We return to the exciting conclusion of the tale of Bañec Hazyblockades, a brave hero who set out to conquer the world of Dwarf Fortress with only the power of poetry. In last week’s episode, our hero was attacked for no reason by a vicious, but apparently undernourished, archer. It looked like this was the end for Bañec, until suddenly –
– he runs. He cries out in fear, turns tail, and sprints away, leaving me wounded and bleeding on the ground.
I examine myself; I’m in bad shape, and there are two arrows lodged in me. I figure I’m just deciding how I die from here on out, and decide I want to try to make it back to my lord’s hall, and hit T to bring up the travel screen, expecting it to tell me I can’t while I am bleeding. It opens instantly, and I start walking. Moments later, I find myself staggering through those same chicken fields, still bleeding, though miraculously less, retching and short of breath and still mortally wounded. I stagger past the chickens, remembering the last time I came this way, barely an hour ago, I felt so much younger, stronger, full of hope.
I make it into the lord’s hall somehow, and search through the conversation menu for something, anything to say. I find an option I’ve never seen in a game before, and select “verbally struggle against fear after experiencing trauma.” He immediately changes the subject to a nearby monster, and how someone ought to deal with it. I stagger into a corner, pull the arrows out of my leg and side, and select the sleep option, hoping I wake up alive.
What can only be an hour at most later, something wakes me. Initially I can’t see what it is. Then, the skinny bowman bursts through the door in a welter of violence. He shoots the pikeman, and is shot in the hand, dropping his bow almost instantly. This time, he’s less easily dissuaded than before, and closes to continue his mad attack with his hands, feet, and teeth. I shout out to everyone that this is the guy who attacked me, thinking he might be a night creature or a vampire. Most of the people in the hall are still lying around confused and stunned, or even still asleep. I haven’t worked out who’s shooting at him yet, even – I don’t get messages about people shooting arrows or bolts, just about them hitting.
The violence, even after what I’ve just been through, is pretty horrifying. Eventually, the hall rouses itself and the bowman is put down. He suffocates in his own gore as the pikeman stands bleeding over him, choking him to death. I am still alive – at this point I remember something about fast travel breaking wound healing, and check the menu to realize that while my spine and lung wounds remain, everything else has healed.
It’s dark now, and, as every single person you meet will tell you, traveling alone at night is suicide, so I can’t follow my dreams and head to the big city just yet. I try to sleep until dawn. What follows is the most paranoid night I have ever spent in a video game.
Every time I try to go to sleep, I wake up again. No time passes. Any time I move, everyone else in the mead hall wakes up and remarks, again, how horrible it is to be surrounded by death. The pikeman is gone; his pike lies on the ground atop the dead body of the skinny bowman. I imagine pale eyes staring at the darkened rock salt ceiling, unclosed even in death, as I try to sleep a few yards away. When I’ve had enough, I decide to take the body of the bowman outside so everyone will shut up about it, and to check around a little to see if I see any monsters that could be causing me to feel too wary to sleep.
On my way out I see Ngoso the goblin slave go past, away from the mead hall, carrying a crossbow. He says hello to me, but I have my arms full of dead bowman, and don’t say anything. He vanishes into the night. I try to remember if he had a crossbow the first time I saw him, and wonder if it was him who shot the skinny bowman whose corpse I am carrying through the hand when he burst into the meadhall to kill me. I can’t be sure, but I probably owe that goblin my life.
I take the body outside, set it down, and head back in to try to sleep. No dice. I try a few times, passing maybe a few minutes each time, then back out and do a quick circuit of the building: cats, chickens, and the dead body lying there a couple steps from the door. I pick it up, take a half dozen steps out into the darkness, and throw it as far away as I can. Walking back, I try to sleep again. Still no dice. Frustrated, I head outside and walk around in a larger circle. Cats, stray chickens… and a giant wolf recruit, covered in blood, but apparently nonhostile. I stare at it for awhile. The blood, helpfully, is labeled: it belongs to Ngoso Nightmaresended, the goblin slave.
My mind spins through the possibilities: Is this a tame giant wolf, belonging to my current society? Was the goblin slave trying his escape, and set upon by this beast? I walk back into the hall to communicate this event, but can’t find an option to say, “there’s a bloody wolf outside; I think it killed someone.” When I bring up Ngoso they flatly tell me he’s dead. I still can’t sleep.
In desperation, I roam farther, turning on the tracking interface, and walk a few paces down the slight hill towards town. Almost immediately, I stumble over his body: Ngoso Nightmaresended, goblin slave who possibly saved my life, dead on the ground still carrying his crossbow. I rush back into the hall to tell everyone about the wolf and the foul deed, but there’s no option. I run up to the blood-covered wolf, who is resting happily on the ground near some equally satisfied chickens and cats, and loudly accuse it of being a night creature. It doesn’t say, or do, anything. Apparently we don’t share a language.
My character is exhausted, hungry, thirsty, and still, according to the interface, mortally wounded; I’m pretty sure I’m no match for a giant wolf on my own. I really need to sleep. I open the travel interface and cross town to the small clump of houses, pursued on the map by asterisks the entire time. Is it the wolf? Was it just pretending to be friendly? What happened between it and the goblin? Am I a fool as well as a coward and a vile slave-owner? As the clouds scud past the moon, I wonder if I will live to see another day.
I stumble into a hovel, pick a corner, and hit sleep. The travel map appears; the asterisks hover for an instant, then speed away. It seems I’m finally safe, and a new day dawns. I wake up, still more thirsty and hungry, and no less mortally wounded than before, but at least the exhaustion’s gone.
I have food in my inventory, some anchovies, which I happily eat. I also have a waterskin, but this being the frozen north the water in it has all turned to ice. Luckily, I know the answer to this one: a simple matter of surrounding myself with campfires for a few minutes thaws the ice and I am able to quench my thirst. The chime of coin in my pockets, the new dawn and the hearty breakfast can’t quite dispel the visions of bloodshed and horror from the night before, but if I’m ever going to strike out for the big city, now is probably the time.
As soon as I leave the hovels, I realize I’m being followed. An asterisk stays exactly two steps behind me on the map. I may need to sleep between the hamlet and the city, and if I do whatever it is will get a free, complete ambush. Which gives me an idea: if I lay a proper ambush of my own, I should be able to see what it is and then run. Plus, I’m better armed now: I’m carrying a bow, my spear, and a pike. I can probably deal with a single bandit, if I have to.
I crouch down on the south side of a bridge crossing a brook, in tall grass behind a tree, and wait, not making a sound. After a few turns of that, I open the long wait menu and tell it to wait for an hour without going to sleep.
Well, either my character was sleepier than I thought, or all dwarf fortress adventurers wait with their eyes closed because, as the words “Ambush!” tell me, the clear-voiced axeman who has suddenly appeared behind me has decidedly gotten the drop on me. I leap to my feet and sprint away at top speed through prickleberry fields with him in hot pursuit. Along the way, we shout at each other: I demand he yields; he yells back, “You first, coward!”
It becomes pretty clear that, even though I have a bruised lung, he can’t keep up with me in a footrace, but he’s not giving up. I draw my weapons, which puts a bow in my right hand and a spear in my left, then informs me I don’t have any grips left for the pike. I guess as a poet going into combat for only the second time Bañec is a little nervous and trying to grab anything she can. I drop the spear, spin, and fire an arrow. I hit him in the chest, bruising and tearing one of his muscles and breaking one of his ribs. He keeps coming. I run a few more paces, then fire again. He leaps aside. I move away again, fire a third arrow. This one he parries out of the air with his well crafted bronze great axe, but, perhaps realizing the futility of the situation, he loses his nerve, shouts again, and begins to flee. I pursue, grabbing up my spear from the ground when we pass it again.
I can’t just let him get away: that ends with night-time slaughter and probably-dead friendly pikemen. Anyway, he’s still not yielding. I chase him down and, after a moment’s hesitation about whether such an action is suitable for a poet, stab him from behind. He’s hurt, but doesn’t break stride. I demand he yield, again, and he begs for mercy. I immediately make demands, first that he tell me who he is using the closest available option: “Tell me about your family.”
He shouts back, “The head of the family is Abola Claspedspotted!” Emboldened, I rapid fire all the requests for services or information I can find, with mixed results: “Join me on adventures?”
“I’m sorry, my duty is here.”
“Why are you traveling?”
“I’m on an important mission.”
“Surrender that bronze great axe!”
“Over my dead body!”
And just like that, I’ve pressed my luck too far and he’s running again, off into the distance. I don’t have the heart to chase him down and kill him. Perhaps cowardice and indecision are my fatal flaws, but I’m a poet, not a warrior. I let him run east, and turn to the south, hoping that a battle ending in a yield will mean the end of hostilities between us.
I hit T, bring up the travel screen, and take a single step.
It’s him again. I sigh, fumble around for my bow, and fire two arrows at him. Crucially, I misjudge the spacing on the second one, and he’s able to close, hacking at my leg with terrible force. I mash two movement keys. I crawl about at random on the ground as he rains down blows with his axe. Rapidly, I give into pain. His final blow chops off everything above my shoulders.
Here ends the tale of Bañec Hazyblockades, who sang, and was severed, much as I wish it had not. It’s neither what I wanted or what I was trying to do, and it’s all the interactions of a bunch of tiny, simulated game mechanics and canned lines of dialogue, but seen from just the right angle it almost seems terribly meaningful in some tantalising way, just out of reach, like the poetic riddle forms that were Bañec’s specialty in life.
I did, in the writing of this article, load up the world in Legends mode and try to untangle what was going on. The wolf was an enemy of the site; the goblin was not, as far as I can tell, revolting; he had in any case changed profession from slave to mercenary at least once before in the past while still living in the same hamlet and probably carried the crossbow. He was the one to shoot the skinny bowman in the initial melee at the meadhall. He was killed by the wolf, who had devoured many livestock from our village before. I wish I had the presence of mind, or the courage, to stab at the wolf and then flee into the meadhall to avenge him. The skinny bowman, whose name was Ume Jirbeksur, or Ume “Riseskirts,” was a lieutenant of “the Playful Fellowship,” presumably one of the criminal organizations threatening the town. The clear-voiced axeman belonged to the same group; it seems likely to me that he was targeting me for revenge, knowing that I was involved in the death of his comrade.
The limitations of Dwarf Fortress’s languages will always obfuscate communication between the game and the player: layered entities make it hard to know what civilization a group belongs to, names that are rendered differently in different contexts make it hard to know who anyone is, descriptions that range from mind-bogglingly overblown to laughably minimal in turn make it hard to know what you’re looking at. And yet, through this fog of language, or this semi-divine hazy blockade (if you’ll really indulge me) it seems like we can, with effort, glimpse things of great complexity and seeming depth. I know I’ll be back again.