Walden, a Game takes a seemingly absurd premise — transforming Walden: Or, Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau into a video game — and makes it a surprisingly thoughtful experience about finding balance in life. Players can devote all day to wandering the shore of the titular pond, listening for owl hoots or watching hummingbirds flit around flowers, but their Thoreau character will start to starve, and his firewood supplies will run dangerously low for the approaching winter. Yet spend too much time chopping wood and planting beans, and his inspiration will dwindle, the color seeping out of the digital landscape and the birdsong becoming quiet.
Created by the USC Game Innovation Lab and based on Thoreau scholarship and the transcendentalist’s own writing and surveys, the game is grounded in the reality of his life at Walden Pond. Much of the text from the book is there to be discovered, activated by looking closely at the open-world landscape’s shy rabbits and spindly pitch pines. So is nearby Concord, Massachusetts, and in it Thoreau’s parents’ home, where players can get clean laundry and eat a fresh pie from the windowsill. This is not a game that romanticizes Walden. It considers how Thoreau’s approach to living independently, albeit with family support and on his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson’s land, can have contemporary meaning.
“Walden sits somewhere on the continuum between being a purely entertainment game and a game for learning,” Tracy Fullerton, lead designer on the game and director of the USC Game Innovation Lab, told Hyperallergic. “It has elements of what I hope are the best of both. You can think of it in the same way that you think of a dramatic, entertaining film about a serious subject.”
Walden, a Game was partly developed thanks to a National Endowment for the Humanities grant from 2014 and won the Most Significant Impact and Game of the Year awards at the 2017 Games for Change festival. It was released this past July, on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Thoreau’s birth, on Itch.io for Mac and PC, and teachers can request free copies for classroom use.
Although Walden “can certainly be used in learning environments,” Fullerton said that “isn’t its primary focus.” Like Fullerton’s The Night Journey, made in collaboration with artist Bill Viola, it uses the mechanics of gaming for contemplation, with the added challenge of surviving in the woods for a year. Walden begins, like the book, in early summer of 1845. Each day lasts 15 minutes and brings a small progression through the seasons. Summer sunsets drench the pond (with its convincingly rendered water) in purple; winter snow dusts your one-room cabin.
“As players survive into the deeper parts of the year, through the long, hard winter, there are unfolding narrative threads that layer into the experience that make it a very rich and, if you follow along with Henry’s memories about why he went to the woods, a very moving arc of play,” Fullerton explained. “I think that it is a unique combination — the underlying survival simulation, finding a balance with those basic needs and your needs for inspiration in nature, together with the slow unfolding of the narrative background — that make the game really different.”
I will admit to not being the biggest Thoreau fan. We got off on the wrong foot in my high school English class, where I was introduced to him as a source for pithy essay quotes rather than a first-person journey into solitude that was radical in its day. Thoreau is an easy author to dislike, with his sometimes judgy quips about technology:
We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.
His armchair philosophizing (“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”) wouldn’t be out of place on Twitter. However, as you write your own Walden in the game, you discover how his famed book evolved through looking deeply at the ever-changing subtleties of nature.
It’s easy to get sidetracked by all the possible missions in Walden: your friend Ralph Waldo Emerson asking you to fetch books he left stranded on rocks, opportunities for employment as a surveyor and specimen collector for Harvard, a puzzle from your sister Sophia, or a visit to the post office, where a kindly written rejection notice is waiting from Horace Greeley. As Thoreau lamented, “Our life is frittered away by detail.” I lost a day in the game to a jail cell, since, like the real Thoreau, I had not paid my poll tax for six years. There are hints at the social context of the 1840s United States, with one task from your friend A. Bronson Alcott being to leave clothes for a man fleeing on the Underground Railroad.
The joy in the game is in its unexpected moments of awe. Rowing beneath the stars, in a silence broken only by the swish of water, was genuinely transporting. And there’s something a bit subversive in using a computer, the hub of our digital distraction, for this solace. (“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things,” noted Thoreau.) Walden is no substitute for actually going out into nature, but it offers a call for finding stillness outside the game. We don’t all have the luxury, as Thoreau did, of taking two years, two months, and two days to immerse ourselves in a solitary mode of living. However, we can take some inspiration from his experience: “Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”