Straying (A Tale in the Desert)

As I’ve mentioned before, I follow a lot of non-WoW MMO blogs and podcasts with great interest.  Don’t get me wrong — after a full year of playing WoW, I do still find the gameplay there satisfying.  I still like leveling, life after the level cap has been fun, the crafting system is enjoyable, and the PvP is good enough for my purposes (though I don’t do much of it any more).  I find the grindy parts of the game very relaxing, and appreciate the “completely straightforward relationship between work and reward,” as was so well put by Clive Thompson.  (I don’t know about you, but this is not something I have in my real life job.)  Of course, these are all elements of the game that I’ve heard criticized by folks that are either burnt out on WoW, more experienced with MMOs, or both.  So, I’ve always been curious to know what they would prefer and how other games do these things differently. I’d even like to try some of these other games myself.

I was a little bit tempted by both Age of Conan and Warhammer Online, but ultimately balked on both.  Part of it had to do with the fact that neither had free trials (unless you count the betas).  I’m really not so much into PvP that I want to spend all my game time dealing with it either, so just decided to wait and see what the reviews looked like, and possibly get in on free trials later next year should they decide to offer them.  I was very tempted to check out EQ2 when I heard about the Living Legacy program, but again didn’t push the download button.  I thought about it again recently since things have been so quiet in the guild, but the promotion was pretty much done, so I missed my chance.  Given all the stuff I wanted to accomplish before Wrath, I stopped looking around at other MMOs… until yesterday.

I read this post by Van Hemlock about dipping into A Tale in the Desert, an MMO that’s five years old but maintains a small but devoted player base.  What makes this game interesting is that there’s no physical combat, no leveling system (not quite in the traditional sense, anyway), and as I understand it, the game actually resets periodically requiring everyone to start over for the next “telling.”  Together, you and your fellow players are telling the story of a civilization that builds up from nothing.  In the beginning, everyone starts in the same place, stooping together to pick up mud, grass, and sand, and ultimately build a fruitful society. The way the telling goes is dictated by who participates in the game and how they play, and the developers also throw some monkeywrenches in there to make each telling different. Once it was in the form of a character that intentionally stirred things up (an evil thief character in the second telling), and in the most recent telling, there was a plague of sorts (infectious disease arrived on the shores — yikes!).

One of the things that single player RPGs have over MMORPGs is that the story in an RPG feels like it actually goes somewhere.  The world changes around you, and can change without consequence to anyone else since you’re the only one there.  If you cut the baddie’s head off, he’s dead and you’ll never see him again in the RPG.  In WoW, he will pop up again in a few minutes or so to be decapitated again.  (He may have up to five heads, too, depending on how many people are in your party.)  Also, while it’s cool to be a small part of a larger, persistent world, it would be really interesting for the MMO’s world itself to be more dynamic.  In WoW, we only get the overarching story pushed along whenever there’s an expansion or gigantic patch.  WoW players unfortunately don’t handle permanent changes to their world very well.  Yes, Blizz could have handled that particular situation more gracefully, possibly even integrated it into the lore (or ecology) of WoW, even though it was apparently just a developer error.  So far, the planned progressive content hasn’t been very well-received either, however.  Looks like seasonal events in WoW may be the closest we’ll ever come.

So, I was intrigued enough by A Tale in the Desert to download it last night and give it a try.  My first impressions were much like Van Hemlock’s.  Eww.  It’s a bit clunky.  I don’t think I realized how smooth the graphics in WoW were until I watched my character run.  It took me a little while to get the hang of the clicking to move and the screwy camera swinging everywhere, zooming me way in and out.  The game also prevented me from venturing into the water or falling off cliffs, I noticed.  I guess without combat there probably aren’t people randomly rising from the dead either.

The avatar customization was pretty limited.  As a female, you have just three faces to choose from, though you can endlessly fiddle with the colors of your dress and hairclips and can even change your height!  You’re not bound to any of this either.  You enter the world as the default male or female avatar and can continue to modify your look while you’re waiting for your flax to grow.

Initially it was sort of difficult to figure out what I was supposed to be doing or where I was supposed to be going.  I did a lot of wandering around and occasionally bent over to pick up some grass just because I could.  I peeled wood off trees, put sand in my pockets, and collected thorns from a plant.  There were just a few other people in the starting area with me, some of them chatting in the chat channel.  When I created my character, I thought it might be important to come up with a decent name, not necessarily something Egyptian-sounding, but something that could possibly be an authentic name. Seems that two of the other people in the starting area had the same idea, but of the other two, one was a compound word (“Shoelace” or something) and the other person’s name had numbers in it.  Hm.

There’s a list of tasks to be completed before you leave the newbie area, and when I first saw it, it looked rather daunting.  Thankfully, some of the tasks were very simple and I’d already done a few of them in the course of exploring and clicking on things.  Pick up some grass.  Pick up some sand.  Then there are more complicated tasks that rely upon your gathering more of these items to create something new.  There are schools that will, for tuition of gathered items, teach you to make different things.  I spent the whole evening running around, gathering materials and crafting items to check them off my list.  It was very relaxing, somehow, and satisfying despite its simplicity.  Having stayed up way too late the night before, I’d meant to go to bed early, but at 10:30, I was looking at my next project thinking, “Oh, I can just stay up and make another batch of bricks.”  That’s how I know the game grabbed me.  I continued to play, and finally, at 11:30, part of my next construction task required that I make a batch of 100 bricks.  I forced myself to log out and trudged off to bed.

The list of tasks remaining before I can head to the main part of the game is short.  I know these last few tasks will require a lot of gathering, but I expect I’ll be leaving Welcome Island during my next session.  I’d estimate that I played for about 3 hours last night.  I have 24 hours of game play before I have to make a decision about a subscription.  My guess is that I won’t subscribe at this point, since all this crafting and gathering is stuff I can do in WoW.  In fact, I already have so much invested in WoW, it makes more sense to spend my time there.  If I’m going to run around and pick things up off the ground all night, why don’t I just farm primals?  (I did actually do some of that last night, too.)  I suppose that’s how the MMOs suck us in and hold on tight — we invest our time developing our characters, establishing ourselves in a virtual world.  After a while, it feels genuinely productive to put more time toward these things.  None of it means anything in the real world, though the feeling of accomplishment is real when I log off each night.  I’m established in WoW, so why in the world would I drop everything and go start over somewhere else, especially since I’m still happy there.  I don’t know… it was all just so peaceful, I’m looking forward to getting back to the desert again.

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