Sojourn ‘Em Up: Walden, A Game

By Quintin Smith on April 29th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.


“I’m in the front row at New York University’s last “Practice” developer talks, staring at the projector with intense wariness. A trap?”

Walden, A Game could not be any more RPS*. Developed on an arts grant, this is the upcoming tie-in game to Henry Thoreau’s 1854 philosophy book Walden. A book detailing the author’s experience of escaping modern life by living in the woods near Lake Walden, Massachusetts, for two years.

In other words, it’s a first person sojourn simulator.


Some background, then (if you’re aware of Walden you can ctrl+f down to “Tracy informs us”).

Walden is structured around Thoreau’s journal of his time in the woods, with the philosopher attempting to redefine our concept of work and society by viewing it from the outside, by living alone, without distractions, to reach down to the very floor of humanity. Or, as Thoreau himself says:

“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

Thanks, Henry. So–

“AND, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world.

OK Henry I’m trying to write a previe–

“Or if it were SUBLIME, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

HENRY.

”…”

Thanks. Incidentally, Thoreau’s life by Lake Walden was, in practice, a good ways from “Spartan-like”.

”Hey!”

His cabin was situated on the edge of the town where he grew up, to which he paid frequent visits, and his mother and sisters would deliver food baskets on Sundays. Detractors compare the philosopher to a child, camping in his parents’ backyard.

Such criticisms are enjoyed with a wry smile by the many who’d hold Walden up as an American classic, the ranks of whom include Tracy Fullerton, advisor to Walden, A Game and professor at the University of Southern California.

“In proportion as [man] simplifies his life,”

Thoreau writes,

”the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

ANYWAY: How, then, to do a game? Tracy informs us that Walden, A Game is fundamentally a simulation of Walden’s time by the lake, with players foraging for food through in an Elder Scrolls-like wilderness, assembling their cabin, taking boat trips on the lake, growing beans and even darning their clothes.

Which already has me grinning like a skull down there in the audience at Practice, since Thoreau’s own time in the woods was a simulation of a simple life. So we’ve got a computer game that lets us experience being a man from 1845 who is trying to experience being a “simple” man from history. Read that sentence back enough times and you will feel your brain start to pop like a sausage in a microwave.

But what’s the goal of the game, then? Enlightenment?

“We want players to find this balance,” Tracy explains. “Between surviving, experiencing, and just moving around the world.”

She’s not talking about the zen wandering that Minecraft gifted gamers with, either. Rather, in what could be Walden’s most contentious design decision, your avatar’s sublime enjoyment of their environment is gamified. In addition to feeding yourself, you’ll need to parcel time up for seemingly inconsequential tasks, like taking boat trips out on the lake.

“We put in this notion that when your inspiration is high you’re more energised,” says Tracy. “And they feed on one another. When you’re intellectually stimulated and you’re interested and engaged, the basics of surviving are not as onerous.”

In other words, actions without an obviously survivalist bent will give you the energy to perform hard labour.

That said, simply wandering the woods and the lake doesn’t sound unappealing- your two in-game years spent playing Walden, A Game will see the world progressing through eight seasons (four named, then four transitional) among researched Massachusetts woodland that’s… willfully incorrect.

Are you ready? OK. The distribution of flora and fauna you encounter isn’t actually realistic, but rather placed in accordance to how much Thoreau mentions it in Walden. In other words, the game tries to capture something far more elusive than reality. It presents you with the forest you might imagine on reading the book. If, hypothetically, Thoreau didn’t shut up about squirrels, the game is going to be lousy with them.

Yet the same philosophical appreciation of nature Thoreau enjoyed is, Tracy considers, an unrealistic goal for the player. “I mean really, the representation of the sublime is too large to be encompassed by a media experience. But that’s not to say we can’t point at things.”

For instance, making Thoreau’s own thoughts on his environments accessible throughout the world. By approaching objects you can collect passages from Walden covering Thoreau’s own thoughts on that item, flora or vista for you to read at your leisure, in a quaint slant on Dead Space and Bioshock’s own audio logs. Rather than listening to someone’s guts get sucked through a narrow pipe, you can read Thoreau talking about the satisfaction of chopping wood.

But with games and philosophy both at their best when they abandon conventional reason, will Walden surprise us in any way?

It sounds like it might. Tracy has this to say about the game’s structure:

“This is not [a game] about going to live in a cabin in the woods, it’s about how you choose to spend you time in life. This is an abstraction of a very complex question, but so was his book. He went
to live in isolation to remove all the excess complications. That’s what we’re doing here.

“I hope that as you say to yourself, ‘Why is it that when I do this in the game, I get this back, versus this other activity?’ And then: ‘Oh wait a minute, I see, I’m not being rewarded for spending too much time being a bean farmer.’. And they’ll start to think about why our system works the way it does.

“For me, and the games I play, I do think about why I’m being rewarded, and I do think it’s been a training for me in my life as part of capitalist society that if I work more then I’ll get more and I’ll have more. But that’s not quite right. So I want to make a system that doesn’t do that.”

Why make it at all, though?

“You know, the text is very hard for people to read. I tried to get my niece interested in it but I just couldn’t. It’s kind of rambling, and weirdly the more that I work with it I realise that it is almost procedural. He took blocks from his journal and made a little, recombinant narrative about things that happened to him. It’s partly a qualitative outcome.

So it’s actually a great text to work with as a game designer, because it’s about systems. In itself it’s even a little system.”

So there you have it. This philosopher simulator, this game that both absorbs and eschews traditional video game rhetoric, is actually a perfectly sensible game. Who knew?

There’s no release date as yet, but RPS will undoubtedly be bringing you more on Walden, A Game as it develops.

Sorry I was mean to you, Thoreau.

“It’s alright.”

Want to get a curry?

“Okay.”

* Until the day that somebody makes a stealth game about fleeing bourgeois robots in a procedurally generated English countryside, anyway.

.

68 Comments »

  1. David Bliff says:

    Fascinating! This sounds like a really great use of games as a medium.

  2. Captain Joyless says:

    Any comment on the upcoming DLC, Walden, A Game: Dragon’s Blood?

  3. Krouv says:

    I’m not convinced about the shoehorned excerpts from Walden. Wouldn’t it be more graceful to let the player appreciate the world without them being explicitly TOLD what it feels like, rather then getting a sense for it themselves? The mechanic for intellectual stimulation also seems like something that’s rather artificially imposed upon the world. Plenty of games make peaceful exploration a very pleasant experience without tying it into a mechanic. I obviously have no first hand experience of the game, but it sounds too much like an awkward educational game, rather than something that really blends Walden with an interactive experience.

    • JonnyBoyWonder says:

      This!

      I was thinking exactly the same thing as I was reading the article. Walden made his own discoveries and encountered his own fascinations from all that he was experiencing in the woods. Wouldn’t it be a more accurate representation of his philosophical principles to let the player do the same?

  4. Cytrom says:

    O-k…

  5. Ross Angus says:

    From what I’ve read, I find the approach rather literal. It’s like making a game version of The Music of Chance, by seeing how fast you can drive across America and then build a wall.

  6. DellyWelly says:

    Can’t wait for the mods! Boat race anyone?

  7. Fiatil says:

    One of the best articles I’ve read on this site, bravo on the Thoreau-ing!

  8. lhzr says:

    this should be a skyrim mod, because graphics! ahem, i mean immersion.
    also that video should not be in 480p and 4:3, i mean come on.

    besides that and assuming there is a run button, it sounds amazing. and living in the woods as an almost-self-supported hippie might help assuage my worries that a 9 to 5 white collar lifestyle might be anything less than a GREAT choice. yay!

    • iridescence says:

      Wandering around a wilderness area looking at/for things and doing menial tasks. Sounds like Skyrim without the combat. Not that that’s necessarily a bad idea for a game…I’m glad they’re actually making a game with something to do. Not just “wander around in our oh so artistic painting” like Dear Esther.

  9. MOKKA says:

    Couldn’t I just play Proteus instead?

    I’m also not very convinced that you can get people to find ‘enlightenment’ with gamification.

    • zeekthegeek says:

      Proteus is not a survival game. You are not doing anything but walking in it.

    • sabrage says:

      Couldn’t you just read Walden instead? I mean, you should. Most people should.

  10. Strangerator says:

    ”the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

    Walden was talking about Columbia, how prophetic. Those would be some huge foundations though.

  11. PopeRatzo says:

    Put a crowbar and some zombies in this game and you’ve got something.

  12. DarkFarmer says:

    Upstream Color.

    • onomatomania says:

      You will play Walden. This game will be the most immersive experience of your life. Every keypress will be better than the last.

      (cut to lacerated gamers limping into every Gamestop, pleading “It won’t come out!” to the employees)

  13. MonolithicTentacledAbomination says:

    Thoreau me a bone here, people.

  14. Fred S. says:

    Gutenberg has the book here: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/205

  15. Zeewolf says:

    I’m surprised nobody’s mentioned Miasmata yet. I absolutely loved Miasmata, and anything that resembles it gets an interested look from me (though the character movement in the trailer was painfully slow).

  16. pertusaria says:

    Very enjoyable preview, thank you. As for the game itself, it looks interesting, but I’m not so sure about gamifying which actions give your character pleasure or make him feel at peace. Weeding the bean patch can be just as meditative as going out in a boat on the lake. I’ll have to see the system in action – maybe it just penalises you for not varying your activities enough.

    Also, nice to see you again, Quinns!

  17. Premium User Badge

    DrScuttles says:

    This seems interesting. A friend of mine seems to live in a house made of books. Occasionally I suggest he has a problem; buying books for cheap and never reading them. His usual retort is to point out that I do that exact thing with PC games. Anyway, I wonder if he has Walden.

  18. Bostec says:

    Good ol’ Quinnes! Also this is what i’m going to do when I hit 30 or so. I feel like 30 odd is a nice even number to experience all of life that has to offer. Theres no need to live to a ripe old age and start shitting in your pants. Relationships, Internet, social media, The same boring arse job for 10 years, the nightly jaunts to porn sites, buying a rug, driving to York, buying booze from the same off licence , the man behind the till who knows your a borderline alcoholic from his eyes. Cooking spag bolg, endlessly waiting for time to tick down before you clock off from work. doing the washing up, seaching for the remote control.

    Sometimes a man just wants simple things in life. This might be the one.

    I might just play it.

    • ankh says:

      Living in the woods by yourself won’t change anything, life remains tedious and repetitive.

      • dogsolitude_uk says:

        I was having a lovely day until I read that comment, and now I’m drowning in ennui. :(

      • Josh W says:

        That’s not true actually, natural environments have their own rhythm, layered with creatures doing all kinds of things and getting used to ignoring you. If you can put tasks into the right sizes, so that you can do different things on different days, and not get stuck doing the same thing for multiple days on the trot because the steps still aren’t finished yet.. then you can actually have a very varied life in a survivalist environment.

        Our normal life is so repetative because other people are generally responsible for various bits of what we do, and so make things more boring so it’s easier for them to keep track of. Find a man with an interesting life and you’ll find a man who’s boss doesn’t fully understand what he does! That and the fact that for our convenience, other people’s services to us are simplified too.

        At one point I used to put it down to the sterility of a manufactured environment, but I realised that sterility is a consequence in a large part of possible customisations not being done; blank walls without changing pictures on them, air conditioning always set to the same settings etc. Technology doesn’t have to be monotonous, it just requires freedom to fiddle with stuff.

  19. wodin says:

    erm…er…erm…boy that sounds sublime…I mean boring….go for a walk in a wood..or go camping at the weekend..much better idea i think.

  20. Bishop99999999 says:

    I was trying to think up a witty comment along the lines of “What next? [blank]?” But then the first piece of literature I thought of was The Inferno. That kinda bummed me out.

  21. Premium User Badge

    particlese says:

    Hmmm…not sure how I feel about the gamification lurking slenderly in the woods — biding its time, eating the squirrels, dismantling a diary to posit its pages into the shrubbery while you sleep* — but I’ll definitely keep my eyes peeled for an update on this. Seems like it could be an interesting candidate for Riftification, too, especially with that realistic (geriatric or just-enjoying-life?) walking speed.

    *That part sounds okay, actually. I guess my enjoyment of it depends how forceful the gamification is.

    Also: Tee-hee, “Lake”! It’s called “Walden Pond” arahnd these pahts. Slightly less epic, at least in name…unless the definitions are swapped upon crossing The Pond.

  22. stryker619 says:

    but does our sister do our laundry for us?

    • ankh says:

      I have the same question. This is kinda a deal breaker for me.. Also is mom supplying toilet paper?

  23. davorschwarz says:

    I hope they didn’t forget to include all finer details of the survivalists life such as what leaf to use after number 2. What kind of No2 would you have if you just ate berries VS just eating Squirrels.
    I wonder what skill upgrades will be available?
    And most importantly are there going to be any dangerous animals lurking in the forest … dropbears and such?

    Anyhow it would be interesting to see if a modern man with all the knowledge gathered from champions like Bear Gryls and wisdom from “Survivor Island” competitors, can apply itself to surviving in the past tence.

  24. Premium User Badge

    The Sombrero Kid says:

    The prodigal son returns, also game looks awesome.

  25. kwyjibo says:

    It’d be better if he were being hunted by robots.

  26. The Random One says:

    The footnote makes me realize that SYABH is not really the most RPS game, since the most RPS game would be an extended abstraction of sexism instead of classism, and it also makes me realize the web tool used to make main posts in RPS is less powerful than the tool used to make posts on (say) the Escapist’s forum, where I can make actual footnotes.

    • Skabooga says:

      Also, to qualify for most RPS game, it would need to have double jumps, grappling hooks, and jet packs.

    • thegooseking says:

      Given how easy proper footnotes are to implement in the most basic of basic HTML, and can be made even more ‘proper’ with judicious stylesheet use, I would be very surprised if WordPress doesn’t support it.

      All of which is irrelevant, because the old broken-underline hover-note is usually better and in fact easier to do – it conveys extra information without changing your scroll-position with a simple {span title=”here is my note” style=”border-bottom: dashed;”}. I guess we can even do it in the comments on RPS, though without the broken-underline. The disadvantages are little styling control (though this can be resolved with scripting to override the mouseover behaviour) and poor mobile browser support (though RPS doesn’t have any mobile browser support to speak of).

      However, footnotes make people think books, therefore smartness, and RPS uses this in a humorous way, particularly given the subject of this article.

  27. Joshua Northey says:

    I went to Walden once, stepped on a broken brick buried in mud and sliced my foot open.

    In this Walden do you also get to have lunches delivered by friends and escape back to Boston for parties several times a week?

  28. InternetBatman says:

    I wasn’t really a fan of the book, so I’ll be surprised if I like the game.

    • IndigoHawk says:

      Yeah … I don’t get why Walden is still considered an American classic. I understand the United States wants to have important writers and that Walden just happened to be available when people were digging around for stuff that was artsy enough to be considered classic. However, it seems like over time those efforts would have faded when people moved past the national pride that wanted a book like it and actually read the book.

      The book is written by a guy who went camping a couple miles from his house and then waxed on about existential stuff and how authentic he’s being. He was kind of a hipster of his time, out being pretentious while his mom did his laundry.

      So I’m conflicted. This sounds like an interesting art project, but the subject, ugh.

      • frightlever says:

        The book is just a cypher these days. It’s short-hand for whatever back to nature, anti-globalism tract you want to peddle. Nobody muddies the message by actually reading it.

      • InternetBatman says:

        Pretty much this. He loves to talk about how much better he is than the people he’s working odd jobs for, and they were probably given to him out of charity.

  29. frightlever says:

    Don’t get me wrong this looks like something I’d delve into for a while, but Thoreau was a bit of a fraud. He could afford to live away from the humdrum necessity of work, had most of his food and supplies delivered and was regularly visited by his friends during his “solitary sojourn”.

  30. GallonOfAlan says:

    Wantypoos

  31. honky mcgee says:

    Any NYU students on the boards this afternoon?

    Protip: When you’re walking through Washington Square Park and somebody says “smoke?” it’s a cop.

  32. Urthman says:

    Given that Thoreau once started a 300-acre forest fire, this game clearly needs to have the Far Cry 2 fire propagation system.

  33. Super Oxymoron Girl says:

    I’m not sold on this until it gets a spend-a-night-in-jail DLC.

  34. Josh W says:

    There’s something sort of clever about creating a hyperreal simulation: If people really want to go out into the woods and philosophise, they’ll probably have to go on some kind of obscure camping holiday. If you want to experience the walden of his writing, then this makes sense.

    I wonder to what extent this already reaches beyond his writing by filling in details from the real place; I imagine that just naturally people are drawing off photo-reference, maps etc. and the ways that this new representation fits within what already exists could be really interesting, with the real world forming colour and counterpoint to a world of description, like a backwards tour guide!