Esoteric PC games

We often associate video games with flashy 3D graphics, hyper-competitive deathmatches, and rapid-fire mouse clicking. But old school computer games like “NetHack” and “Rogue” were built on entirely different principles, using simple text-based graphics to create immensely rich and detailed worlds that were designed to be explored by a single person.

Those games, while vitally important to the history and development of modern games, tend to go unnoticed. That’s because their simplistic visuals and clunky interfaces present a steep learning curve for the modern day gamer; getting through them can often feel more like reading a book or managing an excel spreadsheet than playing a video game.

“Dwarf Fortress,” a strategy-adventure game whose development started in 2006 by Bay 12 Games, is the most successful attempt at recapturing this style of intricate and obtuse gaming. It’s a game truly massive in scale and detail. Upon starting the game, you randomly generate a single world — one rich with centuries of history and thousands of historical figures and civilizations.

The game’s designers intended for the generated worlds to tell stories as detailed and heartbreaking as any fantasy novel. Leading your small expedition of dwarves to a prosperous new kingdom requires careful planning and management of constructions and jobs. You’ll carve out rooms and halls into the sides of mountains, grow and brew plants for ale and wine, form a military to defend yourself from raiders, and help your dwarves create beautiful furniture and maintain relationships with each other to ensure their emotional well-being.

These game elements certainly aren’t unique to Dwarf Fortress, but the level of detail the game operates at — combat often involves aiming for the specific finger joint you want to hack off — elevates the experience to actual storytelling, which is often as tragic as it is entertaining. Since the game has no ending, almost every fortress will eventually fall to starvation, invaders, mythical beasts, or its own poor management.

I’ll never forget when I lost my first fortress to a raiding party of goblins. As they snuck into the fortress and were discovered looting the stockpiles, they killed off every dwarf inside — except for Imush Lazral, a farmer and mother who, enraged by the sight of the goblins attacking her children, ripped three of them apart with her bare hands before fleeing into the countryside.

Because of the sheer open-endedness of the game and its complete lack of a tutorial, using online guides and the unofficial wiki is a necessity when starting out. Thankfully, the game’s devoted community has compiled a wealth of tools and resources to make learning the game a bit easier, including mods that give the game actual graphics instead of its ASCII-art lettering. 

But no matter how much you learn, the game always remains somewhat elusive and confusing, which is part of the appeal. You always feel like you’re exploring and stumbling around in the worlds in Dwarf Fortress, rather than following a pre-destined and railroaded path like so many other games.

Games like Dwarf Fortress and NetHack obviously aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, and their bewildering layouts, frustrating controls, and flood of often unnecessary information are understandably off-putting. If you want to enjoy a game without having to consult spreadsheets and pages of hotkeys just to figure out how to tell a dwarf to move a barrel of wine, it might not be worth your time.

For me, the simple charm of its retro graphics (dwarf babies are tiny flashing smiley faces) and the emotional depth of the stories that are created by your interaction with its living, breathing worlds keeps me drawn in. It also doesn’t hurt that the game, as well as all of the modifications and content its community has made for it, is free — Dwarf Fortress is completely supported through donations.

So if you ever have the desire to dive deep into the story of a fantasy world with characters and places as complex and real as a novel, give Dwarf Fortress a try. You might be surprised to find yourself crying, three weeks later, over a field of red smiley faces.

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