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video game image of forest in the snow with a small cabin

Explore Thoreau’s Woods with a Video Game


Thoreau’s work still provokes a sudden reunion with nature and Walden Pond is the perfect place to experience it.

When we think of video games, the images that come to mind are of games of war, violence, loud music and colors or of puzzles to be solved on trips between cities. It might seem difficult, then, to associate video games with a way of accessing and reuniting with nature. But that’s precisely this point to Walden: A Game which is placing its bets on appeals to both experienced players and to lovers of literature.

In 1854, writer Henry David Thoreau wrote a kind of philosophical diary about a spiritual retreat he made for two years in the woods at Walden. The work has become a benchmark for ecologists and adventurers around the world. Within its pages, Thoreau presents a passionate manifesto on “living deliberately” in which the cultivation of loneliness, away from the hustle and bustle of the city, becomes a source of enormous aesthetic joy and spiritual knowledge.

But how to turn such a journey into an interesting and fun video game? That was the challenge presented to Tracy Fullerton, chief developer and founding director of the USC’s Game Innovation Lab, a studio known for its unpredictable approach to video game creation.

The game lasts six hours. During this time, the player’s challenge is to keep the game-self alive, in nature, for a full year. But this is not typical Minecraft. As well as collecting utensils, planting food and building a cottage, players must also collect impressions about the natural landscape in a diary: plants, animals, and everything written become part of an “inspiration bank” that needs to be maintained. Otherwise, the landscape will show fewer colors and the music will begin to sound more distant.

According to Fullerton, Walden: A Game is “an attempt to make a game that has a kind of stillness at its core.” Beyond being a platform open to the world, the creators tried to make the game feel very broad when it’s being explored, but very constrained and limited when a player only works.

Need some human contact? Players can take a walk to the village tavern to speak with Ralph Waldo Emerson, or continue exploring to discover hidden quotations from the original Walden, and eventually arriving at a simple and direct way into Thoreau’s book, within a game built for a pace quite different from games of adventure and speed.

Rather than promoting reading, the game hopes to inspire players in the same way that the book inspires readers. The designers even believe that Thoreau would have liked the game, and perhaps at the end of the game, we would think of going for a walk with no apparent destination. Like other studio games, Walden will be available for free download.

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