Dwarf Fortress, the byzantine and beloved colony simulation game, comes to Steam on Dec. 6. Tuesday’s announcement marks a major milestone for Bay 12 Games’ Tarn Adams and Zach Adams, who began work on the game since 2003.
Originally titled Slaves to Armok: God of Blood Chapter II: Dwarf Fortress, the game’s primary mode of play involves taking a small group of dwarves and carving a home for them out of the unforgiving wilderness. The game blends classic Tolkien-inspired fantasy lore with an incredibly complex simulation that models everything from individuals’ moods, manners, and madnesses to glacial flows and fluid dynamics.
Dwarf Fortress is a famously ugly game, with a set of primitive sprites based on ASCII characters. The new implementation features a new pixel art tileset and, for the first time, mouse functionality. There is also a basic tutorial, a kind of in-game encyclopedia, a full soundtrack, ambient sounds, and other quality of life additions intended to lower its punishing learning curve.
One of the more charming additions to the game is its host of animal folk sprites, around 200 in all, Tarn Adams told Polygon. But, in discussing their inclusion, he also revealed just how much work has been done by him and his brother, and the team at Kitfox Games they partnered with in 2019. Add on gigantic versions of those creatures, and there’s 200 more. There’s fantasy animals, which adds another 50 sprites, and the normal animals of course — another 200. That brings the total of just animals and animal folk to somewhere around 650. All of those have dead versions, of course, as well as statue versions, and zombie versions. Add in procedurally generated creatures, including the dwarves themselves, which each have eight different pieces that the game can choose from during creation, and the work begins to pile up.
“I’ve forgotten the Forgotten Beasts, of course,” Tarn Adams said with a laugh, “which have a giant grid of pieces that are put together from shells, antennae, mandibles, trunks, wings, tails, and various numbers of eyes. [...] There’s quite a lot.”
The new version of the game isn’t just tailored for new players. Dwarf Fortress veterans can look forward to bug fixes galore, the brothers said. Also, dwarves themselves are a bit easier to corral thanks to a new “custom work detail” system (which replaces the legacy view/profession/labor system). Beyond that, the pair is particularly excited about the enhanced endgame.
“I don’t know how much people are going to yell at you for spoiling things,” Tarn Adams warned. “It’s been out for like 16 years, I guess, so it’s kind of like spoiling an ’80s movie or something.”
“To become a ‘mountain home’ is kind of the general thing that you’re supposed to be doing,” Zach Adams said. Once a fortress reaches a certain population of happy dwarves, he explained, a contingent of dwarf nobles will travel from another part of the overworld to take up residence in what is ostensibly the new capital of a dwarven civilization. But, rather than spend time and treasure appeasing those nobles, players have traditionally drowned them instead. Narratively it’s a bit abrupt, but mechanically it’s much easier than grappling with capricious and sometimes untenable demands. While the brothers didn’t want to spoil too much, their refinements should make that endgame scenario — which involves quite a bit of mining and exploration — much more playable than it was previously.
Tarn Adams also said he’s personally interested in seeing the Dwarf Fortress speedrunning community pick back up again.
“It’s not impossible to do,” Tarn Adams said. “It only took Zach 47 hours. We think people could do it much faster.”
The game has been available for free since its 2006 release, and the pair have funded its development through crowdfunding. One of the big reasons that the brothers set out on this path with Kitfox was to improve their financial security, and with the launch they’re finally looking to make that personal goal a reality.
“We haven’t gotten COVID yet,” Tarn Adams said, his brother nodding along in our Zoom call. “The main goal was to get better health insurance and stuff. And that’s not going to be a thing until we release the game. We’re almost there.”