A Tale in the Desert
Some time long before the birth of Christ, amongst the Egyptian sands, people are at work. From the humblest of peasants scratching for raw materials to those seeking more knowledge and skills, the country is alive with people. Join them, and learn how to live and grow. Build great monuments, design art and puzzles, become a well known leader; you are free to do any and all of these things. Work alone or help others on larger projects; it's up to you.
This one caught my attention some time ago, but due to workloads and holidays I didn't feel at the time that I could give it the attention it required. A Tale In The Desert (hereafter ATITD) is an MMO in which you control the life of a simple Egyptian native. You can customise their appearance and direct them to build, gather or anything else that they have the skills to do, leaving you able to decide whether to build that compound, construct materials, harvest vegetables and so on. As your avatar doesn't need to eat or sleep, you can cheerfully keep him or her going as long as you want to, though they will need to rest periodically from some tasks, such as digging.
There's one thing you need to bear in mind here, or you might get the wrong idea and be disappointed - this is a non-combat MMO. There are no monsters, no battles. It's more in keeping with Second Life than with World of Warcraft. This makes ATITD a rather more peaceful, strategic affair than you might think - but that said, standing around doing nothing will not help you to progress! While ATITD has no definite ending as such, there are six disciplines you can become an initiate of, and each of these has a number of projects to advance in level. There is a TON of stuff to do before you even become a full citizen (a process that qualifies as the game's tutorial, teaching you how to do the basics that you'll need to get anywhere else) and after that you'll be doing a lot of work on each project you undertake.
Becoming a citizen is a good example. The first few challenges are very simple - harvesting raw materials such as wood, grass, sand and mud. Grass can be dried (by dropping it and waiting) to make straw. Wood can be made into boards, but this involves a wood plane - this requires collecting slate and making a slate blade. You need to learn how to make slate blades by attending one of the nearby schools (the tuition fee for this is seven pieces of slate - all skills have a cost attached). Once you can make boards, you can learn how to make simple structures like brick moulds. A combination of mud, sand and straw allows you to make crude bricks, and these allow you to make bigger structures. You can learn how to harvest flax (and get a few seeds to start you off) at another school, and then learn how to rot the flax, separate it into tow, spin the tow into twine and spin the twine into rope. With enough materials, you can build a compound - and that will give you the option to build more specialised equipment within it. And I haven't even touched on vegetables, animals, carpentry, mining, Art, fishing or acrobatics, and that's just some of the stuff I know about.
These tiny screenshots don't do ATITD justice - I'd recommend checking on their website for better quality ones. Suffice to say that, in full screen mode, the views are panoramic (my widescreen monitor is especially good for this!). The terrain is varied, with sand, mud, clay, stone, mountains, trees, water, grass and more to explore. Players can also construct buildings (which can be seen with walls up or down as required) and other structures pretty much anywhere. Player characters themselves are wonderfully animated and you can even make them perform a range of emotive actions (including backflips!). The view can be zoomed in and out and rotated around your avatar, though more freeform views appear not to be possible, which is a shame. Still, even day and night are wonderfully lit - the whole graphical interface has been very well thought out and seldom seems to suffer lag.
Sound effects too are varied and wonderful. Your footsteps sound different on different terrain. There are clinks, chops, thuds, slices and all manner of other sounds to accompany pretty much all actions, but these are seldom intrusive. There is also some background music, which seems to kick in when going on particularly long walks; I'm not quite clear what triggers it. While the music itself is good, it seems a little odd when it starts up after an hour or so of no music.
It takes a little while to adapt to playing, as there are a lot of options available to the starting player. Basic movement is easy - click on things and off you go - and you can gather materials such as grass, sand or mud by using the icons in the top corner. Clicking on structures brings up a menu of options. Clicking on your avatar brings up character options, skills and available projects (i.e. stuff you can build). All this is straightforward enough. There are hotkeys - keyboard shortcuts that you can use to accomplish many tasks without lots of clicking. There are options galore on how the interface behaves. It's a little overwhelming at first but quite intuitive when you've played for a while.
Playability in the sense of what you do with those controls is another matter. There are so many things to do and so many skills to learn that it becomes very difficult to figure out what you should be aiming for next. Your citizenship test goes through every step - it's a very effective tutorial. The first initiate test I did, the one for Architecture, is also very clear but with slightly less hand-holding. But later ones, like the initiate test for Thought, tell you to harvest limestone, but don't state how or where you can find it. You need a chisel, but this prerequisite is not mentioned or explained. Other playability questions arise - how do you harvest flax rather than flax seeds? This took me a while to figure out. Where should I build my compound? I'm now "moving house", having picked a rather remote spot initially.
In order to address the overwhelming nature of the game, there is a wiki. It details a lot of stuff, though some pages are incomplete, and it can be a very helpful guide. It's also rather complex and can lead to a lot of further research. How do I obtain X? I need Y and Z. What are Y and Z? I need to learn skill V and build W. For that I need 100 A and 20 B... and so on. Figuring out what one can do next and what one should do next are rather different. A clear guide on how best to pursue your Egyptian life is sorely lacking. On the other hand, there is also a strong player base - many of them have been playing since the earliest days (this is Tale 5!) and they know how difficult it can be to get started. Help, advice and material support are generally available when needed. Indeed, the social aspect is what makes the game - rather than everyone trying to make everything for themselves, join a guild and/or trade goods! I recently took part in a group dig for stones (rarely seen, and very useful for construction) as a group of twenty players with basic shovels can produce far more stones than one or two with high stats and top range equipment. We all went away happy! You also need other players to assess your artwork, your empty hand puzzles and to train your acrobatic skills with.
A Tale In The Desert is a very impressive work. The interface is top quality, the theme and style are consistent and the player base is large enough to be self sustaining. It's also bizarrely addictive - I wouldn't have thought collecting and processing materials in this fashion would hold anyone's attention, but it actually does. Everything is a step towards something else, and it's hard to resist taking that next step. All it really lacks is a guide for players fresh out of the tutorials, and that's something the community could easily accomplish.
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