Dwarf Fortress is a game so influential that it’s created a genre of games in its wake: the colony sim. In games like these, you’re asked to take care of a handful of autonomous characters in a hostile setting, gradually building them up into a working society. Of these games, probably the most successful is Rimworld, so much so that a few uninformed Steam users called Dwarf Fortress a “Rimworld rip off” upon its release on the platform.
If you’ve played either game, the visual similarities are immediately obvious. In both games, the first thing you do is create a new, procedurally-generated world from scratch. From then on out, you’re giving orders to a bunch of little guys that you don’t control directly. The player lays out blueprints and orders the creation of certain objects. Then the settlers that you’ve collected will allocate themselves to tasks according to their skill levels and what you’ve allowed each character to work on. You’re not exactly looking at them from the perspective of god—it is literally a top down perspective—but you can’t control everything. You are still ultimately in charge of everything that happens in your fort.
As games, Rimworld and Dwarf Fortress have extremely different tones though. Part of that has to do with how they both tell stories.
In Rimworld, the game has what it calls AI Storytellers. These are essentially game modes that determine how frequently predetermined events will occur. “Cassandra Classic” will always send a wild animal after your fort in the early days, while “Phoebe Chillax” will always send you an extra character. “Randy Random” is not truly random, but is engineered toward giving the player unexpected challenges and breaking up the rhythm of gameplay, sending something that’s way harder than normal one day and something much easier on the next.
Rimworld differentiates itself from Dwarf Fortress in other, smaller ways, as well. In part because Rimworld has animations, you’re tasked with dealing with a much smaller group of colonists than Dwarf Fortress. You won’t be seeing 100 settlers in your fort anytime soon. Despite that, your settlers feel a lot more disposable than your dwarves in Dwarf Fortress.
The storytelling models for Rimworld in practice create the high impact, high drama gameplay moments that most colony sims are known for. Resource management games often already fall apart under the strain of managing all those resources; adding combat to the mix almost always means your characters will die. With frequent, scripted events and a smaller number of characters, you are likely to lose the ones you grow attached to. As a result, as a player, I strive not to become attached to my settlers in Rimworld. They’re not gonna be around for too long.
Dwarf Fortress, by contrast, does not have a storytelling engine in the same way. There are events, but they’re not as scripted as the ones you get in Rimworld. You might get a goblin siege every winter. Or, the closest goblin civilization might be too far away, and you never get one. Or you might start your fortress in a place that has a dragon in it, instantly incinerating all your dwarves. The frequency and difficulty of these events depend much more on the world that you generate at the beginning of the game than the game trying to create moments of drama for you. Dwarf Fortress doesn’t need that help—the world is so complex that mind-boggling story moments kind of just happen.
That lack of a gamified approach to storytelling means that I get to make up my own story. Usually, this means that I get really, really attached to my dwarves, looking through their personalities and giving them nicknames after they survive particularly harrowing events. I end up engraving slabs to memorialize them, or commissioning statues in their honor.
Even though there are hundreds of dwarves, sometimes, you get to know them because you’re not just bracing for the next gameplay event. The entire game is a gameplay event. Hell, mis-clicking when you’re digging a well, instantly drowning your entire fortress, is a gameplay event. Some things happen in my games that I truly could not have predicted. In one playthrough, set in a world with 2000 years of history, the outpost liaison from my home civilization was infected by a “contagious ghoulish affliction” that drove him to attack my dwarves and infect them. Every single one of my dwarves died, either from the other afflicted dwarves or the two humped camel that also caught this virus and killed everyone. Compared to the scripted events of Rimworld these moments feel truly unpredictable, creating memories that will never be the same as another person’s.
Even when things get dire and I’ve lost eighty dwarves to a procedurally generated beast with deadly blood, I’m driven to keep going in my fortress rather than start over. I don’t want all their deaths to be in vain—and there are plenty of dwarves to mourn them, and replace them.
There are some things Rimworld excels at in comparison to Dwarf Fortress, and they’re all things that smooth the edges off the former. Rimworld has a much easier to understand UI, and you spend a lot less time hunting and searching for the features you want to use. It’s streamlined, with fewer options allowing players to really dive into the mechanics that are there. It’s a game that, through its simpler features, gives you greater control over outcomes. Combat, in particular, is much more comprehensive than in Dwarf Fortress, allowing you to individually select each colonist and place them in specific locations. In Dwarf Fortress, you can tell dwarves to attack things, but after that, all bets are off. Rimworld isn’t interested in giving you a simulation of an entire world and history; it wants to give you a very good video game, and it concentrates on that.
Dwarf Fortress is kind of just a different creature. It does not strive to be a good video game. That is simply not one of the game’s priorities. It’s a good video game seemingly by coincidence, and until the steam release, could often only be played effectively if you used community modding tools. Dwarf Fortress is a game that could only occur because the developers were not necessarily thinking about the user experience when they were making it. It was made in the spirit of unfettered play, rather than a developer’s grand design.