Dwarf Fortress As Art

A graphical version of tileset for Dwarf Fortress

Image via Wikipedia

It’s been some years since I’ve sat down and devoted some serious time to a computer game, and I doubt that Dwarf Fortress will be the game to break that streak. The time commitment required to figure out the basic mechanics, let alone play a full game proficiently, looks pretty daunting. But I still read the New York Times Magazine profile of Tarn Adams, the creator of the game, with a great degree of interest — especially¬†those passages that describe how the mechanics of the game reflect Adams’ philosophy of design. By taking that philosophy seriously, I think reporter Jonah Weiner effectively resolves the debate over whether or not computer and video games can be art.

Dwarf Fortress, as Adams describes it, is a “story generator” — character and narrative are constructed by the gamer, but Adams sets the boundaries within which these things may be constructed. How Adams creates and details these boundaries is his art. His craft may seem fundamentally different from that of the novelist or the film director, but I would argue that the distinguishing features are all either superficial technical details or matters of degree and emphasis. The novelist also demands some constructive effort from her audience — it is the reader’s imagination that renders words into action, thought, and sensory experience. What is not written is no less significant.

Omission is also a crucial element of game design. By setting limits on his game world, Adams tells you something about how he views the world — what he thanks can and cannot be achieved. Dwarf Fortress emerges as an astonishingly rich and complex world in which small decisions can change the course of history. But there is no option available to the gamer that would grant him an escape from the hard logic of the game, much less a repreieve from the inevitability death.

If you have five minutes to spare and you want to see the principle I’m describing in action, try downloading¬†Passage. The limitations designer Jason Rohrer imposes on you within the context of that game are absolutely essential to his vision. That vision needs to be experienced to be understood; but I will say that he successfully forces players to experience some basic truths on a visceral, even wrenching, level. Isn’t that exactly what most art is supposed to do?

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