Water was everywhere. Clouds overhead unleashed a deluge, and the dark, churning ocean mirrored them.

She was wet. Her hair clung to her face, and water lapped around her ankles. She lay on something solid, and her hands felt gritty.

Her boat strained against the storm. The single sail had broken loose and was fluttering in the wind. She managed to grab hold of a ragged length of rope, a part of the sail’s broken rigging, and wrapped it around her arm. She steadied herself against the mast as she struggled to bring the sail back under control.

Hot oppressive sunlight beat down on her, and as she flexed her aching muscles, she felt her tight and stinging skin. She heard the sound of small waves lapping against a shore, wind blowing across the sea, and shore birds calling to each other. The smell of briny water filled each breath.

She was thrown to the deck as the boat lurched up toward her. The horrible sound of wood creaking, twisting, and breaking reverberated through her body. Waves crashed over the deck, and the boat stayed beneath them. The waves swept her from the deck, spinning her down into the water. Her feet scrambled beneath her, and she kicked off the rocky reef that her boat had struck. She bobbed to the surface and took a breath before another wave buried her again. 

She licked her lips. They were completely dried out and the skin was starting to crack. Her eyelids flickered open and squinted into the bright evening sun. She tried to sit up, but only succeeded in raising her head slightly. She was lying on a beach she had never seen before, the wreckage of her ship washed up all around her. Groaning, she rolled onto her belly, and pushed herself up. Slowly, she shifted into a kneeling position and tried to stand. Her legs wouldn’t hold her, and she fell back onto the sand, panting. She closed her eyes and lay still.

She awoke to the sounds of someone moving nearby. She blinked her eyes open and found  a young man with long blonde hair and a simple green tunic over a white shirt looking down at her. He sighed with relief and smiled at her when he saw her eyes open.

“What a relief!” he said, “I thought you’d never wake up!”


The wind was blowing hard over head, but down between the shoulders of two ridges, he was protected. He followed the bottom of the ravine, and dark, harshly broken boulders spread out around him. Broken shale crunched and skittered beneath his feet. The quickly fading light of the late evening sun did little to illuminate the dusty red landscape.

He crested over the highest point in the canyon and looked down into the valley. The word valley may be overly ambitious, he thought dryly, as the space below was really just a small, relatively flat area between three mountains. One rose directly to his left, its peaks reaching to incompressible heights, and another, smaller one was further off to his right. Straight ahead, disappearing into the haze, lay the last.

He squinted, straining to see what lay in that haze. A walled city, barely perceivable from this distance, was built up against the foot of the far mountain, and, just beyond that, lay the dark fortress. Just as he managed to pick it out from the dimness, a light turned on in one of its many towers. That was followed by another, and then many more. A floating constellation against the darkening mountain.

“Well,” he sighed, “there it is. The last place any sane person would ever want to be.”

Luckily for him, sanity was not a quality he had been cultivating lately.


Dark clouds roiled overhead and drenched a grim tower, its walls slick and glistening from rainwater. It stood on a precipice, overlooking a mountain pass, a stoic sentinel for the land that lay beyond. It was here that the last remaining defenders had come, and they gathered on the round topped turret to keep watch. Some stood looking outward, crouching beside the crenellations, others rested with their backs against the stone fortifications. Rain water ran down their weathered, cragged faces, and they cast furtive glances at the sky and each other, looking for an answer to the question they all feared to ask.

Their pennant banner fluttered in the wind, snapping back and forth. Lightning raced across the sky and illuminated the valley beyond. Each time the lightning glowed, the watching guards would strain their eyes for any hint of movement. The seconds stretched into minutes, and the rain played a plinking little tune on their helmets. One of the men shifted his weight to lean upon his spear, and its wooden shaft thudded softly against the stone.

“There,” one of them said, pointing out into the valley. The others crowded over and leaned out for a better view.

The next lightning strike illuminated it, closer than they could have feared. The dragon had come, its scaled wings beating the storm winds into submission. The guards scattered, some shivering with fright, some glowering with a feral determination, all taking cover behind the tower’s fortifications. They gripped their spears tightly and awaited their judgement as death descended.

Dwarf Fortress: A Case Study in Game Design

Dwarf Fortress: A Case Study in Game Design

Dwarf Fortress. If you’ve heard of it, you’ve probably heard of how hard and unapproachable it is. What I find more interesting about it is how it has shed many of the things that people have come to expect a game to be. At the same time, it remains one of the most captivating game experiences ever created. For a long time now, I’ve wanted to write something about it to share some thoughts on why that might be.

The first thing that people notice about dwarf fortress is its graphics and UI, or, that is to say, its complete lack of graphics and UI design. Most people have come to expect games to be at the vanguard of user experience, and graphics and games seem to exist in a world where one cannot be without the other. It’s at this first barrier that many people are turned away from the game.

But the graphic and user experience aren’t the only (or even the most fundamental) assumptions about games that Dwarf Fortress forgoes. It does without things like creating “choices” for the player, designing mechanics to let the player feel powerful, or creating reward loops to manipulate the player into feeling good about spending their time playing.

Now you may be saying that Dwarf Fortress has all of these things, and it’s true that all of these things exist in the game. The fundamental difference is that these concepts aren’t placed there intentionally, but are instead emergent properties that come from a much more deeply important goal for the game. The most important thing, the thing that captures the attention of its fans, is the huge volume of narrative space to explore.

I’ve talked about narrative space in the past (I’ll do it again in the future), but for people who are confused by the term, here’s a brief rundown. A narrative space is the fundamental feature that defines a game and differentiates it from other narrative mediums. It is the collection of all possible narratives that can be created given a state, and a set of rules for interacting with that state. In other words, it’s the set of “world lines” through a game’s configuration space (if you’re into that kind of talk). In other other words, as you play a game, the sequence of events that happen in the game by interacting with the rules forms a narrative. The narrative space is all the different sequences that can come from playing a specific game.

In Dwarf Fortress, the number of different narratives to explore is ENORMOUS. It’s larger than any other game I’ve ever experienced, because the game creators have been specifically spending their time to make it that way.

This narrative space is where literally all of Dwarf Fortress’s value comes from. The game is given away for free, but there are players that find the game valuable enough to just donate money so development can continue. Remember, this is a game developed by two brothers, with no marketing budget, no graphics, and basically the same user interface as the vim text editor. Compare that to the many, many, many games on Kickstarter that fail to reach funding goals with the advantages of being pretty, and having a budget.

Dwarf Fortress shows us that many of the things that people believe must be designed into a game are really just emergent properties of a narrative space that has many compelling narratives inside it.

There is no system in Dwarf Fortress that was created to reward a player for doing specific tasks. Instead, the game models tasks and behaviors that are interesting to the players, and as players interact with the simulation, they are rewarded when things that are intrinsically interesting to them happen.

Many games assume that they must manipulate players into wanting to play more by exploiting reward circuits in players’ brains. In reality, players are motivated to play games because the process of voluntarily exploring the different stories that a game can produce, and finding the ones that appeal to the player is a feedback loop. The player chooses what to want on their own, then explores the narrative space to find it. When the player finds what they want, they feel so good that they go back to exploring the game. Repeat. The designers didn’t have to tell the players what to want, because the player just decided that something that was in the game was what they wanted.

The game doesn’t care about player choice, but in order to have a large narrative space, there must first be many different ways of interacting with the state. A large narrative space will necessarily give the player many different choices while playing. This is because, in order to create a larger narrative space, there must be more game interactions, that is, rules.

A metaphor for this is to imagine that a game is a two dimensional plane. The rules are the things that define the two axises, and specific game states are represented as points on the plane. Adding another rule to the game is akin to adding another axis to our spatial model. Now there are many different planes, and the number of different states was dramatically increased. The player has many more rules and interactions to play around with, narratives to choose between.


It’s commonly accepted that a game should be designed in such a way to let the player feel empowered and assertive. Often this means that the game will be easily approachable, will allow the player to quickly understand it and how to do things, and has “easy parts” that are created purely to help reinforce the sense of empowerment.

Dwarf Fortress does none of this. Its UI is great for players who already know all the keystrokes, but it’s horrible for helping new players feel like they know what they’re doing. The game will often randomly throw impossible challenges at a player, and there are hundreds of little ways that a fortress can go belly up without the player noticing until it’s too late. Yet the word that players have chosen to describe all of these barriers and things that can go wrong is “Fun” (with a capital ‘f’). They really mean it, because they just keep coming back for more. With every new attempt, something new is learned, some previous barrier overcome, and it’s EXTREMELY rewarding. This can only happen because the designers decided to focus on creating a large narrative space over “balance” and “player progression”. Compare that with bland industry games where you know what to do from the beginning, and the only thing that changes is the size of explosions on screen.

In the end, playing Dwarf Fortress is an extremely fresh experience that really stands in stark contrast to the shovelware that dominates the AAA games industry. It’s a dramatic case study into what really matters in a game, and how to achieve it. Luckily, with games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, it looks like some of the good ideas that inspired Dwarf Fortress are finding their way into the mainstream industry. Here’s hoping for a revolution in the way we understand games, and to the role that Dwarf Fortress helped play in bringing it about.