Tarn Adams, Dwarf Fortress Creator, Interview

Dwarf Fortress is undoubtedly one of the most complex games out there. It's well known as this intricate colony management game where you control an entire dwarven society. As such, it comes as a surprise that in a recent interview with PC Gamer, the game's creator, Tarn Adams, shared that his original intention was to create a procedurally generated fantasy RPG. The neglected and unfinished to this day Adventure mode was supposed to be the main attraction while the popular Fortress mode was just a means to an end.

The interview consists of two parts. The first one revolves around the systems of Dwarf Fortress, most notably its magic, while the second one is more of a discussion about Adams' preferred game type, where we learn all about his affection for Souls-like games.

Here are a few sample questions:

Feels weird to play them[colony sims]?

Yeah. I can't quite quantify. Because I could go back and play Caesar III or Tropico or something, these Dwarf Fortress-feeling games that came out before. But if you're playing a game that came out after—no one's really lifting stuff, and that's not how it feels, so it's not that. I don't know. I just don't want to feel my DNA in anything, or something. It's just weird. It would be nice to be articulate about this. [laughs]

Yeah, I don't know. I don't know if there's some phenomenon like that, where people don't like listening to stuff that said 'you influenced me.'

Part of it might be, I'm not sure the Dwarf part of Dwarf Fortress is a game I'd play, necessarily. Colony management, in general. That kind of came out of a weird sequence of events. We were really interested in this narrative simulator and stuff, but the economic feel of it, the survivalist feel of it, is not something we're interested in.

So the Adventure mode was your original goal?

Yeah, that was the original plan. We were writing this horrible game, the 3D one. It's just the strangest game in the world. It's not a game. Not anything. But that didn't come together, so this random side project suddenly becomes our fantasy game. And it's been strange to adapt to that. It's been good in the long run, obviously, for whatever reason. And probably better for our social simulations to have so many agents, dwarves, running around at the same time. It forced us to consider things that we were not doing down at the scale of one person looking through one person's eyes. So I think it really helped the simulation that we did do this. But it doesn't mean this is the sort of game we were ever playing.

My brother actually does play more than I do, and he was more into things like Tropico, and stuff. So it made sense, it's not like we hate [that style of game], but I would never pick up RimWorld or Gnomoria, or even things like Prison Architect that have kind of mentioned Dwarf Fortress. It's odd, it's really odd that it's not my thing. I don't get it.


I want to go back to Fortress mode. Was it surprising to you that when you first put the game out, that became the better known version of Dwarf Fortress? I don't know the breakdown, but I'm guessing more people play the fortress simulation.

Oh, absolutely. The Adventure mode isn't even a good game. Whether you think Dwarf Fortress is a good game or not, it's a game, and people can play it. Adventure mode is still amorphous. It's kind of funny, we never achieved our original goals, right, with a simple RPG. There's no real feel of a game loop at all, where you're accomplishing things. You do have these reputations that build up, but you never quite feel like you've changed the world and that it's carrying on.

Whereas in Dwarf Fortress you do that pretty quickly. So it wasn't surprising that that's the mode they liked, because it's the only one that's a game. It was surprising that they liked it, period. And to the extend that we've blown up. It's still a shock. People are playing a text game. That's weird.

This is a total change of topic, but we didn't talk about Dark Souls last year, did we? Have you played Dark Souls?

Yeah, I played Demon Souls, Dark Souls, Dark Souls 2, Dark Souls 3, Bloodborne, and Nioh.

Do you call yourself a Dark Souls fan?

Sure. Yeah. Dark Souls 1 more than the others probably. That's a natural opinion, right?

I agree.

It's because of the thing where people say, well, what makes a game like Dark Souls? And they start talking about stuff like difficulty or dying all the time or whatever, and that just has nothing to do with it, to me. I don't consider them that hard, because I can win them, which I can't do with other games in general. I can't win Contra or something. I don't see them as hard. I see them as sort of needlessly repetitive sometimes, really, especially when you have to run all the way back to a place, but the atmosphere is just killer. It's just living in this weird dreamscape thing and just seeing what they did with it. I like the interconnectedness of the things, which is why I was kind of disappointed in these star-shaped maps they had in the later ones.

Just the whole surreal thing. It's the same reason I enjoy Ultima Underworld, being trapped underground, you feel like you're down there by yourself. Then it turns out you're not, that's too bad. There's a big colony of humans of whatever. But just living in this weird dream thing and not knowing what you're going to see when you get to the next boss fight, and you know they've thought about something weirdly creative.