I love dwarves. They have big beards. They like to beat up people with axes. They’re sturdy and appreciate good craftsmanship. They like to drink a lot.. They’re wary of elves, which is super important because elves are stupid. The forest is stupid. I hope the forest goes away and I hope it’s a bunch of dwarves who do the chopping.
One of the great burdens of my life is that I never get to pretend to be a dwarf. Roleplaying games are big at my house, but I’m almost always the gamemaster. Which is fine – being a gamemaster is rad, and I’m picky about the pace of my games, so I kind of demand the job. But I really want to play as a dwarf. Named Rothgar or Thorgard or Seamus or Zultron the Decapitator. Or Carlos.
Since my dreams of bearded, murderous glory are denied me at my dinner table, I have to turn to video games to get my vicarious thrills. There aren’t a lot of video games about dwarves, so I play the ones which do exist a lot. These are what I, a dwarf connoisseur of esteemed taste, consider the five best.
5) Golden Axe (Arcade, 1989, Sega)
The dwarf in Golden Axe is awesome because he’s extremely violent. I don’t want to harp too much on this, because there are obviously two other really violent humans in the game, but the dwarf has an axe, which automatically made the violence way cooler. Plus the bad guy is named Death Adder, which means he has to be super mean. So when you combine the natural dwarven propensity for violence with a villain named Death Adder, you end up really rooting for the dwarf. I love this dwarf a lot.
This was the golden age of sidescrolling beat ‘em ups, a genre of game which will someday be lost to the mists of time every bit as much as the long dead dwarf kingdoms underneath Scandinavia are. Beat ‘em ups are games in which you move to the right and hit things. Golden Axe was maybe the best of them, for my money, mostly because you can be a dwarf.
4) Willow (NES, 1989, Capcom)
I don’t know if Willow is actually a dwarf, but he’s more interesting than a Halfling so I’m claiming him as a dwarf. Willow was not actually a terrible movie, so ignore the people who say it was. It may have been the last gasp of the usually but not always barbarian-focused quest fantasy films of the late ‘70s through the late ‘80s.
This game has nothing to do with the movie, really. At least, I don’t remember skulls popping out of the ground and fire-breathing trees in the movie. This is basically Capcom’s Legend of Zelda. You get the whole thing: top down view, grid-based map, short protagonist.
Except Willow is better than Link because Link is an elf and elves suck. I have dim memories of this game being so hard that it made my brother cry, so that’s another reason why it’s cool.
The wild thing is that you can see where later Zelda games picked up some of their ideas. The swordplay, such as it is, is an antecedent of A Link to the Past’s take. Willow also has a magic ocarina, which is a decidedly un-dwarfy instrument (dwarves only play drums and bagpipes), something which Link undoubtedly decided to do only after they hung out in real life.
3) The Lost Vikings (SNES, 1992, Blizzard Entertainment, Interplay)
I can hear you now. “Ian, those aren’t dwarves! They’re Vikings! It even says it in the title.”
Well, you’re wrong. Those Vikings are dwarves. Go play World of Warcraft. You meet the “Vikings” and it turns out they’re dwarves. As far as I’m concerned, might makes right. That’s the dwarvish way. And since WoW is one of the mightiest games on the planet, their version takes precedence.
The Lost Vikings is a pretty good platform/puzzle game, dragged into really good territory because there are multiple dwarves (I mean “Vikings”). Each Viking has different abilities that you must switch between as you negotiate obstacles. It’s also notable for its charming art style, a preview of what would later evolve into Blizzard’s signature look.
2) Lord of the Rings Online: the Mines of Moria (PC, 2008, Turbine)
As far as I’m concerned, no other portrayal of what it’s like to actually be inside a dwarf hold—something I am intimately familiar with—comes close to what Turbine did with the first expansion to Lord of the Rings Online. It’s a labyrinthine experience, alternating between roughly hewn stone tunnels to massive, high-ceilinged royal chambers. It’s something every MMO aficionado should do at least once.
One of the best parts is that you get to kill a lot of orcs. Taking out these invaders of the great halls of Khazad-dum is really cathartic for dwarves. I mean dwarf fans. Fans of dwarves. Cathartic for them. For the Valar and the promise of a Fourth Age!
1) Dwarf Fortress (PC, Still in development, Bay 12 Games)
Was there any doubt about what would be number one? Dwarf Fortress is one of the oddest, most frustrating and most compelling games I’ve ever played. It’s also one of the most quietly influential games of the past decade, with a host of imitators stuck in varying stages of development and games reaching release with clear influences from the sandbox building game/roguelike.
A ton of ink has been spilled on Dwarf Fortress in places as diverse as the traditional games press to the New York Times. I won’t repeat it here. You build forts for drunk, angry dwarves. It’s buggy, but bugs are part of the charm. It’s a perpetual motion machine, the living proof of Will Wright’s “toys not games” thesis.
It’s also not as hard to get into as it might seem. The ASCII graphics and lack of a proper GUI are off-putting, but sticking with it until you get the hang of it opens a dwarven world of delight which a corporate game just doesn’t—and likely can’t—offer. The screenshot included is of one of the graphical tilesets for a reason. Go forth, those intimidated by Dwarf Fortress’ majesty! Go forth and oversee a new generation of dwarven babies trained from a young age to wrestle bronze hydras to death!
Ian Williams has written for Salon, Jacobin, The Guardian and more.