What’s a dwarf fortress then?


SimCity, Maxis, 1989

From The New Yorker:

The great lesson of SimCity, the fact the game was built to display, is the delight of city life, of urbanity in general. Even failing cities are beautiful in SimCity. Their streets are straight and well kempt, their deserted building zones are clean and peaceful and full of possibility. The colors are bright but not garish: the water blue, the land a flat green, the roads a soothing gray. The view the player has of them is from exactly the right height: close enough to see the bustle of the cars and trucks, the charmingly repetitive irregularity of the buildings, but too distant to see crime, pollution, frustration, or failure as anything more than slightly disheartening abstractions. It looks a bit like an animated tourist map, complete with color-coding, oversized landmarks, and a peculiarly American inattention to parking. The public mood can plummet, but there is never any depiction of the human suffering endemic to even successful urban areas. Pollution is tracked, but it has no long-term consequences.

Even when you are starting the settlement of the area entirely from scratch, what you are founding is always, and can only really be, a city, even when it has the population of a village. The vast fields and relative isolation and independence of rural life are essentially impossible to create in any sustainable way, and there is never any sense of a natural world displaced by the arrival of the metropolis. And though something reminiscent of suburbia can arise, it is an oddly antiquated, citified version of it, without the isolated residential enclaves and diffuse, distant commercial centers that often characterize it these days. It’s a vision of the city as existing somehow independent of its inhabitants: a city of buildings, not people; a city serenely, joyously inhuman.

More fundamental than this, though, is the very particular worldview that animates all the SimCity games. The world Wright gives his players is one defined by a constant flickering interplay between progress and equilibrium, a gentle utopia of possibility. Decay is never a real threat. His cities never die, and if left to their own devices they pretty much go on as they were. The closest thing to failure is a genial sort of rut, an inability to make the city grow and progress the way you’d like; excepting perhaps the aftermath of a nuclear power plant melting down, there’s never an irreversible collapse. Without extreme, juvenile levels of incompetence, you can’t fail to make or maintain a city, you merely fail to make that city great. It’s a commonplace that many urban planners found their vocation in childhood games of SimCity—and this at least rings true, for the game is nothing if not inspirational. Its world is infinitely soothing, its consistent message one of safety, surmountable challenge, hope, and stability.

The appeal of such fictional peace does have its limits, as it turns out. One can begin to suspect that all thriving cities look pretty much the same, that even the most successful equilibrium is simply boring. The popularity of “disasters”—the calamities, ranging from fires and airplane crashes to, in the more baroque later versions, locust swarms and U.F.O. attacks, that the player can purposely inflict on his city, or allow to occur randomly—bespeaks this creeping boredom. But it points as well to a desire to demonstrate the strength and elasticity of the world’s stability. These disasters are designed to be manageable. There is a never an unfixable problem, never a ruin that can’t be cleared and rebuilt. It is an almost comically American vision, a pure product of the Reagan dream: zero history, infinite future.

Dwarf Fortress, Tarn Adams, 2006

The best answer to SimCity, and its only challenger as the most interesting simulation game, is just across the way from it at the MOMA exhibition: Dwarf Fortress. It is not so much SimCity’s monstrous offspring as its gifted, maniacal, extremely worrisome younger brother. Officially titled Slaves to Armok: God of Blood, Chapter II: Dwarf Fortress, this bizarre, brilliant game by a Texan named Tarn Adams (working almost entirely on his own) has been a public work-in-progress since 2006, in which time it has, according to a 2011 New York Times Magazine profile of its creator, been downloaded about a million times. If SimCity is the video game as toy—inviting, open-ended, and subtly but unmistakably limited—Dwarf Fortress is the video game as folk art masterpiece: eccentric, over-the-top, and oddly affecting.

“SimCity’s Evil Twin”, Gabriel Winslow-Yost, The New Yorker