Walden, a game

When I think about books that could work fine in a computer game adaptation, then Henry Thoreau’s Walden is not an obvious candidate. His description of the two years (1845–1847) he spent living in a small cottage in the woods near Walden Pond, in order to prove the spiritual benefits of living a simpler lifestyle away from modern society, is more a set of reflections than a coherent story, so I was very curious about how that would turn into anything playable when I found out about the existence of Walden, a game. It turned out to be a rather pleasant experience.

The player takes the role of Thoreau when he started his experiment in the summer of 1845. For surviving in the woods you need food, shelter, fuel and clothing, so some effort is needed to find something to eat to get energy and firewood to keep warm, together with maintenance of the cottage and clothes to keep the elements away. However, just surviving is not good for the soul so the player also has to stay inspired, otherwise the colours disappear and the sounds are muffled. Inspiration is found in the beauty of the nature, in classical books to read, and not least through listening to the ambient sounds. Thus, the game is not about winning, it’s about finding balance.

The sound design is actually, in my view, the truly outstanding part of the game. It’s simply very nice to just walk around in the game and listen to what is going on. The overall look of the game is also rather beautiful, in particular how the changes of the seasons are presented. One aspect of the game that gives it an oddly eery feel is the very limited number of humans with whom it is possible to directly interact: the mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, who drops his books all over the forest, and the shopkeeper in the nearby small town of Concorde. All other interactions are made through correspondence, or through recollection in some cases. It made me feel as if I were a ghost, or maybe a human living in a ghost world. There are a small number of storylines (or “missions” if we talk computer-gamish) to follow to give a broader experience and understanding of Thoreau himself, but they are not needed for completion of the game.

Sometimes I felt that Walden, a game was too educational for me. It simpy focused too much on teaching the views of Thoreau, instead of mentioning them while letting the players come to the their own conclusions. It could be due to the way I played it – whenever an arrowhead is found on the ground, they activate spoken excerpts from the book, and I found so many of them that I got seriously tired of Thoreau’s musings and exclamations. He seems to have been an inspiring, but also rather single-tracked, man.

The game brings a nice change of pace, with beatiful sights and sounds. It is probably a real treat for the world’s Thoreau enthusiasts, but for me it was also a bit dull mostly due to its too extended length.

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