Dwarf Fortress is probably the most complicated video game ever created. Tasking players with creating a self-sustaining world for its eponymous dwarves, entire epochs of time pass before you even start a game, and this level of detail continues into the game itself, with dwarves mourning for lost children, suddenly deciding to become dentists, sinking into schizophrenia, or creating magnificent works of art. It’s a living world.
It not only inspired hit games such as Minecraft, but New York’s Museum of Modern Art has added the game to its permanent collection. And as a recent piece by Polygon spells out, Dwarf Fortress‘s unique status as a video game is making MoMA re-think the way it preserves art.
Part of what attracted MoMA to this came is that it’s an ever-changing work in progress, recently receiving its first update in two years. And according to Tarn Adams, the game’s reclusive creator, his life’s work will take him another 20 years to complete. But how do you archive a constantly updated work of digital art, let alone a living virtual world?
MoMA’s Paul Galloway told Polygon that MOMA had a media conservator write a server script that automatically scans the Dwarf Fortress for new updates, downloads them immediately, and then stores them in a gigantic subterranean data store in the belly of the MoMA’s basement.
“Our idea is that if somebody bombs [the Dwarf Fortress team] tomorrow, blew up everything that they had, we would be–if nowhere else in the world–the one sure repository of everything that has been made for Dwarf Fortress thus far,” Galloway told Polygon.
But the real challenge with games like Dwarf Fortress is figuring out how to translate the experience of a game that spans hundreds of hours into a museum setting where people spend mere seconds looking at an art piece. How, then, do you impart the idea behind a game like Dwarf Fortress in a museum display when the barrier to entry is so high. Galloway says that the MoMA is still trying to figure that out.
For more visually conventional games in their collection, like Minecraft or the space MMO Eve Online, the MoMA uses videos to get the idea of the game across. But for Dwarf Fortress, that might not work as well.
Because the programming behind the game is so intricate, Dwarf Fortress doesn’t have sophisticated graphics, but rather represents its world using ASCII characters, each of which represents an in-game character or object. These seemingly chaotic and in many ways ugly visuals makes it harder for people who haven’t heavily invested in the game to understand what’s going on.