Walden, A Game: hummingbird spying as Henry David Thoreau

Hummingbird from Walden, A Game

My relationship with Walden – Henry David Thoreau’s book about his experiences living at Walden Pond – is, as it has always been, complicated. And by “complicated” I mean “I know that there are sentiments in this book which are important to some people and have been influential and are potentially interesting especially as a respite/alternative to capitalist, tech-centric living right now but GOODNESS ME THOREAU JUST SHUT THE HELL UP YOU BORING, SANCTIMONIOUS, JUDGEMENTAL BUTTOCK.” The latest development has been the release of Walden, A Game [official site] in early July. My thoughts still haven’t quite settled with regard to the USC Game Innovation Lab’s game BUT I realised we never told you it was out. It’s out!

As per the official press info:

“Following in the footsteps of Thoreau’s experiment living on the fruits of his labor in the idyllic woods of Walden Pond, Walden, a game invites players to survive the shifting seasons of New England, each with their own challenges. Build a shelter, grow your own food, go fishing, and discover the wildlife, terrain and people surrounding your newfound home in the forest. There is no right or wrong way to play; the adventure is designed to inspire players to reflect on and appreciate the life around and within ourselves in a uniquely personal experience.”

The thing I want to say is that I think being able to wander a space and only intermittently pay attention to what Thoreau is saying has been immensely helpful for getting me to feel something other than the emotion of needing to shove a guy into a lake. I looked at the game and thought it seemed ugly or old-fashioned but then that shifted as I played and I spent five minutes watching a hummingbird go through an animation cycle near a crop of irises on the pond’s edge.

There are strangely gamey elements in there, though. You put out a hand into the middle distance to collect firewood or berries. Ralph Waldo Emerson sends you on fetch quests for books he’s abandoned by the water. Emerson also has a tendency to teleport to different bits of the pond, meeting you in a clearing when you left him in his house, or warping to the other side of the water so he can look up from his book to greet you as you think “but I left you on the opposite shore and rowed here??” You also perform tasks by moving your mouse in specific sweeping movements. I liked that, but I liked even more that I could purposely get it wrong and repeatedly injure Thoreau when he was getting on my nerves.

Something I loved and which I wish more games would do is that when you go into a zoomed first person view you get information on all the different creatures and plants your eye passes over. I would love to have a version of that in Firewatch or in Subnautica where you can just go on a nature walk, identifying all of the elements of your environment as actual things – rocks, plants, trees, pinecones…

I’m actually only one season in and have just headed in to the local town of Concord. I picked up the washing from my mother’s house (lest we forget, Thoreau’s wilderness retreat was essentially building a cabin in his friend’s garden and growing beans all within easy reach of town and his mother’s house, regardless of how you rate his philosophy) and am now torn between actually seeing what else the town has to offer and just going back to spy on hummingbirds.

The game is currently being exhibited at the Concord Museum near Walden Pond as part of the museum’s 2017 Thoreau Bicentennial celebration but you can pick it up via itch.io for $18.45 (or more if you want to give them a tip) which works out at just over £14 and around €16.

I just checked Steam and it’s not on there BUT you can get a game called Overcast – Walden and the Werewolf for 79 pence which has mostly negative recent reviews and promises “the story of Walden, an old hunter who lives alone in the woods. Recently, Walden began to be haunted by a mysterious creature that destroyed the village located near his cabin, killing every person residing on the premises. Now, Walden wants revenge.”


  1. maweki says:

    I was just about to ask whether the game included mum’s lunch and washing but you answered that one :D

  2. GernauMorat says:

    As someone named after Thoreau, I want to say that Philippa’s description of Walden reflects my own feelings perfectly. Great stuff as ever.

    • Dogshevik says:

      I also want to thank her for the brief outburst of perfectly justified rage in the first paragraph.

  3. icarussc says:

    My wife just finished reading Walden. I would hear her from the other room, shouting things like, “Gah! You think you’re so much better than everyone else, don’t you?!”

  4. Targaff says:

    Shouldn’t that intro be more along the lines of “Following in the footsteps of Thoreau’s experiment feigning to live simple next to a body but actually quite prepared to pop into the nearby town for supplies and company should the need or desire arise.”

  5. poliovaccine says:

    Yeahhh dont even get me started on Thoreau. I have a few acquaintances – two, in specific – who are genuine enthusiasts for Thoreau and the transcendentalists and who undertake tame little “adventures” inspired by things like Walden (and On the Road, which, never impressed me much either, and only less so the more I became a fan of William S. Burroughs). Anyway, one of these two guys I mention actually had his father renting him a house, not an apartment, not helping him with half the rent, no it was a *house* that his *father* paid for him to have all to himself, which he called his “cabin in the woods” (it had plastic siding) and made out to people who didnt know better (and even those who did) like it was some kind of rugged survivalist trip. He had a stump he would go out to and use it to chop existing firewood into smaller bits of firewood so he could mention “chopping wood” in conversation to support this survivalist illusion. He never burned the fucking wood or anything, and it came from his father, who got it from a store, but hey, it was his “cabin in the woods.” We lived in Connecticut, okay. Everything there is in the woods. It was about as far from the road as most gas stations. The wildest thing about it was the ever-attendant reek of unchanged cat litter, if not actually the surly, spray-happy male cat. Nights there, when I had to drop through to buy pot or something, consisted of cheap, shitty beer, N64, discussions of politics by people who dont read the news, and holding forth on the meaning of life. Oh, and acoustic guitar covers of punk songs. You get the picture. These two geniuses went hand in hand but one was definitely the “leader,” and he was the one I really despised. He was the one I could see being a genuine incarnation of the spirit of Henry David Thoreau.

    In case that anecdote doesnt sufficiently explain him, he also stole a bunch of my drawings to put on his own portfolio site and represent as his own – in a way I was flattered, in another way I was furious, but just like… where did you expect to get any new material?? You colossal fuck??

    So what I’m saying is, basically, I would be deeply upset with humanity if either of those guys achieved fame and recognition for their sheltered and inappplicable ideas on man, nature, and, as they like to call it, “poopin’ outside,” and so I can show no support for anything even remotely romantic towards Walden or Thoreau or any other of his ever-adolescent band of merry men. Because I’m sure there was some guy like me, who knew Emerson and Thoreau personally and who saw this whole thing play out at the time and just thought, “My god, and the slaphappy fuck is even writing a *book* about it! Eh, well I mean, he still lets his *mother* do his *laundry.* No way anyone actually takes that book seriously… right?”


    • virtual.light says:

      The book has some interesting proposals about living life more physically active and within a modest footprint, but when you factor in the fact that Thoreau wrote this after making a fortune with his textile factories it reads as a sort of self penance retirement plan for the truly masochist.

      Also never understood why he had to live with mud walls and floors considering he could have taken it an extra step and baked bricks for a more comfortable experience (or planed wood planks). Fellow Connecticut woods dweller here, Cheers! (sucks about your pretentious ‘friend’, always best to stay clear of such characters)

  6. sagredo1632 says:

    If you really want to be irritated by Thoreau, read and consider, in order:

    Long Walk to Freedom (Mandela, 27 years)
    Letter from a Birmingham Jail (MLK, 8 days)
    Resistance to Civil Government (Thoreau, 1 night)

  7. monstermagnet says:

    When we read Walden in my 11th grade American Lit class, we didn’t read all of it. I asked the teacher, Mrs. Muench, if I could hold onto it until I’d finished. She was all, “Oh honey! You can KEEP it!!” At the time I was like, “decaf for you”, but now I get it. She always was kinda high strung anyway. I still have the book, but I never did finish it. Probably should one of these days. It’s been 24 years…

  8. Eery Petrol says:

    Playing a videogame about simple living in a natural environment is deeply ironic.