Back in 1845, philosopher Henry David Thoreau took it upon himself to partake in a social experiment where he would strip away all of life’s luxuries and live in a small cabin on the edge of Walden Pond. This led to Thoreau being totally self-reliant, surviving for just over two years, before returning to civilisation and penning Walden, a book which reflects on his findings. You may be wondering what it was like to live such a simple, natural life. Well, now it’s possible to experience it for yourself without leaving your own house, courtesy of ‘Walden, a game’.
Funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and developed by USC Game Innovation Lab, Walden, a game is a narrative-driven open-world adventure with survival elements. Such elements are expected to be minimal though, as it attempts to create more of an educational and inspirational experience that’s accessible to a wider audience. Does the heavy focus on storytelling and discovery ensure Walden, a game is a must-play, or does artistic approach and potentially limited gameplay hinder the enjoyment?
Well, Walden, a game has won a few awards since its release and you will certainly understand why after reading on. With that being said, if you’re looking for a high-octane adrenaline hit, there’s nothing for you here. Keep an open mind though and Mr. Thoreau’s exploits could offer a priceless experience that may leave a lasting impression.
In Walden, a game, you’ll step into the shoes of Henry David Thoreau on his very first day at an isolated cabin in the wilderness of Walden Pond. There’s a whole year of Thoreau’s adventure to delve into, with each season lasting just a few days apiece. Proceedings play out in first person perspective and the idea is to explore your surroundings for inspiration, while also using your cunning wit in order to survive without any help. Sure, you can earn money to buy necessities along the way, but there are certainly no hand-outs here.
Walden Pond and the neighbouring town of Concord are the only two locations, with the former being the place you’ll spend the majority of your time. With fauna and flora – that’s animals and plant life in simple terms – covering almost every inch of the vast open area, Walden Pond is an absolutely delightful environment to venture through. Despite not being photo-realistic, there’s a terrific vibrancy to the lush landscapes that more than makes up for it. Concord however is quite small and although credit is deserved for being reminiscent of towns of that era, it pales in comparison, which is fine as there’s nobody forcing you to visit.
The world is your oyster to do as you please, albeit with a few minor caveats. Exploration is actively encouraged from the beginning as you are urged to look out for arrowheads within the environment. Interacting with these allows Thoreau’s character to ponder various aspects of life out loud (voiced brilliantly by Emile Hirsch) and provides many sentiments realised during his experiment which, in turn, may lead you to be inspired.
There’s also an in-game journal to fill up regarding everything and anything you gaze upon. Merely zooming in on something you haven’t seen before will culminate in a fairly detailed description of whatever it is, before being collated within this journal. Whether it’s the hickory species of trees, the cinquefoil plant, or a simple hare, an account is made of such discoveries. What’s rather special is how the world around you gets brighter and more colourful when your character’s inspiration is sky high from all of the findings, while everything becomes gloomy if there’s nothing new uncovered. I simply love how informative the journal entries are because there’s an educational benefit to them and it’s an aspect that will really fuel your penchant for exploring further.
And should that not be enough to satiate your hunger for knowledge, there is also the correspondence Thoreau has with other people via mail. The narrative told through these and the enlightening arrowhead moments cover a wide range of topics, including his family life, death, and the movement to abolish slavery. It’s beyond fascinating as you get a real glimpse and idea of what life was like back in the 19th century. Granted, the wealth of information on offer here through various mediums isn’t going to be enough for everyone and that’s where the survival elements come in.
Throughout the entire experience, our philosopher requires food, fuel, shelter and a decent set of clothing. Gathering food is the most important, which comes from multiple sources like blueberry bushes and the pond itself. The latter means partaking in the most basic fishing mini-game, consisting of holding the Left Trigger and moving the analog stick in the direction shown on-screen. Chopping wood for fuel follows a very similar mini-game, as does maintaining the cabin and your clothing. It’s all so simple that surviving feels akin to a necessary chore, but it’s hard to be too critical as anything more difficult could ruin the relaxed atmosphere. Failing to keep the survival meters high has minimal consequence either, ensuring you’re never too worried about the warning signs.
Other activities to keep occupied and possibly make some money on the side, include surveying the land, acquiring specimens for biologist Dr. Agassiz, and finding a selection of thought-provoking books for Thoreau’s good friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Furthermore, the protagonist’s sister Sophia has a whole load of poems scattered about Walden Pond and hunting them down can lead to some lovely gifts to aid in your adventure. Any money earned can be used in the town’s General Store on items providing boosts to the food, fuel, shelter and clothing resources. It’s especially useful to have cash in the winter, when food is scarce and much more energy is consumed. Even without monetary incentives though, the missions posed are interesting and enjoyable.
And finally, the sound department deserves real appreciation, mostly for the wonderful audio that will complement your days in the wilderness. It’s so peaceful to just linger in one spot and listen to the birds chirping or the cows mooing in the distance. I lost count of the amount of times I just wandered off during the experience and followed the noise. You can truly become immersed in the environment and the sound plays a huge role in making that possible.
The only major problem with Walden, a game, is that a lot of people will probably dismiss it for not being a conventional game. But that’s what makes it stand out in the gaming market among a ton of recycled ideas. There’s seldom been an experience that’s so informative, enlightening, inspirational and immersive. Despite the bulk of the storytelling being over within six hours, the opportunity to remain in Walden Pond is one that many will accept as they uncover everything this world has to offer. Sure, the survival aspects are a bit of distraction, however they aren’t massively detrimental to the adventure.
If you’re open to a journey through the wilderness that’s full of knowledge and poses interesting thoughts to ponder, Walden, a game should be the next addition to your library.
Explore the world of Walden, a game by grabbing it from the Xbox Store for Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One