Thursday, February 7, 2013

Dwarf Fortress: Adventurer's Diary - The Killing of Lipi Sharkwhip

Dwarf Fortress distills down to its essence the reason that I play games, the feeling that hooks me the fastest and the hardest; I didn't become an EverQuest addict ten years ago because of other people -- what hooked me was that sense of embarking, of being thrust into an unknown world with only the most basic tools and one's own sense of resourcefulness to get by on.

What gives a game that sense of vastness isn't always graphical, or even geometric. A game can feel vast purely based on the level of detail it provides, the specificity and consistency of its presentation and interactions with the player. And this is what Dwarf Fortress gives you, it's bread and butter -- a ridiculous level of randomized detail, almost enough to lose yourself in. I chose Adventure Mode for this post, which filters the game through a roguelike sieve (as opposed to the more sedentary/simmish Fortress mode). In Adventure mode, you create the world, create a character, and charge out into the unknown...

Journal of Kadi Pujapestrat, Human Adventurer
Year 125 of the Age of Myth

Day 1

My name is Kadi Pujapestrat. I ran away from my family to join the circus when I was a child. And today, I am running away from the circus to become an adventurer. I recognize the irony and no, I don't think I'm indecisive. The circus just isn't exciting enough for me.

As I packed my meager possessions in preparation of my journey toward greatness, my trainer stood behind me and told me I was a fool, that I wouldn't last a day out in the world of swords and wolves and starvation. I think he will miss me. I was a great performer, if I may say so myself. But I'm tired of the farce battles, the lions in suits. I want to be an adventurer. I want to see the world, the untamed world, not just the inside of a series of colored tents and the faces of the fat townsfolk. And I want to show everyone in my family that I can do great things. I'm not a side show.

I am starting this journal so I will remember these words if my resolve runs low. I am going on to great things. Great things!

Destiny calls me with its first request. I spoke to a man in the hamlet of Delightstabs (the people here all seem to be very happy), and he asked me to kill a vampire.

A vampire!

Perhaps this task may be a bit much for a first time adventurer, but why am I doing this if not to prove my ambition?

The man said the vampire has killed over 500 in his lust for blood. Of course, I know that must be an exaggeration. Most of them were probably rats, or naive, untrained adventurers. Not like me. I have a sword! A real one, not a rubber one for fighting clowns or anything like that. Not only that, it's made of silver. Creatures of the night fear silver, or that's what everyone says. He'll probably melt the moment the blade touches his pale, sun-starved skin.

Still, I'm not taking any unnecessary risks. I'm not going to face this murderer alone. Any good adventurer has followers, friends and companions who charge ahead to fight, and shout your name enthusiastically after every battle, assuming they don't die a glorious death in your honor. I have recruited such fellows from the fortress Pristinelizard, and they are three in number: a bowman, a swordsman, and an axeman.

The axeman has a particularly frightening look in his eyes. He should make a fearsome ally. That vampire won't know what hit him.

I will give the axeman first watch when we make camp tonight, as we now set out for the capitol, 'Lashprairies', where the blood-sucker is said to be hiding.


On our way to Lashprairies we were set upon by wolves. My companions decimated them. I am inspired by their performance, but I worry a bit about the axeman. I saw him bite a wolf's nose off.

I suppose he's just a very enthusiastic axeman, but isn't that what his axe is for? He also jumped into a river to have it out with a Sturgeon on our way out of the fortress where I recruited them all. He's a risk taker, all right. A perfectly fine quality in a follower, but we'll have to keep an eye on him nontheless.

What Dwarf Fortress does is combine a love of fantasy worlds -- expansive terrain, numerous myths, various civilizations, and items, items, items -- with procedural generation. In a few minutes it can spit out a world full of ominously named locales, legendarily named monsters, and hilariously named characters. It creates interrelations between all of these things and splatters them all over continents, islands, and underground, leaving you with a realm all to yourself.

As you can see from the above screenshots, Dwarf Fortress's graphics are almost abstract, like absurdist ASCII art in motion. This might be a little off putting initially, but when you wrap your head around what it's doing, it makes complete sense. You see, what the abstract graphics give Dwarf Fotress is a blank slate for the words it will use to describe itself to you. And Dwarf Fortress loves its words.

The game can string adjectives and nouns together and produce something as unusual as an orca-skin long skirt, which can in turn be adorned with a variety of other materials, spikes, hoops, and so on. There's magic in the way that it can name a region of land, "The Hill of Crosses", for example, infusing literary significance into what otherwise would be an empty patch of ground.

The fidelity of interactions with entities and objects in the game mirrors the textual detail -- it is quite deep, and grammatically consistent. Individual characters have complex family trees that track other characters across the world, and their respective achievements. There is an entire sub-system dedicated to wrestling, in which you can grab specific body parts, with context-appropriate options following such as strangling, breaking joints, take-downs, etc. In combat, the game accurately refers to the outcome of events such as arrows piercing internal organs, cutting into various types of flesh, rending scales off dragons -- you name it, and the game seems to think of a way to word it.

Day 2

We arrived today in the town and capitol of Lashprairies. I know that our enemy is hiding somewhere in this region, but we still need to sniff him out. After some armor shopping and a sale of the wolf parts we had collected from our encounter, we are in fine shape. The word from the Lasher was that the vampire is to the east; we will find him soon, and show no mercy.


We trudged across fields of mud, clay, and sand east out of the city. How far do we need to go? I don't really know. My companions don't seem to tire, but I'm no soldier. I must keep on! The blood sucking fiend is out there, waiting to be stabbed through the heart. For glory!

Day 3

Lipi Sharkwhip, vampire and tormentor of peasants, where are you? These fields of clay are vast and suck at my alpaca wool shoes. Should have bought boots. We will try a spiral search pattern.


We can't find him. This is the place the Thresher told me to go. Where is he? I see no caves, no ruined castles, only white sand and reedgrass waving in gentle breeze from the west.

Would he be cowardly enough to hide during the day and only come out at night? Or has he entombed himself in the earth, knowing what fearsome host comes to claim his head?


In the evening, exhausted and downtrodden, our bowman spotted a light in the distance. It was not the vampire's den, though; it was an isolated hut, with a family living inside. They invited us in, and, weary from our difficult search, we rested.

On a whim, I struck up a conversation with the family's child, asking if he had seen any vampires recently. To my surprise, he told me that Lipi Sharkwhip the vampire is actually "their master"! Amazing. The night-fiend must be posing as a high ranking official in the capitol. Also, it appears his kill count is up to 572.

The family was good company and the child was very well spoken for a two year old. His parents must be home-schooling him. In any case, we would have wandered for ages without his knowledge, so I am thankful. We shall sleep here and head west in the morning, back towards the keep of Lashprairies, to send Lipi back to hell.

Note to self: refill waterskin at the next opportunity. Getting a bit thirsty.

Sure, some of the game systems may misfire at times. Sometimes the quests don't point you in exactly the right direction, and the people you talk to are not going to pass any Turing tests. But, there's no way to generate a world this complex without there being some holes.

A larger problem might be that the basic gameplay, taken at face value, becomes rather rote after you've completed a few quests (Adventure Mode is definitely not as feature-rich for progression as Fortress Mode, with its vast crafting system) and there is not a whole lot you will be explicitly rewarded for other than questing, which without fail involves going out and slaying some troublesome monster.

But even if the game sends you into a dead end from time to time, it also inspires you to make stories out of those dead ends. The problems you will face inspire legends on a personal, intimate scope, in the context of the world it has created for you. The game has a comprehensive legend-tracking system, meaning every monster you kill is entered into its annals, in full title, to be recounted to future generations... or future characters, if you're unlucky enough to experience one of the many possible ways to die in Dwarf Fortress. Burned by lava or dragonfire, drowned, choked, stabbed, thrown, pulverized, or starved -- death is handled in as much fidelity as anything in the game.

Day 4

We have lots of wolf meat. I will not go hungry. But I am so, so thirsty. No rivers nearby. Writing hard. Why did I leave my home? Why does this wanderlust possess me? What am I going to gain by killing vampires? Lipi Sharkwhip eludes us. And surely in this state, throat parched, head throbbing, he wouldn't break a sweat killing me.

So, so thirsty. Where do these people get water? Do they even know what a well is?


Finally, we traveled far out of the town, and found a river. I must have sat there for hours drinking, resting, gulping... but I fear we're almost out of time. Our quarry surely grows suspicious and may flee to some hole in the ground if we wait much longer. I must confront him.

We march to the top of the keep of Lashprairies, to what fate I know not, but surely knowing that if we meet our prey, either Lipi or everyone in my party shall die this day.


It is done. We stumbled into the keep in the evening, intending to search it top to bottom. And at the top, we found him. Now his blood is strewn about the keep of Lashprairies. My companions tore him apart hand and foot -- the final blow struck by the bowman, straight through the skull. He has eyes like a hawk.

Lipi Sharkwhip, scourge of Lashprairies, was hiding in the city as a law-giver. And Lipi was not the only thing rotten in the capitol. His cultists were infesting the keep, all of which we've put to the sword. Lashprairies is freed from an evil tyrant and the glory of our deeds will spread throughout Ashionra for ages to come.

And yet... I feel oddly unfulfilled. I did little more than throw rocks at him during our fight, a fact blissfully missing from the songs now being composed of Kadi Pujapestrat, vampire slayer extraordinaire. The truth is that I was terrified. Of him, of my companions, of the orgy of gore I was witness to, battle-hardened veterans tearing the pale-skinned one apart hand and foot, and allowing me all the glory after.

I feel hollow. The wanderlust is not sated. I think it has grown a bit stronger.

Perhaps I must set out on my own again. Away from the violence. Across The Sumerged Waters, to lands unknown to my kind. Perhaps what I seek lies on the horizon...

Despite the game's limitations and inevitable inconsistencies, I still find it oddly compelling. It is expansive. Vast. It has a way of winding bizarre words together in unusual ways. The legend system creates a sense of interconnectedness lacking in most sandbox games. You can scroll across the continent map and see the names of mountains in the distance and wonder what mythical creatures live there, die there, what terrors or wonders are hiding at the edge of the world.

It's a game that rewards the use of one's imagination, of setting your own goals, and wandering a huge system that exists only because you brought it into being, and which no other player is likely to ever know, unless you share it.

Dwarf Fortress seems to be is one of those games that herald a level of detail beginning to approach, at least from the player's perspective, infinite fractal depth. One can imagine games in the near future capable of summoning infinite contextually relevant details that expand out from the player as needed. Examine the ground, see an item. Examine the item, see it is an earring. Examine the earring, see it is adorned with hanging rings of bone. Examine the rings, see they are made of mole bone, with minor fractures and blemishes, the mark of the crafter pointing to a hamlet in...

An earring may seem like a small thing, but the little things are what make a world so big. The smaller the details, the larger the scale. Worlds of such definition are exceedingly easy and enjoyable to be lost in, and I'd like to see more of them, in whatever incarnations they may take.