After a long night of playing Dwarf Fortress, I had a concerned look on my face when I finally went to bed. My wife asked what was wrong. “I think I actually want to keep playing this,” I said. I felt a nagging concern for many weeknights to come.
Available tomorrow on Steam and itch.io, the new version of Dwarf Fortress updates the legendary (and legendarily arcane) colony-building roguelike with new pixel-art graphics, music, some (default) keyboard shortcuts, and a beginners’ tutorial. The commercial release aims to do two things: make the game somewhat more accessible and provide Tarn and Zach Adams, the brothers who maintained the game as a free download for 20 years, some financial security.
I know it has succeeded at its first job, and I suspect it will hit the second mark, too. I approached the game as a head-first review expedition into likely frustrating territory. Now I find myself distracted from writing about it because I keep thinking about my goblin defense and whether the fisherdwarf might be better assigned to gem crafting.
Nearly 10 years ago, Ars’ Casey Johnston spent 10 hours trying to burrow into Dwarf Fortress and came out more confused than before. The ASCII-based “graphics” played a significant role in her confusion, but so did the lack of any real onboarding, or even simple explanations or help menus about how things worked. Even after begrudgingly turning to a beginners’ wiki, Johnston found nothing but frustration:
Where’s the command to build a table? Which workshop is the mason’s? How do I figure that out? Should I just build another mason’s workshop because that may be faster than trying to find the right menu to identify the mason’s workshop?
In a few hours’ time—and similarly avoiding the wiki guide until I’d tried going it alone for my first couple of runs—I got further into Dwarf Fortress’ systems than Johnston did with her 10-hour ordeal, and I likely enjoyed it a good deal more. Using the new tutorial modes’ initial placement suggestions and following its section-by-section cues, my first run taught me how to dig down, start a stockpile, assign some simple jobs, build a workshop, and—harkening back to Johnston’s final frustrations—craft and place beds, bins, and tables, made with “non-economic stone.”
That’s about where the guidance ends, though. The new menus are certainly a lot easier to navigate than the traditional all-text, shortcut-heavy interface (though you can keep using multi-key combinations to craft and assign orders if you like). And the graphics certainly make it a lot easier to notice and address problems. Now, when an angry Giant Badger Boar kills your dogs and maims the one dwarf you have gathering plants outside, the threat actually looks like a badger, not a symbol you’d accidentally type if you held down the Alt key. If you build a barrel, you get something that resembles a barrel, which is no small thing when you’re just getting started in this arcane world.
The newly added music also helps soften the experience for newcomers. It’s intermittent, unobtrusive, and quite lovely and evocative. It seems designed to stave off the eeriness of too much silent strategizing without overstaying its welcome. I can appreciate a game that graphically evokes the 16-bit era without the audio-cue exhaustion common to the JRPGs and simulations of the time.
However gentler the aesthetics and guidance for a newcomer, all the game’s brutally tough and interlocking systems are intact in this update. These systems crunch together in weird and wild ways, fed by the landscape, your recent and long-ago actions, and random numbers behind the scenes.
My first run ended in starvation and rock-bottom morale (“hissy fits” in common wiki language) because farming, butchering, and other procurements aren’t covered in the tutorial. I shut down my second run early after picking a sandy area with an aquifer as a starting zone, thinking it would make glasswork and irrigation easier and being quickly disappointed with this strategy. I was proud on my third run to have started brewing and dispensing drinks (essential to dwarves’ contentment), but I dug too close to a nearby river, and I abandoned that soggy fort as yet another lesson learned.
But I’ll be back. For me, the commercial release of Dwarf Fortress succeeded at transforming the game from a grim, time-killing in-joke for diehards into a viable, if not graceful, challenge. I will start again, I will keep the badgers and floods at bay, and next time, I might have the privilege of failing to a magma monster, an outbreak of disease, or even a miscarriage of dwarf justice.