‘Losing is fun!’

Well, this will be the second time I’ve written a column about a video game made in the early 2000s. If you didn’t read the first one I wrote, it was about Battle for Wesnoth, a tile-based fantasy battle game released in 2003.

For a solid year, I have been researching on-and-off a game called Dwarf Fortress. The game was released in 2006. One of the most notable features of Dwarf Fortress is the fact that it has no graphics. It uses ASCII symbols of varying colors to represent the environment, characters and animals that populate the in-game world. The main theme of the game is to construct an underground fort using a group of seven dwarves, and thrive within that fortress, occasionally gaining migrants if your fortress is doing well enough.

Dwarf Fortress is notoriously complex; I have studied the Wiki for about a month on-and-off, and when I finally switched the game on, I was fumbling around to press the keys. Dwarf Fortress doesn’t use menus. Instead, it requires a series of key clicks to initiate a command. For instance, if you want your dwarves to build a smeltery, you would need to press b-e-s sequentially.

The dwarves in the game are quirky and stubborn. They will stop working to eat, sleep or socialize, and sometimes they just won’t want to fulfill your wishes.

There is no endpoint to Dwarf Fortress, and in fact, the motto of the game is “Losing is Fun!” Dwarf Fortress is less about trying to achieve victory so you can brag, but more about the stories that you can generate while playing. You can actually get genuinely attached to the fortress.

Dwarf Fortress is populated by a number of races: humans, elves, the obvious dwarves, animal people, goblins, kobolds, and dragons. Every world is different; perhaps in the first 10 worlds you generate, the balance of power is relatively even between the races, and then, in the 11th, a demon is masquerading as a human king and is trying to destroy civilization. The unpredictability of the game is what makes it so fun. It definitely helps with problem solving and when you can’t solve the problems, well, losing is fun!

The first fortress I made was a clumsy, one-level structure carved into the side of a mountain. More than half of the food my dwarves brought with them to start the game was stolen by a group of monkeys. Once I had finally moved my stockpiles indoors, all I had was two barrels of meat to feed my people. I knew that a dwarven caravan would arrive in late fall, but it was still early summer. I sloppily tried to construct a farm plot, but I only managed to select individual tiles, making an ugly mess of furrowed and flat soil. My dwarves were visited by a group of bards who arrived individually over the course of about a month. A number of them wanted to stay with me, so I unwittingly invited another three mouths to feed into my fortress.

Finally, the caravan arrived, most of my dwarves near-starving. When the dwarven wagon finally got to my fortress, I was greeted with an alert: “Caravan needs Trade Depot.”

When the caravan unloaded their goods in the Trade Depot, an imposing screen popped up. I needed to select the goods I wanted them to give me and then select what I wanted to give them in return. I selected a great deal of food, some iron bars and a wagonload of leather. When I looked to the other side of the screen, I saw that no items were listed under my trade goods. Frustrated, I tapped all of the buttons I could, but nothing showed up. I sighed and closed out of the trading screen. Little did I know, I had just essentially doomed my dwarves. The caravan left soon after.

I quickly ran out of my stored food, relying 100 percent on the farm plot I had built. The plot produced one or two small vegetables a season, and my dwarves started to literally race one another to the farm when the vegetables were harvested. Miners dropped their picks, haulers let go of their wheelbarrows, and when they finally arrived, they saw that the farmer, also starving like the rest of them, had already eaten the two vegetables.

This was a pain to sort out. Most of the dwarves would return to their duties, but some would just start socializing and doing nothing useful. Soon afterward, a massive population boom hit my fortress, with more than 40 migrants arriving in late winter. They brought several animals for slaughtering, and I knew that I would need them as all of my dwarves were now flashing with the hungry or thirsty indicator.

Once I got the warning that my citizens were starving, I took the matter into my own hands and ordered most of the animals to be slaughtered. The meat was enough to satisfy about a third of my dwarves, but there were still way too many mouths to feed. Citizens started starving to death in throngs, and at that point, I did the unthinkable: I closed out of the window.

Losing is fun! Just not the first time.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Liam Ulland-Joy, 13, is an eighth-grader at Bothwell Middle School. He enjoys designing games of all types, writing fiction and editing his videos for his YouTube channel, Saturday Bush Live.