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<  Game reviews  ~  A Tale in The Desert (PC, internet)

Michael
Posted: Tue Sep 23, 2003 9:09 am Reply with quote
Site Administrator Joined: 07 Jun 2002 Posts: 8065 Location: Gent, Belgium

We have started playing the trial version of A Tale in The Desert without reading much about it. So we are probably missing the point entirely. Smile
The first thing that strikes and pleases us, is the incredible slow pace of the game. It's a multiplayer online game in which every player is represented by an ancient Egyptian citizen. There are no other means of transport than your feet. So you often end up running for half an hour. In the mean time you can check your email or get a glass of wine. I like it when a game does not require my attention all the time.
When you arrive in "Egypt" (apparently the map of the game world is modeled after Egypt, I'm not sure if it is true to life), you are not a citizen yet (you're an immigrant and "you are not allowed to travel with dates" Smile ). You have to earn that status by learning certain skills. These skills can be acquired by collecting objects and supplies that are available in nature. As you learn new skills, more and more objects can be made. It can get quite complicated (and this is just the beginning of the game...). For instance, if you want canvas, you need to make a loom. To make a loom, you need 120 Twine and 8 Boards. Boards can be made on a wood plane out of wood that you collect from the trees. To make a wood plane, you need 4 Slate and 1 Stone Blade. You can find slate near rivers and lakes. And you can learn how to make a Stone Blade out of slate at the School of Architecture. To make twine, you need a distaff and tow. A distaff can be made with 10 Wood, 100 Bricks and 12 Boards. You can make bricks on a brick rack with mud, straw and sand. To make a brick rack you need 4 boards. Straw can be made out of grass... Etcetera. Luckily these things are extensively described on the http://www.atitd.net website.
So the player has the freedom to build stuff everywhere. And this is immediately one of the downsides of the game as well. Because the place is littered with other people's machines that you are not allowed to use. Not to mention the "sculptures" that people need to make as a test for the School of Art. You can declare each individual one an eyesore (which is part of the judging system) but there is no place to declare the whole landscape an eye sore.
The game reminds me a bit of Alpha World ( now known as Active Worlds ). But Alpha World is not a game. It is an online virtual meeting place where you can build things. A Tale in the Desert is a game in the sense that there are rules that you need to follow to attain certain goals. It is competitive in the sense that you want to learn or make things or acquire a status in the world before your partner does. It does allow for a lot of freedom: you are free to pursue the carreer of your choice. But there is not much room for play. While running around and making you character do one of the 7 or so gestures is fun, there is not much more for you to do apart from work-work-work. Except for voting... Apparently everyone can suggest laws and then people vote on it. Democratic ancient Egypt! Crying or Very sad
You communicate with other players through text-based chat, while your avatars stand there. It is very eerie to see a group of people talk to each other. They just stand there, staring into the distance. As if they're having some kind of telepathic contact. I really love making my avatar do things that other players can see. I don't understand why multiplayer game designers never give your avatar more awareness of and ability to respond to other players, to communicate.

That being said, I must admit that I admire the simplicity of the game's interface and graphic style. There is no path finding and no collision detection. It is the job of the player to avoid running into the water or on steep hills. Most obstacles, the character just runs through. You can click on objects to find out what they are and interact with them, only when you are close enough. The aesthetic style of the game is simple, perhaps a bit simplistic. But I guess I prefer a character walking on the water to one that produces very unrealistic "drops" and repetitive "step in water" sounds when it does. Speaking of which: there is no Carmina Burana in A Tale in the Desert! (we should start making a list of games that do not have Carmina Burana or similar music!... Wink ). There is no music at all. Just the sounds of nature and people running. The tools and machines do not make sounds. Which is strange but probably a good choice considering the amount of machines in the world (then again the contrast between densily "populated" areas and others could be made bigger by having these sounds; then the isolated places at little lakes that you sometimes find, would appear much more idyllic). You can hear animals but you never see them. I miss ambient life like that.
This is not an immersive game. It is too systematic and has too little character for that. I guess it is too much like the real world (with votes to cast, guilds to join and always more work to do...). There are no dramatic contrasts in the landscape or the soundscape or in the kinds of creatures that you meet or building you see. The complexity of the activity of gathering and making things is pleasurable in the way that making a jigsaw puzzle or playing sollitaire is. I guess "amusing" is a better word.
I do find myself drawn to the peace and quiet of the game world. Starting up the Tale in the Desert client after a hard day's work is a very rewarding experience.
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