The Course of True Fun Never Did Run Smooth: A Midsummer Night’s Dwarf Fortress Reflection

Picture of my daughter as Puck and me as Oberon. A Midsummer Night's Dream, Cabaret Theatre, Latrobe, July 13-23.

Picture of my daughter as Puck and me as Oberon. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Cabaret Theatre, Latrobe, July 13-23.

“Shall we their fond pageant see? / Lord, what fools these mortals be!” –Puck

“The course of true love never did run smooth.” –Lysander

“Losing = fun.” –Dwarf Fortress Wiki

I am in rehearsals to play Oberon in a community theater production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which the fairies manipulate the lives of a community of mortals, by invisibly observing their private moments, using flowers with magical abilities to alter their behavior, and by manipulating which characters are present when the herbs take effect.

I am also playing Dwarf Fortress, an insanely intricate computer game in which the player manipulates a community of dwarves as they build an underground complex, establishing zones for woodcutting and hunting and mining, building workshops for crafting, and equipping and setting up training schedules for a militia to defend against enemy forces and wild beasts.

In Midsummer, fairies observe and comment on the doings of the humans, but they don’t control anyone directly. They do manipulate their environment. For instance, Puck refers to pretending to be a stool and then slipping out from under an old lady’s bum, and of course Puck famously puts an ass’s head on the shoulders of Nick Bottom, a self-aggrandizing weaver.

In Dwarf Fortress, the player can designate a certain tree to be cut down, or a certain block of dirt to be excavated, or a certain workshop to produce four wooden buckets out of pine logs, but the individual dwarves are responsible for picking up tools and getting the job done. Dwarves will refuse to do certain tasks if they are hungry, scared, or if they get the “mood” to take over a workshop and craft a masterwork emerald throne.

In Shakespeare’s play, the Athenian maid Hermia, must choose to marry the man her father chooses, or be put to death “by the next new moon.” Our director has softened this threat, making the scene play out with Hermia’s father the duke conjuring up this “ancient law of Athens” on the spot, via a winking extemporaneous patriarchal conspiracy. Predictably, Hermia and the man she loves, Lysander, flee Athens, putting them in contact with the fairy world. Oberon, initially intending to use a love potion against his queen Titania (to humiliate her by making her fall in love with a wild beast), picks up a side project — fixing up the fair Helen with the disdainful Demetrius (the man Hermia’s father wanted her to marry). Oberon’s servant Puck picks up his own side project, putting an ass’s head on the shoulders of Nick Bottom the weaver, part of a troupe of incompetent amateur actors hired to perform at the duke’s upcoming wedding. When Puck love-juices the wrong man, Oberon has to observe more closely, issue more explicit instructions, and micromanage to solve the problem.

Since I’ve been rehearsing Oberon while playing Dwarf Fortress for the first time, it’s hard not to see parallels. I can’t tell you the number of times that I drilled a mineshaft with the intention of finding gems to sell to traveling elves so that I can buy leather in order to make quivers so I can equip a squad of archers, only to strike water that started flooding my burrow, or a pool of magma, or a huge cavern full of spider monsters, which forced me to abandon the archery project and start building a hatch that I can bring to the breech and protect my dwarves. Or maybe instead it’s a visit from a hostile band of goblins, or a flying dragon, or maybe one of my own dwarves goes mad and starts hacking his companions, or my fortress runs out of alcohol and my dwarves go into withdrawal and drop their tools and refuse to work. My reaction in those cases is to observe more closely, issue more explicit instructions, and micromanage to solve the problem.

Lysander, the more gentlemanly of the youths, observes to his frustrated beloved: “The course of true love never did run smooth.”

Puck, who revels in the creation of mischief, puts the troubles into perspective as entertainment for the fairies.

“Shall we their fond pageant see? / Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

The Dwarf Fortress Wiki manual, a meticulous documentation of the Byzantine game, redirects the word “fun” to a page that documents all the ways it’s possible to lose the game. The game has no win state — like any tower defense or sandbox game, you play as long as you wish. If you want your dwarves to create a thriving meat industry, or underground farms, or engraved personal bedrooms for each of your 200 dwarves, and you reach that goal, then your fortress is a success. If your fortress falls due to an economic collapse, vampirism, starvation, or insanity, that’s part of the fun.

There is no internal end point, single goal, final Easter egg or “You Win!” announcement in Dwarf Fortress. Therefore, eventually, almost every fortress will fall. The only ones that don’t tend to be very conservative and very boring—and what fun is that? Thus, DF = losing ∧ DF = fun ⇒ losing = fun, and that’s okay! It’s a game philosophy, so embrace it, own it, and have fun with it!  –Dwarf Fortress Wiki, “losing