Who is Tarn Adams, you may ask? He and his brother Zach are the guys behind Dwarf Fortress, the craziest computer game ever made. The game’s ostensibly about founding and running a city of dwarves, fending off invasions from goblins, stampeding elephants and whatnot, but its depth and features are unlike any other game. Dwarf Fortress is a game where you can design your own Turing computer or create a fortress suspended in midair by an army of windmills; assuming you can clear its ludicrously steep learning curve and get over its 1980-era graphics, the possibilities are endless.
And get this: the game isn’t even a third of the way towards being complete.
Tarn started working on Dwarf Fortress back in 2002, and claims it’ll be another twenty years before he’ll be finished with it. Even better, he’s dedicated his life to working on the game:
Dwarf Fortress is too willfully noncommercial to have any discernible influence on gaming at large, but it is widely admired by game designers. Programmers behind The Sims 3 reportedly played Dwarf Fortress when they were making their game, and several homages to Dwarf Fortress appear in the blockbuster fantasy game World of Warcraft. Richard Garfield, who created the hit card game Magic: The Gathering, once attended a Dwarf Fortress fan meet in Seattle to introduce himself to Tarn. “I told him there’s nothing out there quite like it,” Garfield recalled. He suggested ways of broadening the game’s appeal, but “that stuff didn’t matter to Tarn. The charm of it is that he’s making exactly the game he wants to make.”
After nine years of development, Dwarf Fortress is, from the perspective of game play, perhaps the most complex video game ever made. And yet it is still only in “alpha” — the most recent release is version 0.31. By version 1.0, Tarn says, the game will include military campaigns and magic, along with scores of other additions. He showed me a four-inch stack of index cards, color-coded and arranged into umbrella categories, to keep track of his goals. “I like being able to hold the game in my hands,” he says.
The funny thing about Tarn is that by
manosphere keyboard jockey standards, he’s a loser:
Despite Tarn’s adventurousness at home, he was withdrawn at school. “Occasionally I’d have a friend, and we’d talk or joke around or whatever, but I didn’t play sports or talk to people or have that experience,” he says. “I was a get-home-from-school, get-on-the-computer kind of kid.” In high school he made one close friend, Alan Ames, who still corresponds sporadically with Tarn. “We’d spend weekends making video games, or these silly ‘Star Trek’ parodies with his dad’s video camera,” Ames, who is now an aerospace engineer, recalled. “He never cared about socializing.” He had to be pushed to join the math club.
Tarn has been single since graduate school, when he dated a Cisco systems administrator for a short time. I asked him whether he wanted children. “I don’t mind the idea of never having kids,” he said. “I want to stay focused on the game, and if I had kids, I’d wind up paying attention to them instead.”
He expressed similar ambivalence about finding a romantic partner. “If I were in the supermarket one day and someone came on really strong and it was a mutual thing, I’d probably get pushed along, but it’s not something I’m anticipating,” he said. His interest has dwindled. “It’s easier not to care about that stuff when you’re in your 30s.”
It’d be easy to mock him, but Tarn has managed to make a career out of his passion, something most of us are struggling to do:
Tarn’s scruples have certainly cost him fans, but he says he’s doing fine. He has no plans to charge for the game; he subsists entirely on PayPal donations from players. “I like that it’s free, and if you care about it, you pay,” he says. In 2010, he earned $50,000. (He calls that year, in which he released a major update after a long delay, anomalous, and expects to make $30,000 in 2011.) His expenses are low — $860 a month in rent, $750 a month to Zach for his help and a few hundred dollars for utilities and food — and as long as Dwarf Fortress is self-sustaining, he’s happy. He has refused a programming job at a major developer (he asked that I keep its name off the record) and turned down a $300,000 offer from another company to license the Dwarf Fortress name, fearing that the proposed sum wouldn’t sufficiently offset the long-term donations drop that would likely result.
While countless twerps are stroking themselves to The 4-Hour Workweek, Tarn and his brother Zach are laboring to create a game that is truly remarkable and could very well stand the test of time, a game that has influenced countless “real” developers. And they’re creating it exactly the way they want, beholden to no one but their fans.
In light of all this, I ask a simple question:
What the Fuck is Your Excuse?