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Life, and how to live it, explored in a new game

Walden follows in the footsteps of a great American thinker

Walden
| USC Game Innovation Lab

This story originally ran in 2017. We’re reposting it to coincide with Walden’s PS4 release date.


It's unlikely that Henry David Thoreau would have been much of a video game fan. In his own time of vaudeville and circuses, the 19th century American philosopher despised popular entertainment. He believed a person's time was better spent hiking and contemplating nature, two activities that are generally incompatible with playing video games.

But he did enjoy sitting down with an erudite book, one that sought to enlighten the reader with universal truths. Add in some human vanity and it's possible that he might have approved of one game in particular.

Walden is essentially a gaming version of Thoreau's most famous book, of the same name, published in 1854. The game, like the book, is a kind of journal of the author's time, living self-sufficiently near Walden Pond on the outskirts of Concord, Massachusetts.

It's a first-person, open world exploration and survival game. But that description doesn't really do the game justice. It's also a work of philosophy, in the sense that it imparts a particularly thoughtful view of the world, and of living.

A Thoreau Investigation

If Thoreau could come back to life and play the game, he'd certainly recognize the surroundings. The game lovingly recreates the places he loved most.

In 1845, Thoreau moved from his comfortable home into a cabin in the woods. Seeking to find a meaningful life, he spent two years fishing, cultivating beans and otherwise living off the land. He also devoted himself to reading the philosophers of the past.

Walden
Empire Books

His book is presented as a single year, split into four seasons, in which Thoreau discusses his passion for nature, for the fundamental goodness of humanity and his fears for the lives of the masses, corrupted by industry, technology and consumerism.

Today, Walden (the book) is regarded as an American classic, a proto-environmentalist work that also celebrates individualism and resistance to social norms. In our own age of dizzying technological entertainments, creeping authoritarianism and environmental catastrophe, Walden's relevance is stark.

The game is being developed by University of Southern California’s highly regarded Game Innovation Lab, with funding from the National Endowment for Humanities, among others. The team is led by designer Tracy Fullerton, who has presided over the likes of Flow, Darfur is Dying and The Night Journey.

Walden will be released in July, which also marks 200 years since Thoreau's birth. An early access version of the game is available now on Windows PC and Mac for $18.45.

Walden
USC Game Innovation Lab

Wild at Heart

Walden is one of the most gentle games you're likely to play. Much of the game is spent wandering around and looking at nature. As Thoreau, I saunter through the woodlands, I spy a pretty flower, I walk in and I learn the name of the plant as well as Thoreau's own observations on it, as voiced by actor Emile Hirsch.

My time is also spent staying alive by eating berries and fishing. I chop wood for fuel, plant and weed my bean field as well as build and mend my hut.

Thoreau

"The wilds aren't that wild," says Fullerton. "There's nothing there that's going to kill you. Survival is more of a task than a central challenge. It's not that difficult to stay alive. But how do you then spend the rest of your time?"

In fact, I spend time exploring nature and the world of thought. There are arrowheads to be found that yield Thoreau's observations on nearby phenomena, and on life in general. I also discover books, and read samples, often ancient Greek or Asian philosophy.

Occasionally I bump into my mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, who sends me on errands or gives me odd-jobs for extra cash. I can spend this money on needed items at the local store in Concord. I also receive or find letters and notes from friends and family that tell me about the relationships in my life. Despite his yen for alone time, Thoreau. like the rest of us, needed human contact.

Playing the game is an exercise in contemplation. It's not designed to be exciting or dangerous. It's almost like an annotated version of Thoreau's life and his ideology, the annotations being highly visual representations of the lifeforms he wrote about, and the ideas he cherished.

If you're interested in the transcendentalists or just in a different way of life, Walden is a good start. For most people, it's a lot more accessible than the original work, which can be a challenging read.

Fullerton hopes that the game will find an audience among people who do not normally play games. "It's good to reach people who aren't traditional games players," she says. "These are people who might never have played a first person game. And so we have to teach people how to move and discover, which is an exciting challenge."

Walden
Game Innovation Lab

Individualism and protest

But more than that, it's also a different take on the way we choose to live our lives. Thoreau was viewed by his contemporaries as something of an oddball. No doubt, you and I would attract the same stigma if we decided to up sticks and live alone in the woods for a couple of years. Even so, it's a common enough fantasy, to exit the rat-race, to return to nature. This game is a kind of simulation of that fantasy.

It also has much to say about our lives, in the sense that we burden ourselves with activities and concerns that make us unhappy and that curtail or freedoms. How many times have you thought to quit social media, or to watch less television news, for example?

"I think it resonates with the concerns we have now with how we use our time," says Fullerton. "We feel like life is accelerating, but that was also true in Thoreau's time, with inventions like the railroad and the telegraph."

Thoreau was much interested in the brevity of a life. Part of his reasoning for moving to Walden Pond was to “see if I could not learn what [life] had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." He died at age 44 of bronchitis.

Part of his legacy is a set of compelling arguments for standing up to unjust laws, passed by an unjust state. As a protest against the American-Mexican war, he refused to pay his taxes. He spent a night in jail before a relative paid the back taxes (against his wishes). In the game, I also spend a night in jail, and am rewarded with a copy of his essay, Civil Disobedience, which later inspired leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

Thoreau hated the gross injustices of his time, such as slavery, and was active in the Underground Railway. He argued that governments are the tools of the people, not the other way around, and that unjust laws and unjust governments ought to be disobeyed.

Living alone in the woods isn't for everyone, but this game offers insights into what it was like for Thoreau. It's an opportunity to walk in the footsteps of someone who saw life for all its flaws, and yet searched for a way to live it on his terms and for the benefit of all.