Like so many great books spoiled by mediocre high school classes, Walden is richer and quirkier when revisited as an adult. Yeah, it poetically recaps Henry David Thoreau’s two years (and some change) in the woods of New England, just like you remember, but the later sections (the ones you maybe skimmed as a teenager) are a mishmash of ideas and styles both experimental and exploratory. Walden is, and I say this without pretension, a fun read. So it shouldn’t be that surprising that somebody would eventually adapt it into a video game.
Under the guidance of Tracy Fullerton — professor and chair of the USC Interactive Media & Games Division and director of the USC’s Game Innovation Lab — Walden (colon the video game) has been constructed over the past decade with the support of a small core team, modest arts grants, and many eager students. And now, the game — which not only re-creates Walden pond and the land on which Thoreau lived, but also, to some extent, the text’s spirit — is available to play. Though it’s still in alpha, something Thoreau never had to worry about.
Players slip into the shoes of Thoreau, beginning on his first day in the forest. They survive by stocking food and building shelter, but also finding inspiration. The world — the trees, the flowers, the fish, the lake itself, stray books — can be scanned to elicit quotes from the author’s work. While the game pulls heavily from Walden’s text, it’s the player’s journey that organizes these excerpts inside the game’s journal, creating a unique retelling of Thoreau’s journey.
‘Walden’ as choose your own adventure
Walden the game allows the player to diverge from Walden the book, and in turn, the events of Thoreau’s life. For example, Thoreau notoriously spent a night in jail after refusing to pay his poll tax on political grounds. The player can miss this moment altogether, or, should they go to jail, they can choose to stay in the cell, the character’s health slowly depleting from a lack of food and inspiration.
Like Thoreau, the player can regularly visit the nearby town of Concord, and meet with mentor and author Ralph Waldo Emerson, along with a handful of other figures from Thoreau’s life. A local shop provides food, tools, and also clothing. Should the player pursue a more decadent life as a celebrity author, they can purchase a ritzy suit and write to their editor about public speaking gigs.
Of course, the game isn’t solely about the player; it’s an adaptation, meant to share Thoreau’s experience. So the descriptions of items and actions are amended with the words of Thoreau, encouraging the player to ask What Would Henry Do? Fullerton noted that, in play testing, players often hurried to earn money and pay off Thoreau’s back taxes, but reading the menus closely reveals Thoreau never got around to it.
Survive, learn, commune with nature
The game appears, at first blush, like a collision of opposite sides of the modern games industry, taking the survival elements of PC gaming megabits and the anti-action strolls of artsy but commercially unpredictable “walking simulators” (though it’s unlikely Fullerton and her team cynically targeted either market). The director sees the game more akin to a documentary, one that anybody, not just a traditional game enthusiast, can enjoy.
The game has debuted on itch.io, a digital market known for experimental indie games, but Fullerton notes its big advantage in selling to the mainstream: it doesn’t require anybody to download a platform like Steam or create an elaborate profile. Anybody with a moderately new PC or Mac can purchase the game and play within minutes.
Fullerton published the game to itch.io on Tuesday, and the following day she sent me a selfie taken at that moment. She wears headphones and a big grin. Above the image, she writes: “Grandma’s are buying the game!!”
I can’t confirm that grandmas, specifically, have visited itch.io just yet, but I come away from Walden, the game, understanding what Fullerton means. What sounded like a dry educational game, meant to liven up high school English classrooms by meeting the youths halfway, may be most enjoyed by those of us past the grind of K–12 education. Walden is worth revisiting as a grown-up, and this game is a chance to do just that.