There are few simulators with the reputation of Dwarf Fortress. This has been the inspiration for Minecraft and indirectly Fortnite. That the simulator has had an impact on its environment is clear. On the surface, it's just like any other survival game. You cut down trees, grow food and eventually build a large-scale community with long production lines. You are offered of the deepest experiences on the market. Almost everything is simulated. Whether it's what your dwarves did the day before, the history of the land or their love lives. Creating things is often a cog in a longer production line where goods become other goods and can eventually be used. Accidents, incidents and other things beyond the normal happen too. It creates a sense that not everything is within your control. As you play Dwarf Fortress, you quickly realize that control is a fantasy.
Dwarf Fortress begins with a group of dwarves above the ground. You have some animals, resources and minions with hopes for a good future. The history of the world has been written and the land that unfolds before you is your new home. Green hills, deep forests and open fields will all be important aspects of your fortress. All is not so hopeful when you realize you have dug too deep in your search for treasure. Monsters begin to invade your fortress from a deep shaft and you get something akin to the Moria sequence from Lord of the Rings. Or when you accidentally punch a hole into a lake underground and everyone in your fortress drowns. There are signs, supports and other things to help you predict these things, but you can't always know with complete certainty. My second attempt at building a fortress in a volcano ended much as you might imagine. Evil quick death and burning minions. Not to mention all the threats that could come from land and from within if the politicians fall out.
How do you build a stately fortress that can handle this? Time, patience, experimentation, guides and many losses. No one is an expert at this at first, it's an extremely niche adventure where you need to deal with everything a living creature could possibly need in such a fantasy setting. It's difficult, relentlessly challenging at times but offers a wonderful reward if you survive. There are no objectives, no pay screen or the like that you're used to. You play as long as you want. There are more game modes than the classic one where you build a fortress. You can start Adventure and Legends mode. The former sets you off on a trek through the world you created a bit like in the first Lord of the Rings. You and a group of adventurers can travel through the world, perform quests and learn more about it. Legends mode is more of a mode where you can read about everything that has happened and is happening in the world. The latter is not so much a game itself but the ability to read about all the information, history and world building.
The world building is literally done by you but also indirectly by everything that happens in the world. When you start a new one, a couple of hundred years of history is created for the world. This means that it didn't magically appear when you started but there are things that happened that shaped it. Then, when you take the helm, it is updated over time. New eras can happen when something big happens, funny little footnotes to stories can unfold between your characters and the computer controls. It's a narrative that is created, shaped and developed as you play and not presented to you directly. If you're playing Adventure or Fortress mode, much is hidden and you have to explore the world to learn more. You will never know the history of the people unless you meet them in the world. The weather, seasons, biomes also reflect what food, animals and other things you have access to. There are over 50 trees that produce fruit, for example. Your dwarves will also have preferences over food and drink. Over time, you will learn what you need.
When you've built a mighty fortress, done almost everything and feel that now you're safe, then you can count on the fall not being far away. You may have great dissatisfaction among your subjects and they rebel, or a mega monster eats everything on the surface, one of your dwarves accidentally opens a leak resulting in several levels of your fortress now being under water. Certainly you can build pumps and find solutions to plug the leak but it may have caused damage. Water comes in different forms, I tried to take advantage of a frozen lake during the winter. Spring came and ice became water and that was a lesson for next time. I hadn't had time to build out enough buildings to handle liquid water. My dwarves still managed to crawl out of the floors that were now submerged, except for a couple who felt compelled to try to salvage some gems. My solution now was to block up the lower floors and build passageways beyond my lower floors. I could of course have built pumps and tried to save the lower regions, unfortunately I didn't have access to many of these buildings at the time. The game often shifts between dealing with crises and finding solutions to continue building. That's one of the strengths. All the time there is an evolving narrative and your reaction determines how it continues.
To appreciate Dwarf Fortress, you probably need to like evolving narratives and titles like Rimworld and Anno. My big criticism is that while there is a training mode, it requires a lot of exploration by players outside of the title. On the other hand, there's an argument that it opens up a lot of self-testing. Kudos are due to Bay 12 Games for the presentation. I played this when it only existed visually in the form of Ascii a computer language made up of symbols. It wasn't easy to get your head around understanding what you were seeing to begin with. The developers felt they weren't competent to create the art when it was released in 2006. The Steam release solved this by hiring an artist to create the art. All the symbols have been replaced with figures, trees, mushrooms, rock faces, stones and more. It looks like something quite common in the medium. However, it's still nothing extraordinary, but the upgrade is like night and day to what has been. While the graphics can't illustrate exactly everything that happens behind the hood yet (which is on the way according to Bay 12 Games), it hasn't lost a drop of the depth that's always been there. This isn't something you learn in a day or two.
Musically and audio-visually, there is music and sound but there is nothing that adds to the experience. It's almost better to play your own playlist externally. On the other hand, the folk music is always nice, even if there isn't much of it. One problem at the moment is that warning messages and other important information are not visible or audible. You get a little box to click on at the side of the screen. This means that things don't always have time to register with you as a player. This worked slightly better in the original version. Control-wise it's a bit mixed I prefer the new version thanks to more mouse support. At the same time I can find it very many menus within menus. That means a lot of clicks to do simple things. This has often been a problem older strategy games suffered from but Dwarf Frotress definitely falls into that category.
The user interface is better than it used to be but there is clearly room for improvement. Clicking fewer times to accomplish things is one of these. A little more information in the tooltips and when you hold over items would have been desirable. There's a line between exploring on your own and the game giving you the right information right away. Many things like chairs, beds, embroidery, costumes, uniforms, farms, storage areas and the like are fairly easy to understand. Then there are buildings that should be built on top of other buildings or need certain things. I would have liked a screen where you can easily see where in the logistics chain you are missing some resource or item. The complexity of this work needs such tools.
Despite minor criticisms, it's still an immersive experience. Since there's no winning, you can just keep developing, building new fortresses or experiencing exciting stories. When everything is a multi-step process, it also creates a commitment from me to see things through. For example, I want to create better clothes for my dwarves. It's a whole industry to get clothes. You need animals, wool, farms, buildings and men to collect and transport the materials. At different buildings you get new resources, which in turn can eventually be handed in to the clothing creator. There you decide the size of the clothes, what kind of clothes, what material, colours and more. Speaking of which the colors come much more into focus now that the title has graphics. Before, we could create uniforms in certain colours but we had to imagine what they looked like. Part of me appreciated Ascii for that reason. It became more like an interactive book where a lot was left to our imagination. At the same time, it's much more playable and clear in the Steam version. All the little variations on furniture, trees, land, terrain, weather, and opportunities to customize your fortress show up in a way it didn't before.
Dwarf Fortress is a magnum opus, in development for 20 years by two brothers. It is not fully developed yet. What I've tried is an expansive, almost unnecessarily deep simulation of city-building in a world filled with magic, mead, angry dwarves, heroes and monsters. It even manages to make losing fun. Dwarf Fortress aims to simulate all aspects of life, and for the most part it succeeds fantastically at this. Despite a significantly (officially) improved user interface, it can get a little too menu-heavy. The game's user interface and signalling of important information to you could also be improved slightly. Overall, there is no other experience on the market that manages to dig this deep. Either you love this, or you hate the experience on offer. I fall into the small group that loves this simulation. Small problems don't stop this from standing up as one of the gaming world's many masterpieces.