Today is the tale of another survival game, yet it gives a twist unlike any that I’ve seen before — it’s technically a book.
Walden is a 3D survival game created by Tracy Fullerton along with the University of Southern California Game Innovation Lab. Set in the mid 19th century, it recreates the popular work ‘Walden; or, Life in the Woods’ by Henry David Thoreau, where he lived for 2 years by Walden Pond in a tiny, self made hut. For Walden, the game does just that: we survive on a pond whilst exploring the the natural world of Massachusetts. Thoreau plants beans, cuts wood, assists escaping slaves, catches fish, and reads Confucius while narrating the wonders and observations of the forest surrounding the pond. It documents his experience, while giving the player a first person view of it all.
How this is done is by arrowheads scattered throughout the land, triggering monologues taken directly from Thoreau’s writings of his time at Walden. They act as his documenting process as he writes the book in real time, as we are Thoreau for the game. Walden has the player finding pieces of his writing out in the world as we are surviving, just as Thoreau would have been inspired to write about them. At the end of the day, we contemplate our journal as it opens in front of us, and all of the monologues are found written in order, creating a chapter that was found in his book. Walden has you craft the story as you play it.
This brings up an interesting thought that, at its core, Walden is an ‘edu-tainment’ game. Its purpose is to teach and explore the life of one of America’s famous philosophers during the years where he took the idea of artist’s shack to the next level. Yet by focusing on the survival gameplay aspects, Walden subverts the players into frantically trying to survive, while also coaxing them to explore the massive forest and return to a simpler time. You want to find the books that your friend has left in the forest because they contain knowledge of who Thoreau is, while also giving you the funds to be able to survive the upcoming dreaded winter.
Walden has even somehow ‘game-ified’ inspiration. Thoreau can become ‘uninspired’, yet there is no meter for this. The only indicator is the journal writing explaining his discontent. To become inspired, players must do what he did: relax, listen to the animal sounds, stare at the pond and contemplate his own existence. At first, this seemed like such a bizarre addition to the game. Why bother putting in a resource that was so abstract? Perhaps, as I continued into the late summer, it was to slow me down as I played. I found myself frantically trying to survive, complete my tasks, acquire funds and explore that I forgot why Thoreau was out in the wilderness in the first place: social experimentation in self reliance. He was a man of philosophy and poetry, looking to experiment with living isolated and to document the flora and fauna as he did. Inspiration made me slow down to soak in the sights and the sounds, and to better understand the life that Henry David Thoreau was attempting to live.
Walden is, at its core, an exploration and survival game documenting the experiences of a man who wished to become self reliant. By blending survival mechanics, it has achieved a charm that I rarely find in survival games, one where I wish to know more about the playable character as I follow his journey. Walden is at its best during the moments that are found in the silence and serenity, only to be ruined moments later by the sudden need for food.
At the very least, it introduced me to a man in history I would’ve never otherwise researched in a fun and engaging medium. If you wish to learn more about the lifestyle of an abolitionist credited with assisting to jump start the civil war who lived in a forest for 2 years, try out Walden.
You can find the link for the game below.