How Two Brothers From Silverdale Made The World’s Most Complex Video Game

At ten years old, Dwarf Fortress has become one of the most influential contemporary video games, and it’s only half finished.

In 2009, Tarn and Zach Adams received an e-mail from a stranger. The man wrote that Dwarf Fortress, the computer game the brothers developed together, had caused him to convert to Buddhism. According to the stranger, the game’s unique mechanics helped illuminate the truthfulness of one of Buddhism’s core tenets: Life is suffering, because life is impermanent.

“There’s not, like, just a starting and end point and ‘Yay! You’ve saved the thing!’ and it’s over,” Tarn, 38, tells me while sitting in his messy Silverdale apartment flooded with hundreds of loose papers, scores of academic textbooks, cat toys, and disassembled board games. “Everything dies in the game, eventually. And you move on. In the guy’s message, he said he started feeling that sort of reincarnation-cycle type of thing, you know? I think they phrased it something like, ‘Life is dust.’”

“We get lots of weird e-mails,” Zach, 40, says with a shrug.

That someone derived spiritual enlightenment from Dwarf Fortress actually isn’t entirely surprising. It would be more of a shock if at least one person hadn’t seen God after staring into the byzantine depths of what’s widely accepted as “the most complex video game ever made.”

That’s because, although the game is—yes—largely about dwarves and the fortresses they build, it’s mostly about life. Or, more accurately, the infinite narrative and experiential possibilities that can arise from the universe’s tangled web of natural laws and the unyielding flow of time that carries it all forward. That the game manages to do all this using nothing but archaic, keyboard-text-based ASCII graphics in 16 colors is part of its genius. To those playing it for the first time, it is an indecipherable, impenetrable wall of a game. But to those who know and love it, it is a revelation.

But to the Adams brothers, two UW grads, it is simply their life’s work—the sole focus of the past 14 years of their existence, and, according to their predictions, the 20 years that lie ahead. It is all they do, think about, and talk about. They are the closest thing the game-developer world has to monks. “I’ve got the tonsure,” Tarn jokes of his receding hairline.

Across the video-game industry, developers have analyzed, dissected, and studied Dwarf Fortress as if it were a holy text, its resulting influence creating “more millionaires than I can count,” Tarn says without a hint of malice. Among its many documented imitators is Minecraft, which, behind Tetris, is the second highest-selling game of all time.

Approaching the 10th anniversary of Dwarf Fortress’ release, the brothers say they haven’t had any weepy, reflective moments yet—after all, there are millions of things left to work on. The game is still only in version 0.43.

But on June 11, in honor of that anniversary, Kinnon Stephens, a video-game developer and DF player since 2007, is organizing Dwarf Moot, a big blowout at the Mox Boarding House in Bellevue, to properly pay tribute to the Adams brothers’ achievement. Richard Garfield, the creator of Magic: The Gathering and an early fan of the game, will deliver the introduction. Dwarf Moot is one of the rare video-game events sponsored by King County’s cultural services agency 4Culture—a hopeful sign for Stephens, given that the event’s other objective is to turn locals onto a game that he says has gone criminally unheard-of.

“These guys deserve so much more attention than they get,” Stephens says emphatically, “especially from the community around them, the local Seattle community. As far as arts and culture go, they’re doing something very unique and valuable and receiving very little recognition for it outside of the online community and game industry. There’s a weird dichotomy there.” How, as Stephens wonders, could a game so influential and groundbreaking, downloaded by millions, remain so obscure?

A quick click on the brothers’ website, which looks like it’s from 1997, is all it takes to download Dwarf Fortress, playable on Windows, Mac, or Linux. When Dwarf Fortress begins, after a brief, goofy intro, you witness the creation of an entirely new world. This world is utterly unique to your game alone. Dwarf Fortress may look as if it was made in the mid-’80s, but the process of generating this world can eat up half of a modern computer’s CPU power. ASCII symbols flash and mutate as continents spring up before you—boreal forests, tropical jungles, mountains, parched deserts, volcanoes, islands, oceans, and tundras, each with its own corresponding character. More lies under the crust, each tiny biome’s individual square unit hiding layers and layers of varying types of ore and minerals, subterranean aquifers, and pools of magma.

The enormous scale of this creation might appear random, but Tarn’s program uses real geologic and meteorological equations to generate these biomes. Erosion will shape the landscape as the clock wears on, mountains will create rain shadows, distance from the equator affects temperatures—even soil drainage is taken into account. Environments are populated with animals based on habitat ecology, and all the varying wood-producing plants in the game feature accurate material densities. World-building elements like these are constantly being added to the game—Tarn hopes that one day in the future he can add plate tectonics to make a more realistic algorithm for generating mountains and volcanoes. The brothers find most of their data online, but it is only because of Dwarf Fortress that you can find the density of saguaro cactus wood on the Internet. When Tarn and Zach couldn’t find the number, a fan ordered cactus wood from a dealer, empirically determined the density using liquid displacement tests, and relayed back the results, which ended up in the game.

Once all this happens, civilizations of dwarves, humans, goblins, and elves rise and crumble in front of you—trading and warring and creating layers and layers of mythology in their wake before you even start to play. Then, finally, once these generations have passed, you survey the enormous new world, pick one tiny spot to embark your seven dwarves, who will mine resources, build their own civilization, and log their own chapter in the history of this universe, and the game begins. When you die, and you will die, you can create a new world, or start in the same one again as a different set of dwarves, chiseling infinite layers of history into the compounding universe.

“You have these rigid systems and explicit mechanics for everything, and they all rub up and bump against each other and you get stories,” Tarn says.

The theory the brothers employ to create Dwarf Fortress is the opposite of those of most game developers. Typically, in a video game, you are dropped into a predetermined narrative and you simply move through it. There may be be forks in the narrative, say a “good” or a “bad” ending, and the way you get there may vary player by player, as in the popular “sandbox” approach implemented by games like Grand Theft Auto or the Elder Scrolls series. But in the end, all these squiggly lines meant to instill the player with a sense of free will still ultimately arrive at one, two, or three given endpoints—a well-worn convention that 2011’s celebrated, highly meta video game The Stanley Parable openly mocked.

Instead, Zach, known online as “Threetoe,” writes a ton of stories first, which he and Tarn then reverse-engineer. You can find many of them on Take “Dog-Man,” in which a filthy, depraved, hobbling dwarf, a pariah in his village, enters a noble mead hall and lies about seeing kobolds on a mountain festooned with gold (for non-Dungeons and Dragons folks out there, a kobold is a little reptilian humanoid). The dwarves, drunk, tie a leash to Dog-Man, drag him to the mountain, and chain him to a tree as they venture into the mountain cave supposedly full of this easy-pickin’s gold. As Dog-Man struggles with his chain, his hands bloodying in the struggle, a giant dragon shoots a fireball out of the cave before flying off in the direction of the village, Dog-Man’s bloody revenge on the society that rejected him officially enacted.

After Zach writes a story, the brothers then dissect it to isolate all the “narratively interesting” elements that made the tale possible. They then put these elements into the game so that, theoretically, it could generate this story, or stories like it, by itself. They also post these analyses online. Out of “Dog-Man,” the brothers determined that in Dwarf Fortress, “large beasts can be agitated by entity intrusion and chastise entire civilizations”; that “some members of an entity can become so lowly as to receive treatment commensurate with a pet of that entity”; and that “when people claw against terrain or buildings, it can cause injuries, including bleeding or missing nails (missing nails could be embedded in the surface to be found later).” Once all these minute details get thrown into an algorithm and assigned individual metrics of their own, the possibilities can get pretty dizzying. When I ask the brothers how many different variables are at play in the game, they admit they’ve lost track at this point.

“If we just start with What’s in a dwarf’s head?, there’s 50-something personality facets we pulled from a psychology textbook, 30 intellectual values, a bunch of specific needs they have, like, if they like extravagant clothing,” Tarn says, “And then, based on all of that, there’s 120 different emotions.” It’s a remarkable amount of depth for a dwarf, a creature that, in the game, is represented by nothing more than a little smiley face.

“I’m going to attempt to prove that the game is not really as hard to get into as so many people think.” So begins the first of six 30-minute videos entitled “Dwarf Fortress for Dummies.”

Despite the series’ total three-hour length, its creator, YouTube user 51ppycup, insists the video game’s notoriously Everest-steep learning curve is surmountable to anyone with a work ethic—the work ethic to, say, read the 236-page book Getting Started With Dwarf Fortress: Learn to Play the Most Complex Video Game Ever Made. Released in 2012, the book is something of a rare outing for its publisher, O’Reilly Media, a company that mainly produces technical guides like Designing for Scalability With Erlang/OTP. Dwarf Fortress is the only video game the company has produced a player’s guide for.

In the game, you actually don’t directly control the dwarves, you just give them commands they fulfill of their own volition. Once you’ve grasped that concept, beyond figuring out the game’s unforgivingly obtuse user interface and control scheme, half the battle of Dwarf Fortress is simply deducing what the hell is happening onscreen. A goblin is a letter “g.” “¥” is a cave lobster. “≈” is a rough stone road, but also, water, lava, and vomit, contextually. A horse is an “H,” while a harpy is an “h.” Part of the success of Minecraft and the many games that have borrowed from Dwarf Fortress over the past 10 years comes simply from making the game’s ingenious mechanical innovations intelligible to the average player—something Tarn and Zach, more interested in generating cascading narrative possibilities, aren’t very concerned with.

Dwarf Moot organizer Stephens, who is bilingual, says learning the game is a lot like learning a second language. “Every day I was trying to do the typical equation people do—‘Oh, this is how you say dog,’ ” Stephens says. But eventually, instead of seeing a “d” and thinking “d = dog,” the letter “d” simply became a dog in his mind. Some Dwarf Fortress players internalize the visual language of the game so deeply, they’ve reported having dreams in its letters and symbols.

These rigid icons, which at first glance have about as much personality as an Excel spreadsheet, have become one of the game’s main selling points for its fans. For every little detail the ASCII characters don’t readily display, players get to fill in the gaps themselves using their imaginations. “In Dwarf Fortress, people generate their own stories and details of what it meant when this little capital G or lowercase p moved from here to here on a screen,” Stephens says. “To them, that means, ‘Oh wow, he went in, even though he knew he was going to die!’ And suddenly a really interesting story emerges.”

Stephens recalls an early episode in one of his games when one dwarf went off to war to defend the fortress, but died in the battle. Afterward, he checked the emotions of the dwarf’s mother and found that she was very sad. Soon she stopped interacting with the rest of the dwarves. One day, the smiley face that represented the mother darted toward the river, dove in, and turned gray—she had drowned herself.

“I’m not reading an expression on the face of a 3D avatar,” Stephens says. “There’s no animation of someone running. So my mind has to fill in those blanks. ‘Why did she kill herself?’ Even though they are just little smileys or letters or numbers, you get attached to these personalities.”

In 2013, an Icelandic design professor named Goddur, who looks like a steampunk Santa Claus, strode very seriously across a stage and asked Tarn in front of a packed audience, “Who whirrrr you before the offish-eee-ullls, the author-eee-uhhties of the world of arrrrrt considered you as an ahhrrrrtist?”

Tarn, very nervously, answers, “I-I-I … I mean I guess I considered myself a busker, pretty much. I had my basket out asking for money on the Internet … just kind of playing my guitar asking for money, just trying to entertain myself.”

Onstage at the event was Paola Antonelli, the curator of the Museum of Modern Art’s department of architecture and design. In 2011, she chose Dwarf Fortress, along with Myst, Tetris, and The Sims, as one of the first 14 video games the museum would add to its collection.

It was an utter surprise to the Adams brothers, who to this day have never paid for advertising, do not have a publisher, and have done literally everything on Dwarf Fortress themselves, even down to moderating the game’s web forum and writing the music. And despite countless offers, they’ve never cashed in on the game—it is and always has been free to download. For 10 years, the brothers have been able to work full time on it thanks solely to the donations of fans across the world. While they admit they don’t make much, about $25,000 a year each, they are incredibly grateful for the long-term support that has enabled them to continuously and independently work on the game this long, a model that remains unprecedented in the video-game industry. “I’d still be working at the shipyard if it wasn’t for this,” says Zach, who thanks donors by sending them custom crayon drawings.

The brothers’ ethic seems similar to the anti-corporate, accessible-for-all ideals of Pacific Northwest DIY culture—I ask them if they grew up around it. “We were into punk and garage bands and that kind of thing for an incredibly brief moment,” Tarn laughs. “We were mostly into games and fantasy.”

“But we do have principles,” Zach says. “We could start with ‘The Tragedy of Dwarf Fortress.’”

In 2011, after a New York Times profile ran on the brothers, a libertarian blogger wrote a post of that title—the tragedy, according to the author, being that neither of them are filthy rich.

“The Dwarf Fortress creators should be living like Saudi Kings,” the post’s author writes. “Instead, they are living off paltry donations to a Internet jar. It is not too late. If they emotionally accept the ethical goodness of creating customers, their fortunes will immediately reverse. Dwarf Fortress deserves to be more than an academic science experiment.”

“We just don’t want to become businessmen,” Tarn says. “That’s not fun and it’s not about money. It just didn’t make sense to us. It’s cool if people do the things they enjoy, and all the other stuff just doesn’t seem… uh… relevant, really.”

In a graphics-driven industry that the Global Games Market Report projects will make $99.7 billion globally by year’s end, it’s worth noting that, according to the Adams brothers, half the people who financially support them don’t even play Dwarf Fortress. They simply enjoy the stories that come from it.

The game has become the generative locus for an astounding number of creative projects created by its fan community. Take Boatmurdered, an epic 300-plus-page retelling of the saga of one fortress written by 14 different players who traded the same Dwarf Fortress save file back and forth in 2007. Initially posted on the Something Awful forums, the story prompted one of the game’s first big surges in downloads and press. In 2009, an artist turned Boatmurdered into a web comic—a popular medium of choice for graphically gifted players looking to recount their Dwarf Fortress stories on the forums. You can find countless dramatic retellings of game-generated narratives that players have spun into stories in every medium imaginable, which sometimes become an entirely new thing.

Bravemule, a collaborative interactive narrative team that incorporates text, illustration, sound design, and web design, started as a way for writer Kevin Snow to retell stories from his Dwarf Fortress games. Since then, the multimedia storytelling collective has garnered press attention from PC Gamer, Rock, Paper, Shotgun, and Kill Screen for projects that have nothing to do with Dwarf Fortress—stories about monster hunters with PTSD in Arkansas and twists on Slavic and Inuit legends.

All of this isn’t including the economy Dwarf Fortress has generated on its own—the modders who create graphical upgrades, expansions, and add-ons to the game, accepting their own donations, and the countless video games that can trace their lineage directly back to it. Its procedurally generated framework has become such a touchstone that articles with titles like “50 Games Like Dwarf Fortress” and “Top 7 Dwarf Fortress Clones” exist. Minecraft—which, again, would not have happened without the game—announced last week that it surpassed 100 million units in sales.

“A game that inspires people to tell stories is very cool. Dwarf Fortress influenced the way I think about games,” Stephens says, who recently moved from Washington to California to accept a job developing Toe Jam and Earl 4. “To create a program that allows people to develop their own stories purely through interaction is ridiculously ambitious.” A meme floating around on the internet elegantly illustrates Stephens’ point—a straight line labeled “Linear Game,” an oblong web labeled “non-linear game,” and a psychedelic fractal spiraling in on itself, labeled Dwarf Fortress.

Dwarf Moot will be held at Mox Boarding House, 3310 Bel-Red Rd, Bellevue, Free. All ages. 6:30–10 p.m. Sat., June 11. (Update: The event is now sold out).

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