So you know Dwarf Fortress, that crazy game I may have told you about over the past six months? The sim game where you basically build the Mines of Moria? Where dwarves go crazy and build a fractal statue with 73 images of itself?
It's been written up at length in the New York Times Magazine.
The article does a good job of describing what makes the game so bizarre and so brilliant. Greg Costikyan described it as the product of an alternate universe where the graphics revolution never happened, but computing power increased according to Moore's Law as in our universe. The result is a game where all the complexity goes to the actual guts and mechanics, rather than pretty graphics:
“The processing power that Dwarf Fortress uses is on the same scale as modern engineering software for designing aerospace hardware,” says Ames, the engineer. “You have more complicated simulations in Dwarf Fortress than when you model the aerodynamics of a wing.”
As the article correctly observes, this represents a radically different approach to game design, and perhaps one that could only be brought to us by an eccentric pair of brothers with advanced degrees in mathematics and ancient history:
At bottom, Dwarf Fortress mounts an argument about play. Many video games mimic the look and structure of films: there’s a story line, more or less fixed, that progresses only when you complete required tasks. This can make for gripping fun, but also the constrictive sense that you are a mouse in a tricked-out maze, chasing chunks of cheese. Tarn envisions Dwarf Fortress, by contrast, as an open-ended “story generator.” He and Zach grew up playing computer games with notebooks in hand, drawing their own renditions of the randomly generated creatures they encountered and logging their journeys in detail. Dwarf Fortress, which never unfolds the same way twice, takes that spirit of supple, fully engaged play to the extreme.
Tarn sees his work in stridently ethical terms. He calls games like Angry Birds or Bejeweled, which ensnare players in addictive loops of frustration and gratification under the pretense that skill is required to win, “abusive” — a common diagnosis among those who get hooked on the games, but a surprising one from a game designer, ostensibly charged with doing the hooking. “Many popular games tap into something in a person that is compulsive, like hoarding,” he said, “the need to make progress with points or collect things. You sit there saying yeah-yeah-yeah and then you wake up and say, What the hell was I doing? You can call that kind of game fun, but only if you call compulsive gambling fun.” He added: “I used to value the ability to turn the user into your slave. I don’t anymore.”
Dwarf Fortress is a path not normally taken, which as a thoughtful gamer I regret.