The most common complaint leveled at massively multiplayer online role-playing games is that they are all too similar. No matter what the setting, whether deep space or high fantasy, the genre tends to be stuck on what's come to be known as the leveling treadmill, where the basic gameplay remains the same, but the numbers get bigger. Plenty of games have attempted to find subtle variations on the formula, but until A Tale in the Desert, no game has done away with it completely. And while there are faults to be found with this peculiar game from eGenesis, a lack of originality certainly isn't one of them.
A Tale in the Desert is unlike any online RPG to come before it. Its emphasis on cooperation may sound vaguely reminiscent of NetDevil's Jumpgate, but the truth is that it is very, very different: In A Tale in the Desert, cooperation is the whole focus of the game. You will find this to be true from the moment you log in. The game will suggest you find a mentor to show you the ropes. It is not only a good idea to follow this advice--it is necessary. The game is daunting, because you don't just create a character and start fighting. There is no fighting, and your character, or what passes for a character in the game, is created entirely through your actions.
A good mentor will start simply. A Tale in the Desert is set in ancient Egypt. Very ancient Egypt: The only society to be found is that which has been created by the existing players. Your mentor will show you how to gather materials and show you the basics of learning and construction. These are the primary goals in the game--you learn from academies and universities, and then you use what you've learned to build things, such as structures and tools. As your character learns new skills, you can advance. But advancement is very different from how it is in traditional role-playing games.
There are seven disciplines in the game. Each discipline has a variety of "tests" that you must pass to advance. For instance, initiation tests in the body discipline require you to explore areas of the world in a specific amount of time. Tests in the architecture discipline require that you build a house. Tests in the art discipline require you to build a sculpture and have it judged appealing by others. One of the leadership tests requires that you successfully mentor seven other players, further illustrating how important helping others is in the game. Each discipline has seven tests, though many are not available yet.
Higher-level tests are much more complex and require you to enlist lower-level characters to help you complete them. Players are directly involved in almost all aspects of the game, from the introduction of new technologies to the game's rules to the landscape itself. With a few exceptions, almost every structure you see in the game was built by a player or group of players. New technologies are introduced through research at universities, which is aided by players' donations to these institutions. Most interestingly, though, the game rules themselves can be changed through the legal system. If you don't like a certain aspect of the game, within reason, you can introduce a petition to have it changed. If you get enough signatures on your petition, it will be subject to a general vote. If it passes, it becomes a new law. This system is also used for permanently banning players who have, for some reason or another, made other players' in-game lives difficult.
A Tale in the Desert has been described as a social experiment, and that description is startlingly accurate. The actions of the game's inhabitants have such a direct impact on the game that it's interesting just to run around and look at the towns that have been created. Pollution becomes a problem in highly populated areas and affects your ability to grow certain crops in that area. As a result, laws can be passed to prevent the construction of certain buildings in certain areas. It's uncertain what the long-term results of the game may be. With more players, the landscape could be overrun, and ridiculous laws could be passed. But that potential drawback is also what makes the game so refreshingly different--the future is fairly uncertain, and players have a stake in the long-term well-being of the world.
A Tale in the Desert certainly won't appeal to everyone. It is about long-term goals, and the short-term rewards aren't better weapons and armor, but rather better tools and crops. It doesn't look very good, and the simple graphics may turn off players with a desire for exciting landscapes. Further, there is really no sound to speak of, except for the footsteps of your character as he or she runs about. But it's so ambitious and offers so many interesting tasks for those who can enjoy its unique elements, that those who get past its aesthetic shortcomings will likely find themselves addicted to harvesting flax and making charcoal. The designers themselves have stated that A Tale in the Desert is about creating a society, and watching the experiment in action is almost as enjoyable as taking part.
Editor's note 05/05/03: This review was posted earlier with an incorrect, slightly lower review score. GameSpot regrets the error.