Dwarf Fortress recently got its first major update (.v40) in almost two years. On the surface, it seems sort of insane: megabeasts can conquer and reside in fortresses, fortresses may be retired and then re-inhabited, lives and deaths are tracked, and dwarves can dream.
But what does any of that mean? And what the hell is a megabeast?
Well, for starters, a megabeast is a Smaug-level badass that can spawn within the game. Dwarf Fortress version .40 and later now allow megabeasts to “attack, destroy and then reside within … sites like dwarf fortresses,” according to the patch notes. This sounds nice, and it is also literally how Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit starts. They gain enough wealth to attract a megabeast who then comes in, kills most of them, and then proceeds to live on top of their piles of gold. Dwarf Fortress can do the Hobbit now.
In fact, this is not just a strange scenario which may or may not occur. Because in v.40 fortresses can now be retired and unretired, i.e., abandoned and reinhabited. What makes this of particular note is that “retired forts can be conquered” and may be conquered “much more easily” than when under normal player control. So now fortresses that have been built up may be left to their own devices, conquered by megabeasts (or their more fell cousins the Forgotten), and returned to and recaptured. Or perhaps you simply unretired it and take control of it yourself without having to wrest it from a megabeast. I would say that the choice is yours but choice is not what Dwarf Fortress is about; Dwarf Fortress is about stories. To that end, another aspect of the game’s history has been fleshed out: it now tracks births, deaths, heirs, succession, and marriages in more powerful ways than ever before.
Now the loss of a skilled dwarf feels more like the loss of a particular dwarf, one with thoughts and feelings.
This sense of continuity between generations is important, because these generations are now more clearly defined than ever. We’ve always known that Dwarf Fortress was a big game, a game of scale, numbers, data, and history, but now it’s also a game of feelings. Dwarves now “experience emotions according to different circumstances … and they consider actions differently … Some dwarves have life-long dreams and it is possible for them to recognize that they’ve accomplished the ones relating to skill and family.” Represented by just one line of yellow text, a dwarf may dream of becoming a great warrior, mastering a skill, or creating a great work of art. While the loss of a particularly skilled dwarf has always been potentially devastating, now the loss of a skilled dwarf feels more like the loss of a particular dwarf, one with thoughts and feelings. One who wanted to leave the fortress a better fortress than the one it was born into.
Truly great updates, expansions, or DLC do one of two things. They either take a game and turn it on its ear, as in Red Dead Redemption’s Undead Nightmare. Or they expand a game from its middle and paint in more fine lines. They work to expand the stories already present in the game and fill it out to make a rounder, fuller, and more complete world. Dwarf Fortress has never felt fuller.