As I boot up my PS4 to play the video game adaptation of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, I make a rushed attempt to clear my coffee table from the stacks of books and research articles on prison reform. I have a grant application due in a few days, and like many Americans I’ve had to increasingly squeeze my gaming time in between mounting deadlines. I close my laptop screen filled with open tabs of newspaper articles, indicative of the progressively chaotic media cycles we’ve come to expect from the current administration—stories permeate my timeline about undocumented parents being separated from their kids, school shootings, and the tallying of nearly 5000 dead in Puerto Rico.
In this time of media-oversaturation and collective anxiety over economic and environmental collapse, I must confess I have returned to the literature of authors who’ve critiqued the authoritarian state: Michele Foucault, Angela Davis, Oscar Wilde, George Jackson. And while most days I’ve wanted to run away screaming from the dumpster fire known as 2018, I must confess that it never occurred to me to return to the works of anti-capitalist philosopher and abolitionist Henry David Thoreau. When I was a scoffy teenager reading Walden in high school, I never understood the paradigm of retreating into the woods in the face of injustice, so I had hoped the “open world simulation” game might give me new perspectives.
Forgive me for over-contextualizing a video game review, and for, well, being a self-indulgent poet. While I believe all video games are art in some way, the nature of Tracy Fullerton’s Walden, a Game invites me to examine the cultural implications of digitized Thoreau as well as review the playability of the game. Walden, a Game was developed by USC Innovation Labs, and the PC/Mac release has already been showcased in modern art museums and has won awards from festivals like Sundance and the Games for Change Festival. Now I have to confess: if I was ever given the opportunity to make a game I would probably give players the opportunity to punch Ralph Waldo Emerson in the face. But I’m the type of poet who prefers my metaphors shouted at me through a duct-taped mic at a poetry slam, hip hop cypher, or DIY punk show—so perhaps my disconnect with the transcendentalism movement should be taken with a whole shaker of salt. Despite my tendency to roll my eyes at Thoreau’s eco-libertarian rhetoric, I do believe all gamers who love literature should support this project financially. The game received grant funding from organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, and I am hopeful that the successes of this game will encourage financiers to support future projects that gamify notable works of political literature.
Though I am typically not a fan of the term when used to described games like Firewatch and Gone Home, the genre of Walden, a Game could fairly be described as a “walking simulator.” You play as a young Thoreau in the years of his Walden experiment, and though the game promotes itself as “open world,” the modest map includes Walden Pond, Emerson’s home, and a three-building town meant to represent the nearby city of Concord. In “The Bean-Field” chapter of Walden, Thoreau describes his ritual of searching for arrowheads, which provides the initial gameplay vehicle: as you explore the environment of Walden Pond the glint of arrowheads lying on the ground may catch your eye. When you pick up an arrowhead the screen typically pans toward the horizon while Thoreau quotes relevant passages from the book, including naturalistic descriptions of geese flying overhead or ideological critiques of taxation and self-reliance. The game’s greatest success is in the way it embeds text from Thoreau’s writing into the gameplay. For example, when you zoom in on a plant or fox running around, a passage from the book pops up in the left hand corner of the screen. I also enjoyed finding and reading letters from Thoreau’s peers, such as the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne and abolitionist Bronson Alcott. These letters helped me realize the interconnectivity of notable scholars of the time, which are brought to life by an impressive cast of voice actors including actor Emile Hirsch and voiceover royalty Jim Cummings. Anti-slavery posters on display in Concord, replicated from actual public domain documents, provide an ominous backdrop that foretells an impending Civil War.
While I appreciated the way this multimodal narrative gave me a more comprehensive understanding of how the writing of Walden was influenced by societal forces, beyond this aspect the game fails to replicate the spirit of Thoreau’s experiment: both as a game, and as a piece of art. I contend that the game’s 10-year development cycle played a role in the shortcomings of both aspects of this narrative. When this adaptation began development the only comparable products were minimalistic exploration games like Dear Esther. Walden, a Game may have been an innovative experience were it released a decade ago, but when compared to recent groundbreaking POV narratives like Virginia and What Remains of Edith Finch, the digital Thoreau experience seems pretty bare. A majority of the quests in the game are rote labor tasks like picking berries and chopping wood, which are controlled by antiquated quick time mechanics that predate 2005’s God of War. I’ve spent countless hours playing fun fishing mini-games since 1998’s Ocarina of Time, but the fishing game in Walden just consists of holding X and rotating the right thumb stick (which is a task that is simultaneously mind-numbing and hard to input without holding your controller awkwardly). The lack of player agency in the game is its biggest downfall: Emerson encourages me to find inspiration in books he has left around Walden Pond, but when translated to gameplay is just a series of thoughtless fetch quests. And the management simulation aspect of the game becomes overwhelming. Put bluntly, Thoreau is the hungriest starving artist I have ever seen. Your HUD is constantly flashing because you need to find more firewood, mend your clothes, replenish your food stocks, and fortify your cabin. I agree that tranquility can be found in menial labor, but rushing around the forest and hitting X over and over did not leave me in a state of Zen. You are given limited hours each day to complete your tasks, so while in theory I am supposed to be walking around the woods taking in nature, in reality I have spent most of the game stressed out and trying to find more logs to split before my time ticks away.
The 10-year development cycle also affected Walden, a Game as a work of art. If we were in the Obama era I think I could find some enjoyment and meaning in retreating into the woods, but in the era of Trump’s deregulation policies and animosity towards federal institutions, a game about ideological escapism just seems incredibly obtuse. I was hopeful when Bronson Alcott tasked me with helping a man escape through the Underground Railroad, but the resulting mission was just another fetch quest where I delivered some clothes. Many of the gameplay elements are counter-intuitive to Thoreau’s work as an artistic political statement. For example, an enjoyable element of the game revolves around sending essays on abolition and anti-capitalism to publishers, but that means I actually spent most of my time near the post office in Concord and not walking around starving in the woods. While the main premise of Walden is to circumvent institutions, reject materialism, and simplify one’s life, most of the gameplay elements that propel the narrative forward are related to collecting money to pay for goods and services. Sadly, the arguably more important parts of the story have much lower stakes in the game: I was amused when I was tossed in jail for refusing to pay my poll taxes, but rather than forcing me to reflect on the gravity of the moment, I was unceremoniously released a mere 45 seconds later.
Walden, a Game could have been a culmination of my interests as a researcher in the field of art and humanities: it is a narrative video game about a poet activist who critiqued slavery and the newly-developed modern prison system. However, most of my time spent on the digital Walden Pond has oscillated between boredom and sheer frustration. On the one hand, this game demonstrates the need for more university gaming labs and the development of playable literary adaptations. On the other hand, I am not sure if this game is any more engaging than the dusty novel I struggled to relate to in my high school classroom.
Walden, a Game is now available on PS4, Mac, and PC. This article is based on a PS4 copy provided for that purpose.