Dwarf Fortress

When I first played Dwarf Fortress, I bounced off it like a timid bunny rabbit, crossing a busy highway just a little too slowly.

It was late 2005, or 2006, back before the game had a z-axis and you just dug eastward into a flat cliff. I was in university, and procrastinating. This was before the game had vampires, or farms, or a military, or graphics. First you found a river, then a lava stream. I didn’t make it to either. The maze of keyboard shortcuts you need to memorize to make any headway sent me packing after about 10 minutes. This hasn’t improved in the decade since.

Still, for months I’d read stories of how amazing this game was, once you buckled down and learned to speak its language, stories of grand adventures and elephant raids. Its promise haunted me. So, I broke down, unpacked the latest zip, and gave it another shot.

Bounce.

It wasn’t until about 2 or 3 cycles of this that I finally grokked Dwarf Fortress. First you have to overcome the interface. Then you have to learn its intricate network of industries. Then you have to learn the dozens of ways that dwarves can die. Then you have to relearn all of the above when a new version drops and upends everything you’ve learned before. Eventually you learn to enjoy the learning. I’ve since played Dwarf Fortress for hundreds of hours, without exaggeration, and I’m still learning. The game scratches the city-management itch like make other games, but the magic is discovering the intricacies of how all the little systems interact, all the nooks and crannies.

Since those early days, the game has grown. It gained a third axis, and always new systems. It became a game of legend, and spawned imitators who have risen and fallen in its wake. Gnomoria, A Game Of Dwarves, Clockwork Empires and countless others sought to bottle and sell the strange melange of freedom and punishment, of role play and micro management, of Sim City and NetHack. Each has fallen short in their own unique way, while Dwarf Fortress continues on in disaffected nonchalance.

Its hard to judge Dwarf Fortress harshly for any failings. It’s not finished, and creator Tarn Adams makes no promise about it being done, or welcoming, any time soon. This is his project, and he’s beholden to no one to make it in any way other than that which suits him. This uncompromising ethic is Dwarf Fortress’ curse and its blessing, the secret to its charms. Adams’ vision is of Dwarf Fortress as a narrative generation machine, capable of  simulating worlds and adventures as detailed as they are epic. Given what it accomplishes already I have no doubt he will achieve this.

As it stands, Dwarf Fortress is best considered a collection of systems that tests the player’s ability to survive. Shepard your dwarves through their first winter? Great. The first goblin attack? Wonderful. The unnamed horrors that lurk below your engraved-marble floors? Splendid. Lovely. You’ll never win of course, as there’s no ‘win’ state, but don’t you feel special for surviving for so long? Until you didn’t. But you will always know why you lost, and the lessons you learn will serve you well in the next game. And the game after that. And so on.

You’ll build castles, cathedrals, forges, intricate traps and vast military machines to crush your foes. Your dwarves will grow and die, wage war, and carve their story into the of the mountain you call home, and it will be your home because you laid out every room and hallway by hand. Your fortress will start small and end grand, in bloody ruins and smoking rubble, and you will serve as witness to its history.

The game still doesn’t have graphics. Or a sensible UI. A tutorial. A story campaign. An ending. Balanced AI. Those are just window dressing anyways, what matters is the simulation, the stories it tells you. But it does have fans, dedicated fans who have patched in some of the above, out of love for the game and its creator. Their wikis and mods and plugins and forums are built by people who shared the same struggles, who overcame them together, and who want to pass their wisdom and enthusiasm for the game on to you.

Recommending someone play Dwarf Fortress is like recommending someone try heroine. It’s irresponsible. Best case scenario, they bounce off as well. Worst case scenario, they persist, and spend hundreds of hours playing a delightful game that they could otherwise spend outside. It only rewards as much as you are willing to give it, and that kind of investment isn’t for everyone. I’m grateful, ashamed and proud that it is for me.

Tomb Raider (2013)

A friend and I position ourselves on opposite ends of a debate over the purpose of video games. One of us argues that the point of video games is to test one’s abilities within an artificial construct, to be challenged and improve, to outplay, outwit, and outfight a worthy opponent. The other argues that video games should tell stories that engage the player, evoke the pathos and catharsis of a greek tragedy, and allow them to experience a world from behind the eyes of an avatar entirely alien to their normal life. The regularly cited Exhibit A for games as narrative is Crystal Dynamic’s Tomb Raider (2013), a game that leads the player through a grand adventure in a way no other medium could.

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Launched in the mid 90’s, over the course of nearly 2 decades and a dozen sequels the Tomb Raider series had become tired and creatively exhausted. The on-going plot was bogged down in B-movie tropes, mystical McGuffins and paper-thin villains. As an established and nigh-invincible heroine, Lara Croft’s character had nowhere left to advance, and was the series was stagnating in its own lore. A reboot was due, and Crystal Dynamics hired Rhianna Pratchett and Susanne O’Connor to tackle the particular problem of writing the story for their game.

Plots in video games are tricky things, and must accommodate unpredictable main characters with free will, allow for sections of gameplay and exploring, and try to maintain the classic introduction-rising action-conflict-climax-conclusion story beats across dozens of hours of play. Tomb Raider’s plot succeeded because it was simple and focussed, worked in tandem with the game play, and let the player inhabit a character that melded well with their own experience, making their journey personal and affecting.

The 2013 reboot explored a younger, rookie version of Lara, one free to experience an adventure with fresh eyes, without the burden of a lifetime of grand adventures behind her. The Lara that washed ashore on Yamatai island was vulnerable, fallible, and new to the world of raiding tombs, a far better cipher for the player to control and grow attached to than the jaded Lara. The story still contained tombs, mystical artifacts, and b-movie villains galore, but because Lara had swapped her bravado for far more understandable incredulity and fear, she better  mirrored the player’s own reaction to the events, and their progression through the pacific rim theme-park.

For all the background noise about haunted islands and ancient queens, Tomb Raider’s plot was straightforward, and Lara’s motivations were simple and believable. Lara washed ashore on an island full of things that wanted to kill her. She wanted to stay alive and escape the island, and she wanted her friends to stay alive and escape the island too. Lara has a single, sensible goal throughout the entire story: her own survival. There was no pretence of saving the world or avenging fallen comrades, and this narrow focus helped to reinforce in the player why they were continuing to face and overcome the challenges they were presented.

Interspersed between bombastic set pieces, Tomb Raider’s combat mirrored Lara’s progression as an adventurer, her growth from a bewildered victim to a hero. Starting off wounded and confused, washed ashore into a world entirely new to her, Lara was only armed with weak bows and hand tools, and much of the combat relied on stealth and cautious attacks from the shadows. As she began to understand her situation and gain a footing on the island Lara gained new and more powerful weapons, and battles became more visceral and varied, leading to a scene wherein Lara first acquired a grenade launcher, and revelled in the advantage this finally gave her over her tormentors. The changes in gameplay kept the experience fresh and lively throughout a 12-20 hour campaign, and kept pace with Lara’s evolution.

2015’s Rise Of The Tomb Raider returned Lara to her action hero roots, and the story to convoluted, double-crossing, moustache twirling blandness. Characters were introduced, betrayed, abducted, sacrificed and killed before the player had a chance to grow attached to them. Plot points changed Lara’s motivations completely within the span of single cutscenes, and left the player questioning her actions. The combat was meatier, but without any compelling goal to fight for, it quickly became a repetitive slog. Lara was back to killing unfortunate enemies in cold blood, for the sake of some artifact that may or may not exist. Lara could have turned around and gone home at any point, removing herself from danger, but chose to risk life and limb for questionable purposes. The plot pushed Lara forward, but kept the player at arm’s length. Video games exist on a spectrum between art and sport, and more than just finding a balance between the two, must find a way for each to support the other. Like a debate, it can’t work if only one side is present, and it’s most fun when both sides pay attention to the other.

Jagged Alliance 2

So proud of the Witcher series is the country of Poland that Prime Minister Donald Tusk famously presented a copy of The Witcher 2 to visiting US President Barack Obama in 2011, in honour of its release. In Poland, The Witcher is a cultural touchstone, and the video game series it spawned redefined what gamers should expect from narrative, gameplay, and world-building in a video game. If there were any justice in the world, Canada would similarly laud Jagged Alliance 2, a tactical, systems-based open-world strategy game developed by Ottawa-based Sir-Tech in 1999. Unfortunately, the world is a cruel and dark place, and JA2 has yet to receive so much as a commemorative stamp, roadside visitor museum, or 3-part tax-payer funded documentary miniseries starring Gordon Pinsent. I’m looking at you, CRTC.

 

Jagged Alliance 2 was one of the last great sprite-based games, released at a time when 3D was starting to hit its stride, and games like Half-Life and System Shock had begun rubbing elbows on store shelves with old-guard 2D games like Planescape: Torment, Baldur’s Gate, and any of a dozen iterations of the Command & Conquer series. While 3D games were busy nailing down concepts like strafing, mouse look and auto-aim, 2D games were taking advantage of established and well-understood paradigms to focus on grander gameplay concepts.

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After a brief cinematic hastily sketches out a thin plot, Sir-Tech quite literally dropped the player into their world, rappelling a player-sculpted avatar onto the sun-parched soil of Arulco, a country in civil turmoil. Although ostensibly hired to restore freedom and democracy and honour, the player was truly a for-profit fixer in charge of a hit-squad with one target: Deidranna. The player could grapple with patrolling squadrons and train resistance fighters ’til the cows came home (to be punched repeatedly for cheap XP), the game only ended, the credits only rolled when Deidranna’s heart stopped beating. It was the job of the player to make that happen, in any manner they saw fit, and therein lay the grizzled but beautiful soul of Jagged Alliance 2.

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The game wants the player to form a squadron of likeable rascals, to wage a campaign of hit-and-run ambushes across the deserts and forests of Arulco, to meet and join forces with its citizens and explore all its hand-crafted locales. It wants the player to surge, to stumble, to be beaten down and rise in triumph, and experience every minor side quest into which the developers clearly poured hours of toil.

But what if the player doesn’t do what they’re told? What if the player wants to forego the vast majority of the game’s content, ignore practicality and hire a single mercenary, to laboriously sneak him under the cover of darkness past outposts and patrols, into the heart of Deidranna’s compound, to kill her unceremoniously with surgical precision? The game’s systems can and do handle this. Deidranna dies, end scene, roll credits, no lectures or complaints.

Sir-Tech respects the player enough to adhere to their own established rules, no matter how the player tests them. There are no invisible walls that funnel the player down an accepted path, no scripts that have to be triggered in a proper order to advance the plot, no one-way scenery gates that ensure the player experiences the game’s set pieces and speeches. There’s a target hiding somewhere within a country at war, and it’s up to the player to reach it, using only their wits.

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There are admittedly scripted events to be found in JA2, some that just play short cutscenes, and others that actually impact the player (Surrendering in battle teleports the cowardly mercenary to a prison facility). New characters are introduced, weapon shops made available, and enemy reactions triggered, but all of these are only little surprises for the player to introduce new challenges, and none hamstring their actions.

 

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The source code behind Jagged Alliance 2 was released to the internet years ago, and it’s fitting that the instruction set that makes up its intricate systems be laid so bare, like a pocket watch’s mechanical cogs and gears laid out across a workbench for repair. Briefly skimming through some of the files reveals the simple algorithms that govern how bullets ricochet, how corpse decompose over time, or how soldiers react to strange noises. Understanding the rules doesn’t diminish the fun of testing one’s mettle within them though, it only deepens one’s respect for they variety of battles and mouse-gripping stories they can generate. There may be no atheists in foxholes, but at least when your team is pinned down  by .45mm ACP rounds in a corrugated metal shack and your covering sniper has passed out from lack of sleep, you know empirically the game’s enemy are playing fair.

Though the years since its release have seen many attempts at remakes and reboots, none have quite recaptured its magic. Fan-made mods have chaperoned the game onto new operating systems, polished away any rough edges, and added features like cooperative multiplayer and a refined AI. The sprite graphics are as not-beautiful as they ever were, but they let the player read the battlefield quickly and easily, even when shrunk down on higher-resolution monitors. The game has been lovingly preserved for posterity, and deservedly so. People who know strategy games know Jagged Alliance 2, and recognize it importance, even if our politicians think trivial things like the economy or human rights are more deserving of attention.