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Game Design In Theory

Masterwork Demons: How Dwarf Fortress succeeds where Lobotomy Corporation fails

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Dwarf Fortress is infamous.

Losing, as they say, is Fun. Dwarf Fortress has an insane amount of detail in its simulation, details which do matter even when you can’t see them. (The combat system in Adventure Mode is the exact same one used in Fortress Mode.) The simulation is so consistent that cats will get drunk off of liquids that they lick off their paws.

It is also full of ways to lose. From thirst and hunger, to insanity, to the classic mistake of digging too deep, there are many ways to have Fun in Dwarf Fortress.

And yet, it’s not nearly as frustrating as dealing with a meltdown in Lobotomy Corporation. Why?

First, a quick recap.

Dwarf Fortress is a game about sending a group of Dwarves out to start a settlement. You arrive with a caravan of goods and 10 able-bodied dorfs, and must direct them to dig out massive caverns and build workshops and farms, so that you may successfully build up a supply of whatever you need for your fort. Naturally, many things will interfere with this, ranging from bloodthirsty goblins to angry wildlife to the occasional were-meerkat.

Lobotomy Corporation is a game about directing a group of employees at the world’s most accident-prone energy company. Your employees must be directed to interact with various anomalous objects, and you must work out exactly how these eldritch things expect you to use them, or else you’ll get a pile of corpses instead of clean electricity.

Both of these games are difficult, and both expect a lot of trial and error. So why is Dwarf Fortress less frustrating?

Part of it has to do with investment.

Specifically, investment in the things you’re losing. There are two kinds of investment happening in both these games: you invest attention in managing your team and you invest time in building them up. As this investment increases, the pain of losing your team members also increases.

Paying Attention

It takes a certain amount of effort to manage your team, but the amount needed for Dwarves is much less than the amount needed for your employees at the worst power plant ever. Dwarves can be assigned a set of broad tasks–mining, woodworking, blacksmithing, farming–and you can generally rely on them to go find stuff to do after that.

Meanwhile, in Lobotomy Corporation, employees only interact with anomalous objects when directly ordered to. This is rather important to the gameplay loop, as the timing of the interaction matters. A lot. Several objects have specific behaviors that trigger only when certain conditions are met–conditions that you cannot direct your workers to obey, as there’s no convenient automation options for this. At least in Dwarf Fortress you can mark dangerous areas as “low-traffic” or even off limits.

Because you have to be micro-managing your workers, Lobotomy Corporation naturally gets you more invested in the process of keeping those workers alive.

Paying Time

In addition, Dwarves are just better-trained going in, and will train themselves more readily. Your Dwarves are generally already sort of proficient at digging, farming, and other things–the ones you start with will have a nice spread of skills, too, and they’ll quickly train up those skills by just doing the things they’re assigned to.

Lobotomy Corporation has a similar practice-oriented skill system–your team gets better at various things depending on what kinds of tasks they’re ordered to perform, and some anomalous objects will enhance their stats even further. However, because you have to directly order them to do tasks, the growth process feels much slower–imagine if you had to click on each tile that your miners dig out, individually, and wait for the digging animation to finish before you click the next one.

The longer it takes to train up a worker’s skills, the more valuable that worker’s skills will feel–which makes it sting more when they die.

Part of it is also about the expectations.

The funny thing about Dwarf Fortress is that it’s not actually a game about having to discover how all this works. The community, and the devs, wholeheartedly recommend reading the wiki constantly while playing Dwarf Fortress. While the many interacting mechanics can feel overwhelming and confusing, the game is never intended to be mysterious, and that makes it feel less like cheating to look things up in the wiki.

Meanwhile, Lobotomy Corporation–which draws obvious inspiration from works like the SCP Foundation–is very clearly meant to be explored. The anomalies are designed to be intriguing and mysterious, to invite investigation. It’s a game that feels like it wants you to learn by trial and error–but the errors are punished, more often than not, with a total party wipe. Your workers are not interchangeable. They are unique, skilled, trained up for specific roles and carrying equipment that you created with hard-earned resources. When they die, it sucks–so you open a wiki to figure out what exactly you were supposed to be doing. And in the process, you lose a part of the experience–the mystery.

This isn’t like how Dark Souls fans will complain that the game’s difficulty is part of the experience–because difficulty is relative to a player’s skill, and can be adjusted with a lot of granularity. You can’t reveal knowledge about a thing that’s supposed to be mysterious without removing the chance to experiment with it. You can reveal parts of the mystery, but you can only subdivide knowledge so far without making it meaningless, and if you don’t subdivide far enough it still spoils the whole thing.

In this way, Dwarf Fortress wikidives feel like research, but Lobotomy Corporation wikidives feel like they take something away from the game.

There’s a reason SCP has its D-class personnel.

In the SCP Foundation canon, the SCP Foundation collects death-row inmates from around the world and puts them to work as test subjects. D-class personnel are disposable, in every sense of the word. And while this is disgusting ideologically and thematically, it serves an important purpose on the narrative and mechanical level, because the audience doesn’t have to get invested in the people who are dying.

And, y’know, that’s terrible. We should probably be using games to explore why people find 100 people they don’t know to be worth less than one they do know. But, mechanically, having expendable personnel would make Lobotomy Corporation way less frustrating. It’s kind of like how being a sociopath makes dealing with workplace politics way easier.

So, what I would do with a game like Lobotomy Corporation is use that concept of expendable personnel to give you some leeway–and to abstract away the day-to-day process of dealing with these anomalous objects. Instead of directing the efforts of a small team individually, you are building the field manuals for the masses, writing a flowchart that will be read and followed by people you will never meet. Instead of directly ordering people around, you’re scored on how accurate your manuals are–or, better yet, on how many people die while following your instructions. And, like in real workplace accidents, you can mess up one or two things and not realize it for years–because it takes three or four things going wrong to really ruin everyone’s day. Narratively, your character is detached from the people they are supposedly protecting–so, ludo-narratively, the gameplay is detached from them too.

Update: 2021-11-30

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