We’ll admit that we’re not exactly video game connoisseurs here at AJ, so it’s not entirely surprising that it escaped our attention that there’s a video game based on Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Until now.
This is mindblowing. An entire video game with nary a shootout, alien invasion, zombie horde, or magic-spewing dragon? All built around a simple book that chronicles a quiet, unassuming, wilderness-pondering existence? Surely, this is the least likely video game ever made. Even more than the game where you’re a bear.
“Walden: A Game” was released last year to coincide with Thoreau’s 200th birthday. The game, and I’m still having trouble believing this is a thing, should take a player roughly six hours to complete. It opens in the summer and for a virtual year, the player, Thoreau, can build a cabin, plant and harvest beans, jot down thoughts in a journal, collect arrowheads, go fishing, and, should the mood strike, stroll over to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s place for a bit of conversation. No, seriously.
And it all looks rather wonderful. It’s scored by chirping birds, a wind softly blowing through trees, the soft padding of rabbits hopping through pine needles, contemplative music, and sometimes a narrator reading from Thoreau’s journal. Emile Hirsch, who played Chris McCandless in Into the Wild, lends his voice to Thoreau’s character when chatting with not only Emerson, but Sophia Thoreau, naturalist Louis Agassiz, and Thoreau’s editor Horace Greeley.
Though the action, as it were, takes place slowly, with a passive, meditative feel, there are challenges to be overcome and lessons to be learned. Work too hard on the cabin, or spend too much time farming, and Thoreau loses “inspiration” points, rendering everything in the game duller and a bit lifeless. “Your world starts to get smaller,” says Michael Sweet, who designed sound for the game.
The lesson? Achieve a work-life balance.
“You’re not only trying to survive, you’re seeking inspiration in the woods,” says Tracy Fullerton, who came up with the idea for the game. “If you spend all of your time grinding away on survival tasks, the environment will become less lush. The winning is based on whether you meet your own goals.”
“Maybe we don’t all have the chance to go to the woods,” Fullerton says. “But perhaps we can go to this virtual woods and think about the pace of life when we come back to our own world. Maybe it will have an influence — to have considered the pace of Walden.”
Is this game a novel way to encourage people who wouldn’t otherwise dip into Thoreau’s work to pick up a dog-eared copy of Walden at a local used bookstore? Is it a slight betrayal of Thoreau’s ideals and a distraction from actually going outside, you know, physically? You can find out for yourself if you purchase it for $18.45. Which, the careful reader will note, is the year Thoreau first moved to Walden Pond.
Is it any good? User reviews make it seem as though the game designers kinda nailed it.
“Not a bad game but very repetitive. Very relaxing actually. If you’re a history buff or if you read the book then you will probably enjoy this,” reads one review on Metacritic. “A bit boring, but a bit relaxing too,” reads another, before going on to say: “Eventually I lost myself in the world, collecting books for inspiration, finding animals and plants to take notes of.”
Yeah, sounds about right.