Before Rosethorn ushered me away to show me some of the tests, she brought me to the voting booth. That's right... the game has a voting booth. Players can actually write their own laws and attempt to have them passed into the game's actual code. If a law gains enough votes to be passed, it goes to the lead designer Teppy for approval. Teppy can and will veto laws that aren't in keeping with the game (like giving players the ability to fly or making a test easier to complete), but most of the time what players want is what players get. Reading the list of recently passed laws, I saw one that had been put into effect to clean up left-behind flax seed. The law made it so that if the seeds were left behind for more than five days, anyone could pick them up and claim them. The benefit? Egypt became a much cleaner place.
Before I knew it, we were off and onward to one of the game's many discipline tests. "The Test of Khefre's Children" is a test in the Art & Music discipline in which players must crossbreed scarabs in order to create the most intricate and stunning design on the back of the insects. Players submit their best scarab for judging, at which point the community votes on who they believe has the winning design. All entries are anonymous to prevent playing favorites, and the good news for the losers is that just submitting your scarab to the test gains you a level in the discipline. Presumably because selectively breeding scarabs to create artwork isn't a very easy task (in reality or in the game).
Next, we teleported ourselves to the Pathmaker, a test of the Thought discipline. The Pathmaker is sort of like connect the dots, but with some strict rules in place. Player-designed, a Pathmaker test has players attempt to make one continuous loop from dot to dot without intersecting the lines. Some dots must turn and some most go straight, and it's up to the challengers to figure out the way to complete the puzzle. The test isn't for people to complete the Pathmaker game, however. The test is for the designer. When you create your own Pathmaker, you submit your creation to the community to be judged in terms of difficulty. Each week the best scored Pathmaker passes the test and that player gains a level in the Art & Music discipline. The cool thing about this test (and most of the tests in ATITD) is that you can gain levels in the Harmony discipline by participating in the judging of other players' creations, so you get rewarded just for enjoying what the game has to offer.
Something very cool to note about the Pathmaker test? It was designed by one of the game's first players. Many of the tests are player-created actually. Back in the first telling, the game's first Oracle (a player who reaches the pinnacle of any one of the game's disciplines) devised the Pathmaker test upon completion of his discipline's pyramid. The Oracle of each discipline gets to devise a test for the next telling of the game, a prestigious honor that is commemorated by the development staff placing monuments throughout Egypt that mark the events of past tales and the Oracles that left something for the game to pass onto future generations.
Finally, Rosethorn took me to see one of Egypt's larger aqueduct systems which are a Test of Life for the Architecture discipline. The aqueducts are a prime example of how ATITD fosters group work and community like no other game out there. Together the community must gather the resources necessary to build a the main structure down by the water source, which then opens the ability for individuals to craft towers, bringing life-giving water to arid and desolate places in Egypt. Towers can make crops in the surrounding area more fruitful, increasing the yield of cabbage for example. You pass the test simply by building the tower, and then further ranks are gained as your tower helps more and more crops. In this instance, it's actually better to get your tower up early one in the chain, because you get bonus points for all towers behind yours. Building one at the end of the line isn't nearly as useful to you as building one early on.
If you've read this far, by now you can see just how player-driven A Tale in the Desert is. It's not the most beautiful game on the market, that much is certain, but the quality of its gameplay and ingenuity of its systems more than make up for its dated looks. Perhaps I'm just not thinking of it, but I can't recall any other game allowing players to pass laws which are then coded into the actual game. Nor can I remember one that actually gives players the ability to craft the game itself and the content that makes up its driving force. If you're sick of simply killing your way to the max level and are in the market for a different MMO experience, A Tale in the Desert is just ramping up at the beginning once more. The client's free to download and so are your first hours in Egypt. If you think crafting and exploring are the best parts of the virtual world experience, you won't find a game more up your alley.