'Dwarf Fortress' Is Abandoning Its Text-Based Graphics, but Not Its Soul

Developer Bay 12’s transition from ASCII to 2D art is about more than selling copies—it’s about improving the game and opening it up to a wider audience.

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Mar 25 2019, 11:49am

Dwarf Fortress is a hard game to classify. It’s part simulation, part RPG, and part rogue-like. It generates a 2D world and tasks the player with managing a fortress and helping its dwarves survive. There are goblins, gods, mysteries, quests, geese, drinking, cats, and more, and all these elements can interact in unpredictable ways. After one update, players began to notice cats padding around drunk and vomiting. The update had added taverns for the dwarves, which led to spilled beer, which cats walked through. Later, when the cats clean themselves, they imbibed the alcohol and got drunk. That’s how deep the simulation gets.

But players had to imagine the cat vomit because Dwarf Fortress is rendered entirely in ASCII—a vast fantasy world created with less graphical fidelity than you'll find in a Word Document. There’s nothing that looks or plays quite like it. Now, that's changing.

For 15 years, Bay 12 Games gave away Dwarf Fortressthe game for free and supported development through donations and a Patreon. On March 13, Bay 12 Games announced it would begin selling Dwarf Fortress through Steam and Itch.io. Selling the game isn’t the only radical change—the Steam version of Dwarf Fortress would abandon its iconic ASCII art style in favor of a 2D tileset.

The unique ASCII art style defined the game for the better part of two decades. Moving away from the iconic look will change the game but it might change it for the better. Developer Tarn Adams, (who founded Bay 12 games with his brother Zach) wants to give Dwarf Fortress to a whole new group of people. The Adams brothers teamed up with developer Kitfox Games (the studio behind Shrouded Isle) and its own modding community to update Dwarf Fortress’ art style without abandoning its soul.

In fact, Adams thinks that the 2D change presents unique opportunities to make the game more accessible and fix legacy issues with Dwarf Fortress.

“ASCII is not purely an aesthetic choice. It is restrictive,” Adams told me over the phone.

According to Adams, the decision to use ASCII in the first place was pure happenstance.“[ Dwarf Fortress] started as an ASCII game called Mutant Miner...it was supposed to be this little throwaway game.”

But Mutant Miner kept evolving. Bay 12 Games kept adding elements, tweaking it, and eventually realized its simple turn-based game about mining had turned into a procedurally generated real-time strategy simulation. They kept the ASCII style because working with it was fast. They effectively didn’t have to worry about art.

“We released in ASCII and kept working in ASCII for that reason—the development was so fast and we were not qualified to draw,” Adams said.

As Bay 12 Games continued to develop Dwarf Fortress, it ran up against the limitations of that choice. There’s only 128 ASCII characters to choose from, which is why a goose, a goblin, and a gremlin all use the same letter—a lowercase g. “Even with color, I’ve run into overlaps now,” Adams said. He pointed out a six pointed star which Dwarf Fortress uses for a turtle, a campfire, and a gem. Adams said he thinks Bay 12 Games has used the six sided star for 15 different objects.

Adams is conscious that, while ASCII has its limitations, there’s something iconic about the art style. He knows that leaving ASCII behind will change the game, but he still wants to preserve its soul.

“In some sense, it’s not possible,” Adams said. “It really is a distinct look. At the same time, the people that we’ve brought on to make the tileset have both been with the community for ten years each. They’re modders. They dig it. They really understand the game.”

Bay 12 Games partnered with developer Kitfox Games. Kitfox Games' Creative Director Tanya Short brought on Dwarf Fortress modders Mike “Mayday” Madej and Patrick "Meph" Martin Schroeder to build the tileset for the Steam release. “I’m really happy with the dwarf that Mayday Mike drew,” Adams said. “It has a harrowed look to it, it’s not a happy little Snow White dwarf. These poor dwarves. They don’t know what to expect. I’m super happy with how this is going.”

But the 2D facelift isn’t just about changing the art style, it’s about opening the game up to more people, making it accessible, and fixing legacy issues.

“All of the accessibility questions for Dwarf Fortress are on the table,” Adams said. “We’re going to look at the interface and the menu structure and common problems that new players have that make them bounce off the game.”

One of the big issues Adams is hoping to tackle is topography. Dwarf Fortress allows players to build a fortress with multiple levels and that’s hard to navigate in ASCII. In its current form, players move between layers of the game individually and have to keep track of the whole fortress in their mind. It’s like leafing through pages of a book. With some clever shading techniques, it’s easier to create a multi-leveled fortress in a 2D space.

“Before, when I had 16 colors, I couldn't do that,” Adams said. “If the lower level is a darker green, well, there's only one darker green available, and it might clash with some of the darker green stuff that's above. And then you can't tell what's up and what's down. It's just confusing.”

Adams also pointed out that the ASCII art style alienated a number of different potential players. People with color blindness and dyslexia had a hard time picking up the game. Dwarf Fortress uses color to distinguish between creatures—a goblin and a goose are both the letter “g” but the colors are slightly different variants of white. If you can’t see color, you can’t tell the difference.

Adams is excited for the future of Dwarf Fortress, but he knows some people will always love the ASCII original. “There's a crew of ASCII people who really liked the fact that like, a dragon is a capital D, because then they can imagine the dragon, that's been in their mind their whole life,” he said. “Now we'll have a great looking dragon, but it’ll have more properties that are assigned to it by the artist rather than the player. That’s the trade off.”

But Bay 12 Games isn’t abandoning the ASCII version of Dwarf Fortress. It plans to keep updating the game with more unicode pages (an enhanced superset of ASCII) and design tweaks and every copy sold on Steam and Itch.io will come with the ASCII version. “Everyone everywhere can experience [Dwarf Fortress] the the way they want to experience it.”

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