I’ve been wanting to write a blog for some time about video games but it’s only recently that I pinned what really makes a game good or interesting to me. I would argue that a game is defined by the mechanics it employs. Dwarf Fortress is the entire embodiment of this argument as it is nothing but mechanics. In my humble opinion, the game is ugly, obtuse, and really just a pain to get into. I’ve bounced off it for that reason three or four times. It took Dave Fortress to get me willing to dive again and I have to say it’s one of the greatest games I’ve ever played.
If you have friends who talk about dwarf fortress you will hear cautionary tales about carp saying they kill dwarves, and warning you of your dwarves going insane and making a necklace out of the bones of the dwarf they once called their best friend. Its beyond me why people try to bill this game as the most confusing thing they have ever come across and that playing the game is sheer madness. It’s one of the most logical and straightforward game I’ve ever encountered.
First, Why do carp kill dwarves? You have to understand some of the mechanics first. Dwarf Fortress has a fantastic sense of emergent gameplay that comes from the logical underpinnings of the game. For example, why would a wolf eat a rabbit? If I were the wolf, I would eat the rabbit because its smaller than me and I eat meaty things like rabbits. That same logic applies to our carp. He and the dwarf are roughly the same size (I can take him!) and the carp eats meaty things, like other fish. It just so happens that our dwarf is also a meaty thing. So, something on its face like a river carp drowning or eating a dwarf out of the blue can be silly and billed as unexpected but with a little understanding you might have seen it coming from a mile away. (let it be known, carp are less dangerous compared to what they once were).
That makes dwarf fortress fascinating. It’s like The Sims and Majesty. It’s your duty to make sure Bob Newbie doesn’t drown in the pool except you can’t take over his brain and tell him to stop swimming and go to sleep. It’s a god game where you play on the base needs of your dwarves and hope they follow your orders when they get around to it. What makes the game so difficult is how uncompromising it is. If dwarfypants has a pet ox that he takes in the cave with him, it will die. It will die because it will starve because there’s no grass in a cave. His pet dying will make him sad, and if he’s sad already it may be the breaking point and he might go insane in a number of ways. (You will pray that he just takes off his clothes and runs around naked instead of slaughtering everything in his path until he is cut down without mercy)
It’s a mechanics based game. The only story you get is literally “Seven dwarves leave their mountain home and go to set up a new one”. If you haven’t read it yet or arent keeping up I encourage you to read The Story of Shimmeroiled which, at the time of my writing, is still ongoing. There are so many ways to succeed and fail in this game and it’s all based on systems within systems. Your dwarves can starve, get dehydrated, go insane, be slaughtered by mythical beasts, be slaughtered by greedy goblin raiders after your gold laden hills, or any number of things. There is no set story except that you will start, and you will die. The mechanics work together so well that a story gets created out of thin air.
I could list off all the mechanics in play like, animal breeding, crafting, and butchery but that would take hours of your time to read and isn’t the point of this post. The point is that a game with no story to speak of, ugly utilitarian graphics, a confusing UI, and a steep learning curve can be an amazing game that makes up for the deficiencies in every other department just by mechanics alone. That is why I argue that mechanics are most important part of any game. From this point on I intend to pick out singular game mechanics from my favorite games and go into detail on why I think they make a compelling or enjoyable game.