Jesse Woo
Indiecade2015: Walden, a game Impressions
Why go into the wilderness when you can simulate it in a video game?
10.29.15 - 1:38 AM

There were many cutting edge and avant-garde games among the Indiecade Official Nominations this year. One game used a brainwave sensor to move in-game objects in order to squish combatants in a competitive arena. Another placed players in a dungeon that was only one pixel wide. However, my favorite by far was the first-person historical simulator called Walden, a game.

Walden, a game is based on the life and writings of transcendental author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, and takes place during his first year on Walden Pond. For the uncultured among us, Walden (the book) is Thoreau's memoir of living a simple life in nature. It recounts a period of over two years that he spent on land owned by his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson (not in true wilderness as it was a mere two miles from his home town) and compresses it into a year-long narrative partitioned into four seasons.

Walden, a game draws inspiration from Walden (the book) but is more than a simple retelling in video game form. It incorporates elements from Thoreau's life and times as well as his other writings. For instance, players can direct Thoreau to perform acts of civil disobedience, which will result in consequences like jail time. Contemporaneous historical figures like Emerson also populate the game and add depth and texture to the world. After each day players are treated to a journal recounting their activity, largely written with Thoreau's own prose.

The core of the gameplay is to live and survive in the woods around Walden Pond, though this is not necessarily the highest order goal. Players can perform a variety of tasks to survive such as constructing their cabin and gathering food to eat. They can also take on odd jobs for money or complete side quests like pursuing a publishing deal. Players can immerse themselves in these tasks and watch their stats grow, but in doing so, they might miss the point of Walden, a game. After all, Thoreau went into the woods not merely to survive, but to "live deep and suck out all the marrow of life." To simulate this experience, the game keeps track of Thoreau's "inspiration." If the player overworks their fragile philosopher he will faint, losing inspiration. This loss is reflected in the game by dulling and washing out the color palette. Players are encouraged to do more than simply survive; instead they should seek out inspiration in the natural world. It is simply up to them to find it on their own terms.

There is an undeniable irony in translating a memoir championing spartan living in nature into a video game. However, video games are a unique medium that may be the best modern platform for presenting the ideas contained in Walden (the book). Perhaps Walden, a game will inspire you to pick up or revisit the book, or better yet experience the natural world for yourself. You can find out in 2016 when the game comes to PC.

Walden, a game screenshot