The Times has an article in the Sunday Magazine about, no, I did not believe this either until I saw it, Dwawf Fortress. Yes, that Dwarf Fortress, the ascii-art game with the 1300-page wiki and the epic tales. The wonder, perhaps, is that the article exists at all, and I enjoyed learning more about Tarn Adams’s focused obsession, but still, I felt the article didn’t quite capture the features that make Dwarf Fortress so remarkable. I say all of this as a non-player (I don’t have a few spare months lying around, sorry), so I might well be wrong, but …
First, the “epic” in the Dwarf Fortress Epic genre is wholly appropriate. The game captures something of the character of the sagas, those other tales from harsh and violent lands. Dwarf Fortress combines a sweeping grand historical narrative with a perfectly clear-eyed vision that omits nothing. There is no depth of field: every detail is there, and can assume equal importance, as though a hawk or a god were watching from above with detachment at these dwarves scrabbling in the earth. One sees the rise and the fall of the mighty fortress with its great delvings; one sees each High Master Fish Dissector.
And second, all Dwarf Fortress Epics (or at least all the ones that have gone viral) tend to ruin. Something always goes wrong. The dwarves dig too deep, and unleash a named horror. The weather is bad, and the wrong door is opened at the wrong time. A trap fails when a panicked dwarf runs backward through a corridor, flooding out the armory and keeping the militia from responding. The emergent gameplay means that things fail in the most surprising and fascinating ways. Like zombie movies, Dwarf Fortress Epics tell a single story: the sudden-onset entropic collapse of civilization.
Dwarf Fortress, in other words, is a storytelling game. The complexity of the rules provides room for interesting things to happen; the simple graphics provide room for the imagination to do the rest.