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Sojourn 'Em Up: Walden, A Game

In Which We Preview A Videogame Experiment

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“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.

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