Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The End of Disenfranchisement Through Aggregation: the Brilliance of Dwarf Fortress

I wrote that title just to freak you guys out. I wanted you to think for a moment that I’d gone over to the Dark Side.

Tre Chipman sent me an interesting e-mail last week. Here’s an excerpt:
Still, Dwarf Fortresss getting Game of the Year worries me. Not because Dwarf Fortress isn't a great game (it is) but the fact that if it IS the GOTY, then it says pretty terrible things about the current state of the gaming industry, doesn't it? I mean, an ASCII based game made in someone's garage (or garage equivalent) comes out of nowhere and kicks the stuffing out of everything else, despite the fact that well into the 90% percentile of everything you see on the shelves these days has millions of dollars of design behind it?

Well, it does kick the stuffing out of everything else. I know that sounds incredible to say, but it’s true. To call Dwarf Fortress an indictment of the gaming industry, though, puts the focus on the gaming industry when it should be on Tarn Adams. We should celebrate his game for what it is—a stunning achievement—than use it as an implement to indict other games for what they’re not.

That’s not to say that Dwarf Fortress doesn’t embarrass the gaming industry—it does. Tremendously. Dwarf Fortress is scoreboard, pure scoreboard, and the gaming industry, the business of gaming, really has no response.

Instead of talking about what other games lack, though, let’s talk about why Dwarf Fortress is so shockingly good. It’s so good, in fact, that it’s the gaming equivalent of a disruptive technology—it transforms our notion of what is possible. This is exactly the kind of complexity, the kind of detail, that we’ve wanted in a game world for years.

Better yet, it’s coherent detail. Even at its most intricate, it’s cohesive.

Best of all, it actually works. There’s no blah-blah-bullshit about why it doesn’t quite work the way it should or why it can’t be finished. It’s far more finished (as an alpha!) than 90% of commercial software projects.

It’s not just the level of detail, though—it’s the level of logic surrounding those details. When you face a problem in the game, in almost all cases the best solution is the most intelligent one, and when you make a mistake, it’s not some fluky aspect of the game world. You aren’t punished by tricks.

The logic is everywhere. Want to build something? You need the right materials, and those materials must be hauled to the appropriate workshop. And once it’s built, you can’t just magically put it somewhere—a dwarf must take it to the location.

If that kind of logic just existed in a few activities, like it does in so many games, it would be nothing more than a cheap parlor trick, but that degree of thought is present everywhere in Dwarf Fortress—it’s a defining characteristic, not a cheap illusion.

That deep, consistent level of thought is why the game world is so coherent, and so entrancing. I think it’s the most intellectually engaged I’ve ever been in twenty years of playing games, because it requires not only thought but interesting thought. It rewards creativity, not memorization.

There’s one other aspect of Dwarf Fortress that I deeply appreciate, and I didn’t realize how or why until today. But Adams made a critical design decision, an entirely unique decision, and it has affected the power of the game in a paramount way. And to understand why it’s so important, we need to look at how other games approach the same dilemma.

The dilemma, simply put, is units. Strategy games can require the direction of hundreds of units, and the detail generated by those units is overwhelming. So a key design decisions in all these games is how to best aggregate information to present it efficiently to the player. In most cases, it will be via graphs or 1-100 scales.

Something happens in the course of that aggregation, though: individual units are disenfranchised. A single unit is just a number in a spreadsheet, part of an equation. It has no meaning beyond its number.

A few games try to work around this disenfranchisement with the “hero” concept, where a few units are much more powerful and become leaders. Still, though, they’re just numbers—bigger numbers, but numbers just the same.

In this game, this unlikely, wonderful game, a dwarf isn’t a unit: a dwarf is a dwarf. He (or she) has feelings. He feels love. He feels fear. He has needs and desires and dreams. Every dwarf has his own little dwarven version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

If these dwarves are upset, you don’t see their unrest in a bar graph. They stop working. They break furniture. They throw tantrums. They rage.

And sometimes, they mourn.

Pompous, self-aggrandizing gaming industry, do you hear me? I’m playing a game with ASCII graphics written by one person about dwarves and they mourn.

It’s not really about dwarves, though. It’s about humanity and survival. It’s about us, about all the elegant and awkward things we feel and want, about what we’ll do when we’re afraid. It’s an adventure, but that adventure is as much inside us as outside. It makes us think about who we are.

I mentioned early that I thought Dwarf Fortress was the gaming equivalent of a disruptive technology. That’s true in the sense of its surpassing brilliance, but another element of disruptive technology is that it drives change, often radical change, and I don’t see that happening.

I don’t see it happening because Dwarf Fortress, in terms of project size, is a throwback. In the old days, one or two people just designed and programmed the coolest damn game they could. That was their objective: to make a cool game.

Today, there are long, long odds against that philosophy. That doesn’t mean cool games don’t get made by big companies—they do—but their primary objective isn’t to make cool games anymore. Those days are long gone. Their primary objective is to sell games, and that is a different matter entirely.

Big project teams also work against depth of gameplay. They’re great for breadth but not for depth. They’re also almost guaranteed to work against coherence. If six designers share 90% of the vision of the game, that last 10% is going to wreak absolute havoc—all six will get some of their 10% into the game, which they desperately want (it’s their unique contribution, after all), and at the edges, the vision of the game crumbles. Some games successfully avoid that trap—I think Oblivion, in particular, takes place in a remarkably cohesive world—but there are ten games that fail in that way, at least, for every one that succeeds.

The other reason I don’t think that Dwarf Fortress will be truly disruptive technology is Tarn Adams, and that’s another reason I think we should celebrate this game. Who else could possibly do something like this? Who else could single-handedly make a game with this kind of astonishing depth, with this kind of emotional impact, with this kind of unerring instinct?

Who has ever made a game like this?

Dwarf Fortress isn’t a call to arms—it’s a bolt of lightning from a clear blue sky. And so I say: let’s celebrate the lightning.

Site Meter