05 . Walden, a game

Tracy Fullerton and Walden team

Walden, a game, is a first person simulation of the life of American philosopher Henry David Thoreau during his experiment in self-reliant living at Walden Pond. The game begins in the summer of 1845 when Thoreau moved to the Pond and built his cabin there. Players follow in his footsteps, surviving in the woods by finding food and fuel and maintaining their shelter and clothing. At the same time, players are surrounded by the beauty of the woods and the Pond, which hold a promise of a sublime life beyond these basic needs. The game follows the loose narrative of Thoreau’s first year in the woods, with each season holding its own challenges for survival and possibilities for inspiration.

Supported by the NEA, the NEH and the USC Advancing Scholarship in the Humanities and Social Sciences, the game represents a new model for translating a textual into a procedural experience, which challenges our common understanding of what games may meaningfully express. The central design question behind the work is: can we make a game that translates Thoreau’s experiment in living into a playable experience? As he writes, Thoreau went to the woods to reduce life to its lowest terms and see if it is “mean” or “sublime,” and “if it proved to be mean, to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it.” In play, the game presents a tension for the player between these possibilities, which they must attempt to balance as best they can over the course of an in-game year.

The game presents a way of thinking about “goals” that is very different than most game systems. In Walden, getting more or better items is not necessarily required, and yet having nothing is not desirable either. It is up to the player to determine, as Thoreau did, how much is “enough.” The game is not only about a different philosophy of living; it illuminates that philosophy through gameplay.

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