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Published on October 21st, 2014 | by Nich Maragos

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Notes From Indiecade: Walden, A Game

Half of the GIA went to Indiecade 2014 in Culver City earlier this month and played some amazing, intriguing, and delightful games. The Notes From Indiecade series is a look at a few of our favorites of the show, along with some commentary from their developers.

Look up Walden, A Game on YouTube and you’ll get an inkling of the game’s long history: the most recent video was uploaded just a few months ago, but before that there are two different trailers marked “OLD, DON’T LINK,” the first one of which was posted seven years ago. And even that was the result of several years’ worth of work, according to USC Game Innovation Lab director and project lead Tracy Fullerton.

walden-01“I first thought of making this game way back in 2002, when I was at the Pond, re-reading the book,” says Fullerton. “It seemed so topical to me–Thoreau was writing at a time in which the country was coming out of a depression, politics were extremely divisive and binary with slavery as a key issue dividing the nation, and technologies like the telegraph and the railroad were changing the pace of life and the interconnectedness of the world. Thoreau wanted to see how life might be lived more simply and what that might mean in terms of his relationship to nature and ideas. I think we could all use that kind of chance to take a moment and consider the pace and the context of our lives and that is what this game strives to do through an albeit more brief experience of digital play.”

Since then, Fullerton has worked with a rotating crew formed around a few core mainstays. “The core team is all part of the Game Innovation Lab at USC. We worked together previously on The Night Journey with Bill Viola, and after that, I wanted to see if we could take on this new challenge. In addition to the core team, we’ve had many students and other volunteer contributors throughout the years that we’ve worked on the game come in and add to it.”

What I saw of the game at Indiecade was only a small taste of the impressive scope Fullerton has in mind for the project. As I approached the tent where the kiosk was set up, from a distance it seemed as if the game had a greyscale graphical style, but up close the color scheme was revealed as part of the gameplay. Stepping into Thoreau’s shoes challenges the player to walk a tightrope between bare survival and the fruits of life. If all you do is keep body and soul together, whether by working on your cottage in the woods or taking menial tasks for what money Thoreau requires to get by, the world is a grey and dreary place. Only by interacting with people in town, taking time to appreciate the forest, or reading Thoreau’s own works included in the game, do you become inspired enough to raise your spirits, bringing color and life back to the world.

walden-02In doing so, Fullerton and her team have set themself the classic problem of writing a book about a master author, or a film about a genius painter: for the premise to work, the magnificence spoken of within the work has to be there within your own art. For Walden, A Game, that challenge is recreating the wonder and majesty of Walden as a 3D space. “We have a very small team and grand ambitions for our game. Every time we think of something new we could do, would love to do, we have to stop ourselves and remember how very limited our resources are. That said, I think our small team has done wonders with the environment, which is rich and filled with a lot of wonders to explore.”

Beyond simply recreating the environment comes presenting the player with the same sorts of challenges Thoreau faced in living within that environment. This was one of the things that got me interested in the project to begin with, since my idea of a good time is to start up a new world in Minecraft and build a self-sustaining shelter, with renewable resources and sustainable crops, from scratch.

“The survival simulation underlies the entire experience, so you have to be sure to continually find food, fuel, shelter and clothing as your resources are used up or wear out,” as Fullerton explains. “But it is abstracted in the sense that we don’t want you to worry about having to maintain an inventory or equip your clothes, etc. We want you to pay attention to these needs, but not obsess on them. You need to have time and attention to also spend on exploring the rest of the game, and the more ‘ephemeral’ needs that you have as well. We want you to seek out solitude and the sounds of society just in the distance, the animals and trees, and the books full of ideas that are scattered in the woods. Because this is a game about balancing these things, not drilling down on survival, the mechanics are fairly light on both sides of the scale.”

walden-03When I asked what kind of consequences might result from that balance, mentioning The Novelist as a touchstone, Fullerton said, “I liked The Novelist, but I think that Jason Rohrer’s Gravitation is actually a closer kind of mechanic, in that the world of that game becomes richer and wider as you explore, but you need to balance that ambition with your attention to your home and the child character that just wants you to stay and play ball. In Walden, there is that same kind of zero sum problem of only having so much time in life, and having to choose how you spend it. There is no perfect way to play the game, and some players may get more out of playing the game differently than Thoreau would have advised, but I think that’s the beauty of a playable system. Pushing on its boundaries, failing, succeeding, each of these gives us new information, and new ways to reflect on our choices.”

When asked, on that note, about staying true to Thoreau’s philosophy in the game, Fullerton closed by saying, “Thoreau’s self-stated goal was to ‘live as simply and as wisely’ as he could and to discover whether life at that level was ‘mean’ or ‘sublime.’ Since this is a game simulation, of course you are only playing an abstraction of that question, but I think that it does a good job of allowing the player to discover for themselves how life might be lived more simply and what that might mean for them in terms of beauty and inspiration. I hope that it means that players walk away with the thought that slowing life down a bit, and living more simply might be something to consider.”

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