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Dwarf Fortress art Image: Bay 12 Games

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The co-creator of Dwarf Fortress is getting older, but his work remains unfinished

An interview with Tarn Adams, also known as Toady One

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Dwarf Fortress is coming to Steam and, but it won’t be finished anytime soon.

In fact, hearing that this particular game could be nearing completion might be the worst news that fans of Dwarf Fortress might ever receive. The game’s bizarre complexity makes it so endearing; its utterly absurd scope is a feature, not a bug. That’s why co-creator and programmer Tarn Adams sounded nearly frantic when I asked if Dwarf Fortress — in development since 2003 — was finally finished.

Finishing would leave so much left undone.

“I just want to be careful,” Adams told me. “I just want to be careful about the phrasing here. This is one of the most important pieces of messaging out of this announcement.”

Rather than an endpoint, the move on to Valve’s massive digital marketplace is merely intended to open up Dwarf Fortress to a wider audience. And in order to get more players, Adams will need to spend time adding polish. Sales of the Steam version will then allow Tarn Adams and his brother Zach Adams, who do business as Bay 12 Games, the financial freedom they need to continue making Dwarf Fortress for as long as they’re physically able.

So yes; Dwarf Fortress is coming to Steam. But the game itself isn’t anywhere near being finished.

And, if Adams has anything to say about it, it likely never will be.

New art for Dwarf Fortress on Steam will include a proper tileset for the first time. The work is being managed by the game’s new publisher, Kitfox, and community members Michał “Mayday” Madej and Patrick Martin “Meph” Schroeder. The original ASCII tileset will be available as well.
Bay 12 Games/Kitfox Games

Dig deep

Dwarf Fortress has been in a continual state of development for nearly 16 years. It’s comprised of three distinct modes of play. There’s the Fortress mode, of course, in which players help a small group of dwarves to carve a city out of the bare earth. There’s the Adventure mode, which plays like a traditional roguelike game, filled with medieval weapons and deadly monsters. And there’s also the Legends mode, which allows you to inspect the game’s elaborate, procedurally generated histories filled with heroic characters and epic wars that span generations.

The three modes interact with each other. When your dwarf settlement falls into disrepair, you can explore it as an adventurer, and then admire the stories that you’ve helped to shape in the legends of that same world.

This is all complicated by the fact that the entire environment is rendered with ASCII characters. A dwarf is a little smiling face; an armor stand is a musical note; the Yen sign stands for a cave lobster.

That sounds like a lot, but hold on, as there’s even more to learn.

A fan-made tool called Legends Viewer allows you to search through the history of the worlds that Dwarf Fortress Classic creates in a hyperlinked database.
Legends Viewer via Polygon

Dwarves don’t have hit points per se. Instead, they have individual locations on their body that take damage in unique and unusual ways that affect their ability to fight. Dwarves will name their own weapons once they grow fond of them. They will write their own poems. They even have memories that impact their mood and their worldview. There’s so much going on in the background that the game is capable of bringing modern processors to their knees.

The implementation of all this detail has contributed to Dwarf Fortress’ status among critics and historians alike. It was recently added to the collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, changing the way the institution itself thinks about art. The game has been influential, both as a vehicle for storytelling and as an inspiration to other game developers. Without it, there may not be a Minecraft.

But the barrier to entry for new players seems at times almost spiteful. The game lacks virtually every modern convenience. Aside from a brief intro cinematic, there are no graphics to speak of. There is no support for a mouse. The interface, which at the moment can only be controlled through arcane keyboard inputs, looks like stock-trading software from the early 1980s.

The truth is that Adams has been so busy programming Dwarf Fortress over the last 16 years that he hasn’t had time for things like graphics. Instead, he just sampled images of ASCII characters from a 30-year-old version of MS-DOS and called it a day.

“Some of the really gnarliest menus are where I just basically chose the keys at random,” Adams says, “where people complain all the time, ‘Why do you have to press U, H, J, and K on this screen for no reason?’ Sometimes that stuff’s 15 years old and I just never, for some reason, got around to cleaning it up.”

Those kinds of shortcuts have to stop, Adams told me. Part of the reason is that he’s simply getting too old for this shit.

Slaves to Armok

“You get older!” Adams says, with a big belly laugh to cover up his obvious nervousness. “That’s basically what it comes down to.”

High drama: A kobold swordsman breaks through a line of zombies at a river crossing. Via Reddit.
A kobold swordsman breaks through a line of zombies at a river crossing.
Bay 12 Games via Reddit

Not long ago, he explains, Zach had a cancer scare. Even with a good insurance plan, the costs to tease things out were high. When Adams looked at his own plan he was shocked.

“We were looking at the health care prices,” Adams says. “If it had been me — we grew up in the same town, right; we have all the same doctors and everything — I would have been wiped out.”

Dwarf Fortress — also known by its full name, Slaves to Armok: God of Blood Chapter 2: Dwarf Fortress — has always been available for free. Bay 12 subsists on donations from fans, which have always streamed in at a steady pace through their website. A few years ago, as a nod to modernity, they tossed up a Patreon page. But the slow drip of funding isn’t enough to build up the horde of treasure required to fight a medical emergency here in the United States.

“It’s just scary,” Adams says, referring to the health care system. “The whole thing. So that was on our minds. But also, the whole crowdfunding environment has been a little bumpy, just in terms of how Patreon changes. [...] That’s just how it is in games in general. People just feel kind of a little squeezed right now.”

And so the brothers at Bay 12 are doing something they thought they’d never do. Nearly 16 years into the project, they’ve pulled the trigger on a plan to make a proper commercial release. But how they’re planning to do it is the remarkable part.

More examples of the art coming to Dwarf Fortress on Steam.
More examples of the art coming to Dwarf Fortress on Steam.
Bay 12 Games/Kitfox Games

Bay 12 Games has partnered with Kitfox Games to be its publisher. According to an FAQ written by both parties, Kitfox won’t actually be touching any of the code, and will instead manage the relationship with Steam, as well as contract artists and others to work on the game. Adams will continue to do the rest of the technical work by himself.

Adams says he does all of his programming in the original version of the game, from the same code base that he began building back in 2003. The original game, now called Dwarf Fortress Classic, will continue to be available for free on the Bay 12 website. For each release, Adams will continue to compile about 12 different versions of the game from that original code.

There are versions for both for 32-bit and 64-bit operating systems, each one spread across multiple platforms. What’s one or two more versions for Steam?

In fact, he told me that he plans to update Dwarf Fortress Classic and the premium version on Steam simultaneously, or at the very least maintain an experimental version and an older, more stable version of the game on Steam at the same time.

Juggling that many live versions of the same game is a herculean task. Adams sounds so calm about the whole thing that I don’t believe him at first. So I ask him how much of a delay there would be between updates for Dwarf Fortress Classic and the version available through Steam.

“The Steam uploads work almost instantly,” he says, cool as ice. “They’d be like five minutes apart.”

When it’s done

While the development of Dwarf Fortress has been protracted, to say the least, Bay 12 updates the game on a reliable basis. Those updates are promoted within the community through blogs that Adams writes, discussing goals and how he’s testing the code before release.

Before he feels comfortable committing to the process of polishing the game for Steam, Adams says that there’s one more major update to do. It’s involves adding evil nonplayer characters to the game. He’s so matter-of-fact about telling me the details that it’s almost surreal. In truth, it sounds like one of the most ambitious additions to the colony simulation game in years.

Villains will be AI-controlled NPCs out in the larger game world. They will have motivations of their own, and hatch plots to form evil organizations and corrupt governments. They’ll be able to imprison heroes and assassinate kings, Adams said. Villains will rise and fall, making up part of each world’s history in Legends mode. But villains will also be active during the Fortress and the Adventure modes, and will actively work against the player.

“We have all these taverns in the game now,” Adams says, “so there’s visitors coming in and out of your fortress. One of them might be meeting up with one of your dwarves to have them smuggle one of your precious artifacts out of the fortress, and you wouldn’t know that your dwarf was guilty unless someone else saw it.

“It’s kind of like hunting vampires,” Adams says. “We’ve had all the vampire hunting in Dwarf Fortress for years. This would be a similar thing, except they won’t be creatures of the night. They’ll just be regular jerks.”

In Fortress mode, when players do manage to identify traitorous dwarves, they’ll also be able to interrogate them. Once the name and location of a villain is identified, they’ll be able to send out parties of dwarves to hunt them down. The result could be success, with news that the villains have been killed, and peace restored to the land. But it could also be failure, up to and including villains launching wars and laying siege to player settlements.

In Adventure mode, Adams says that similar mechanics will be added to the game, and players will also be able to act as villains themselves.

Fans who donate to Bay 12 Games can request hand-made art, produced in crayon by Tarn and Zach Adams.
Fans who donate to Bay 12 Games can request hand-made art, produced in crayon by Tarn and Zach Adams.
Bay 12 Games

Adams says that he’s already built a system that allows villains to move agents around the world, like pawns on a chessboard. All he had to do was create an interface for the player, one that exposes that same system within Adventure mode. Now players can command their companions to intimidate other NPCs, and run extortion rackets on the side for extra income.

As if that weren’t enough, Adams says he’s also including a feature where players can form parties in Adventure mode, and play the game in the style of a Japanese role-playing game. It seems like too much for one man to do. But Adams has done it before, and I’m inclined to believe in him.

Once the villains module is ready to roll, he says he’ll link back up with Kitfox and put together the Steam version of the game. Then he’ll go back to what he’s been doing for nearly two decades — back to building Dwarf Fortress for the rest of us to enjoy.

The Steam version of Dwarf Fortress has no release date because, as the storefront page says, “time is subjective.” But I asked Adams when the game would be ready anyway.

He just laughed.

“I bet I’ve got a couple of years to do it or the contract I have with [Kitfox] will lapse,” Adams says. “So I’m going to be working.”

Most importantly, Adams said that he wants his fans to know that he and his brother are both in good spirits, and in great health.

“We’re not in crisis,” Adams says. “It’s just... we dodged a bullet, and now we’re going to go buy some bulletproof vests and just try and sort this out.”