Screenshot: Dwarf Fortress (Bay 12 Games)
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Dwarf Fortress is full of hidden horrors, like Forgotten Beasts that breathe poison or giant metal Titans with impenetrable skin, or even just the regular old Goblin coming to kidnap one of your children. But these abominations pale in comparison to the challenge I tried to overcome a couple weeks ago, Dwarf Fortress’s first real boss: aquifers.

Here’s the thing about aquifers: Dwarves can’t swim, and digging into an aquifer level unprepared is basically a death sentence for your fort. Hope you didn’t need any of those dwarves or workshops on the now-flooded levels of your fort!

Luckily, Dwarf Fortress players have devised a way to safely seal off aquifers. Unluckily, it is also as hard as everything else in Dwarf Fortress. The last time I had a long period of uninterrupted personal time—April 10—I decided to try finally learning how to make aquifers bend to my will.

My attempt was ultimately a failure. It was entertaining, though!

The Dwarf Fortress wiki is basically my go-to for any problem I’m currently having in the game. On it, there’s a quick tutorial for handling aquifers called the “double slit method.” It involves digging two stairwells into an aquifer level, then using a pump to keep one side dry enough that the dwarves can dig down into the next level, then using walls to keep the rest of the water out. The wiki encourages you to try this method first on a map you don’t plan on playing again, so I set off to generate an entire world for the sole purpose of teaching myself how to play a video game better.

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My first attempt ended up with me flooding my fortress in only a few minutes. I had expected that to happen, so I didn’t mind too much. I got myself into a pretty serious mindset, trying to think like my industrious dwarves. I just had to keep trying until I got it.

My second attempt started off promising. The key to the double slit method is making sure that the aquifer level you’re digging into has ample room to drain into the layer below it. Once you use the pump to dry out one of your staircases, the water from the aquifer will flood the staircase you just built, allowing your dwarves to go down a layer. In this try, I successfully made it down one layer of an aquifer.

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I was delirious with pride. See that little walled-off area with the two x’s? That’s a traversable stairwell through a z-level with an aquifer on it, motherfucker. I even saw fit to brag a little online, even if I was tired enough to mistake an aquifer for an aqueduct.

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“I have successfully walled off one layer of an aqueduct i am a hero, i am a god amongst men, i am immortal,” I boasted. A half hour later, I tweeted this:

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You see, as I continued down into the next level, I realized I had screwed up. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get my pumps to drain enough water for my dwarves to build another stairwell down into the next layer. No matter what I did, the dwarves would just see water at about chest height, freak out, and not do the task. I tried a couple of times, as you can see by the multiple flooded staircases below.

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Looking at this now, I can tell I got the orientation of the stairwells mixed up. At close to three in the morning after a long day of work, I could not understand that.

Trying to enclose an aquifer in this game has been a longtime goal of mine. It is the first basic hurdle to jump for a better understanding of the game’s deeper mechanics. It teaches you about pumps and the flow of water, and how to coax the game into doing what you want. I’ve had a lot of fun playing Dwarf Fortress over the years, but I’ve always felt like a poser for not knowing how to wall off an aquifer. Sure, I have hilarious stories, like the time a were-lizard attacked my fort and I had no idea if anyone got bit and and just had to wait to see who turned into a freaking lizard-man the next full moon, but I felt like I was missing out on the real fun of Dwarf Fortress.

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Even though I failed at closing off an aquifer, I do now feel like I understand Dwarf Fortress on a deeper level. It seems a lot like the way my friends talk about lifting weights. You might feel like actual, absolute shit while you’re doing the lifting, especially at the start, but the pride you feel when you’re in your groove is incomparable. When I finally defeat my greatest Dwarf Fortress enemy, water, I’m sure my joy will be audible in space.