” and lock themselves away to create artworks. They need constant alcohol intake to remain happy, and if they stay underground for too long will become allergic to sunlight (leading to the classic F.A.Q. entry, “Why is my fortress surrounded by vomit?”). Just starting up a new game requires a few minutes for the computer to randomly generate miles of terrain and thousands of years of local history. And this is it in its embryonic, alpha incarnation. Adams keeps an elaborate public to-do list for the game, whose entries vary in scale from the minute (“Wheelbarrows to haul more objects than can be carried”) to the truly grand (“Have religions in the game correspond to forces or deities and let you play one”), and estimates that version 1.0 won’t be finished for another twenty years.
As in SimCity, there is no real way to win the game. Instead of a series of comfortable equilibria, however, a game of Dwarf Fortress tends harshly, inevitably, toward ruin. The colony is overrun by invaders, or succumbs to disease, starvation, blood-feuds, or madness; a dragon takes up residence in the dining-hall, slaughtering every dwarf but one, who waits out the winter sealed in his room; a vast lava trap, constructed to deal with these threats, malfunctions, killing everybody; and so on. It is played alone, but its brutality, complexity, and unpredictability give its players a need for community — an urge to bear witness, to commiserate, to trade tips for using kittens as poison-detectors. Elaborate written accounts of Dwarf Fortress games, sometimes incorporating art or even animation, have become popular Internet reading material, perhaps more popular than playing the game itself.
One especially successful dwarf fortress demonstrates two important aspects of the game:
The first is that, for all his success in the game — and FlareChannel is about as successful as any Dwarf Fortress creation yet seen — QuantumSawdust does still not feel it is secure. He writes in the Dwarf Fortress forum that the vast families his dwarves have created make him “see the danger of tantrum spirals” — a well-known phenomenon in which an injury to one member of a family causes the rest of that family to run amok with grief and anger, potentially injuring members of other families, and so on — and that “I just have to hope my amenities for the dwarves make up for any disasters that occur.”
The second is that the game is so intricate that many of the events it creates were intended by neither the player nor the designer. In one of the online accounts of FlareChannel’s history, the fort’s creator relates his “favorite story,” which he calls “The Fable of Catten and Eagle.” He tells of a single semi-tame giant eagle — one of many that fill the fort — who took an intense, inexplicable liking to Catten, a particularly competent dwarf, but also one entirely indifferent to the eagle. Twelve game-years later, Catten was caught outside during a dragon attack. The eagle rushed to his aid, blinding the dragon and then helping him kill it. They became friends, eventually died of old age, and “during the finishing of the Temple to Armok, Catten’s clothes were mysteriously found on the roof, where no path could possibly have led.” The writer theorizes that “on a rare night when others were asleep, Catten would climb aboard his old friend, strip naked, and fly around the towers.” Though some part of all this was no doubt embellished in the telling, this account is still, crucially, more a report than a story; its origins are behaviors generated by the game, and observed and interpreted by the player.