By Jesse Goodwin, Staff Writer
Henry Thoreau’s Walden, a staple of high school reading lists, is now a video game.
Walden the game is currently under development by a small team 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.
It recreates Walden Pond and Thoreau’s nearby cabin, which was his place of residence during the year chronicled in Walden.
Fullerton’s team has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Walden the book, according to the game’s official website, waldengame.com, remains relevant for many reasons—“from [Thoreau’s] core environmentalism, to his criticisms of the ways in which technologies change the speed and value of our lives, to his fundamental questioning of the role of government in society—all of which are as critical, if not more, than when he was writing.”
The game begins in the summer of 1845 and ends a year later. During this time, players build Thoreau’s cabin, plant beans, and talk with Thoreau’s friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Although the object of the game is to survive, players must be careful not to work themselves too hard, or the game will display a warning message:
“Your inspiration has become low, but can be regained by reading, attending to sounds of life in the distance, enjoying solitude and interacting with visitors, animal and human.”
“You’re not only trying to survive, you’re seeking inspiration in the woods,” Fullerton told the New York Times.
“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.”
Players who spend too much time working will also notice the colors of the woodland fade and the music quiet.
“Your world starts to get smaller,” said Michael Sweet, the game’s composer and sound designer.
Players may scan the game world for excerpts from Thoreau’s memoir, which can be organized to retell Thoreau’s journey. For instance, Thoreau was jailed for one night on one of his regular visits to the neighboring town of Concord after he refused to pay a poll tax for political reasons.
The player can choose to stay in the cell, slowly depleting the character’s health from a lack of food and inspiration, or pay the poll tax and avoid jail altogether.
Like Thoreau, the player may regularly visit Concord to meet Emerson and other figures from Thoreau’s life and visit a local shop, which provides food, tools, and clothing. However, they may also pursue public life as a celebrity author or activist.
“You can choose how to spend your time, what to emphasize, the ways the game can play out,” Fullerton said. “You might spend all your time in the woods, you might focus on bean farming, you could become a famous author—sending off articles to your editor, Horace Greeley—or you could become an activist, working on the Underground Railroad.”
An alpha version of the game is available for PC and Mac users. It is offered by itch.io, an online storefront for indie games, for $18.45.
The final version will be released later this spring, in time for the 200th anniversary of Thoreau’s birthday in July. Fullerton’s team plans to release this version for home consoles as well.
During his lifetime, Thoreau dismissed new technologies as “pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things,” but Fullerton defends her game as a contemporary examination of the questions Walden raised about the effects of technological progress.
“Thoreau was sitting in a moment when life was beginning to speed up and he identified that, asking ‘Are our lives better because we now live on railroad time?’” she said.
“We have to ask ourselves the same question today: ‘Are our lives better because we live on internet time?’”
“Maybe we don’t all have the chance to go to the woods,” she added.
“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.”