Dwarf Fortress: Playstyles Followup

DF Talk 17 is out.  It discusses playstyles central to Dwarf Fortress, based on the definitions defined in the previous article.  After contemplating further, after reading the thread’s responses, both before and after the Talk was posted, here’s my follow up thoughts on the issue.

As indicated in the Talk, DF started out very ‘gamey’ in nature.   While some would classify it as more of a fantasy world simulator than a game these days, it began as more of an oldschool sort of affair.  Loot was created by the dwarves you controlled as they fought ever-increasing obstacles and enemies, and when you die, a second game mode is activated wherein you go into the dungeon you created and collect the things you made.  It was, essentially, two distinct types of games glued together by the meta-score of loot/time lasted/enemies defeated, etc.  Eventually, Dwarf Fortress was fused with the failed Slaves to Armok:  God of Blood project.  ‘Armok’ was closer in scope to the DF we know today- again, a fantasy world generator with tremendous breadth of simulation.

During this transition from, many game-like elements were shed from Dwarf Fortress like vestigial organs.  Other features, like meta-score, and the precise nature of the ‘setting’, and the crafts and dwarves and adventurers you controlled, were all rolled up and expanded into an increasingly complex ‘world’.   This is what DF is respected for- each dwarf and human and elf has a lineage reaching back generations, each engraved table has a story, and even terrifying dragons which at one point may have simply been a simple capital D “a Dragon” are now centuries old named beings with kill lists and backstories.  Specific ores create specific metals, sandy soil is different than loamy clay soil, etc.  Water tables are modelled, rain is calculated, all of that stuff.  From this, the game has cultivated a strong simulationist aspect many people enjoy.

The immense list of things you can do allows a player to rip the sandbox world DF creates open, and shake it by its guts until various things happen.  The amount of control players have over things, coupled with the amount of sheer chaos that creeps into the game despite the best intentions of players, allows any number of ridiculous scenarios to play out.  A dwarf might not find the right type of stone and go insane and tear out an important part of some magma-diverting moat, flooding a sector with death.  The huge backstories some NPCs accumulate, coupled with their godlike skills in dealing death provide ready-made heroes and villains that can be encountered in the world.  Any devout player will have the names and stories of at least a handful of key figures from a growing pantheon.  Narrativist aspects abound, solely because beings in DF follow certain rules that, to a respectable extent, synch up with what people come to expect from stories and characters.  It becomes simple to decide that the aforementioned dwarf, in a fit of sheer rage, tore the floodgate out with his bare hands as a symbolic gesture of his feelings for the world.  It’s a layer of imaginative abstraction over a layer of computerized abstraction of a portrayal of plausible events that can play out.  While I had left ‘narrativism’ out of my three playstyles listed, I’ve come to realize that it isn’t as much a function of simulation as I originally thought.  Many players in the thread seem to enjoy the semi-ergodic nature of DF as weaving infinite stories.   Of course, it will only become better at it in time, as NPCs develop personalities and ways to enact them.

Constructionist players don’t seem to have as much of a share as I would have thought, but the more I consider why this may be I realize that in many ways, constructionist-play (making structures, planning efficient workshop schemes, etc) are simply a major tool players have to accessing the game’s other facets.  Further, until the ‘game’ becomes more challenging and robust in other areas, building a fifty-stories tall magma-shooting dwarf monument is just one way to pass the time.  In other ways, constructionist play is also a way of stunting for the community itself, and a way of expressing mastery of the game’s systems.  There are certainly some who create mega-structures for purely aesthetic reasons, but there are almost always other factors involved.

One thing to keep in mind, regardless of who ‘plays’ Dwarf Fortress  for what reason, is that it is still being made.  Many features have yet to be added or completed.  I feel that, as it progresses, there will be both a further distinction in the separate playstyles with regard to the level of control people have in creating structures, defining narrative, the depth of simulation, etc- as well as a more overall unification of them all.  As the project grows and solidifies, the realism of the underlying mechanics, the fantasy elements the game models, the breadth of sheer content to explore, will all make Dwarf Fortress more coherent for everyone playing.  High scores aren’t required for it to be a game, and being a game doesn’t stop it from being something entirely different than what people expect.

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