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Walden, A Game: hummingbird spying as Henry David Thoreau

Living deliberately

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."

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About the Author

Philippa Warr

Former Staff Writer

Pip wrote for Rock Paper Shotgun between 2014-2017, covering everything from MOBAs, hero brawlers and indie curios. She also had a keen interest in the artistry of video game creation, and was very partial to keeping us informed of the latest developments in British TV show Casualty.