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May. 21, 2014 7:45 am

The Adams brothers behind ‘Dwarf Fortress’ game are weirdly brilliant

You haven't really committed to programming until you've attempted to model weather and emotion within the same game. For Dwarf Fortress from Bay 12 Games, that's just the beginning.

""LOSING IS FUN" • Dwarf Fortress talk by Zach & Tarn Adams is favorite of #Two5Six so far – hilarious, mindblowing" --Tweet with photo by @Nullsleep.

Photo by Jeremiah Johnson, originally posted to Twitter.

You haven’t really committed to programming until you’ve attempted to model weather and emotion within the same game. For Dwarf Fortress from Bay 12 Games, that’s just the beginning.

The presence of an astounding and unique ambition yields a perspective that can be jarring enough to make a crowd laugh involuntarily. That’s an experience that seemed to be shared by many of the attendees this past Friday at the second TWO5SIX conference in Downtown Brooklyn during the conversation between Zach and Tarn Adams, Bay 12’s cofounding brothers, and Jamin Warren, the founder of Kill Screen, the event organizers.

The Adams brothers are the creators, most notably, of Dwarf Fortress, a cult phenomenon whose epic scope has earned it a place in the New York Museum of Modern Art. Members of the general public are most likely to have become aware of the game by way of the brothers’ profile in The New York Times: 

Dwarf Fortress unfolds as a series of staggeringly elaborate challenges and devastating setbacks that lead, no matter how well one plays, to eventual ruin. 

The game simulates an entire world, its history and its people. Each game starts anew with a randomly generated world and history. Players are in charge of a group of dwarves who establish a home somewhere in the world and then the player does their best to keep the dwarves alive for as long as possible.

Tarn Adams said, “There is no ‘win condition,” of the many ways the game diverges from traditional video game design.

Zach Adams added, “Some people are good enough that they can keep playing forever.”

“If you’re bored, you win,” Tarn Adams added. Appropriately, the game’s unofficial motto is “Losing is fun!”

Moments like this drew laughs from the crowd throughout the event, but the laughs were not always exactly a response to the brother’s dry humor. From this reporter’s perspective, some of them came from being stunned by revelation after revelation of just how deeply the two had committed to fulfilling their vision.

For example, Zach Adams earned appreciative chuckles from describing his favorite system in the game: weather. It’s built on the interaction of modeled warm and cold fronts. One of the biggest reactions came when they revealed that after more than a decade the two are really only through slightly more than a third of the notes that they made before they started developing the game in 2002.

In the NYT story above, the brothers estimate that the game will reach version 1.0 in about twenty years.

Some highlights from the conversation:

  • The game is built on a series of systems that simulates all kinds of aspects of its fantasy world. One especially complex system is personalities. The brothers looked to modern psychological categories to set theirs up with, but found them too simplistic. Instead, they turned to St. Thomas Aquinas.
  • It originated with the two brothers growing up telling each other stories. Tarn Adams said, “We would tell stories to each other and come up with situations like, this would be the perfect enemy for this game, if this situation happened. Over the years we came up with many different arcs of development.” The brothers have stacks of journals where they describe ideal play-throughs.
  • In the next update, you will be able to see dwarves crying.
  • “People are able to create their own stories,” Tarn Adams said of their decision to keep the graphics stripped down.
  • A part of the charm of the game is the ways in which its complex systems yield surprises. So, for example, it turns out that fully grown carp can sometimes eat dwarves. In the NYT story, the brothers find that the games hippos learn to navigate sewers.
  • The surprises also play out in bugs. Once, a town’s executioner had to execute a criminal with his teeth because he had lost both of his arms. He ended up biting the other dwarf’s arm off and the command to spit the arm out never fired, so for years in-game the dwarf walked around with an arm in his mouth.

This reporter has attempted to play Dwarf Fortress. The learning curve was too high and the user interface took a bit too much getting used to. The game is in the tradition of roguelikes, which favors low res interfaces that yield a greater array of possibilities. There’s a reason why it is the only video game with its own O’Reilly Manual.

Nevertheless, even just setting up an initial colony, illustrates the sheer vastness of the game. Have a look sometime and then imagine yourself creating anything of comparable scope. We’re willing to bet you find yourself letting out a little laugh.

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Brady Dale

Brady Dale is a freelance writer, comedian and storyteller. A native of Pittsburg, Kansas, he went to Cornell and worked as a progressive community organizer for over a decade before quitting his job to pursue writing and performance. He lives in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn.

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