Despite not receiving huge popularity in his lifetime, Henry David Thoreau's contributions as a naturalist, philosopher, and writer helped shape 19th century America – in no insignificant way either. Walden and "Civil Disobedience" were also influential texts to me as I pondered the course of my post-high school life. So I understand the interest USC Game Innovation Lab would have in adapting his seminal work; at the same time, it's hard to ignore the contradiction of Thoreau's rugged austerity with a game that's only capable of creating a programmed facsimile of nature. This incongruity is only the start of what I consider to be a poor translation of this author's potency.
Just outside of Concord in Spring 1845, a 27-year old Thoreau began constructing his modest cabin on Walden Pond. This little slice of heaven was on land owned by Thoreau's literary preceptor and great friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. From 1845 to 1847, Thoreau's focused asceticism brought about spiritual discoveries he would've otherwise missed. This intentional austerity is what Walden, a game tries to capture.
When momentarily side-stepping the mechanics, the baseline of this game does work as a wilderness simulation. Sure, it's clearly a Unity Engine game with a vanilla UI, but there are tangibly adjusting spring, summer, fall, & winter seasons – with mid-season shifts in between. The wildlife and landscapes make appropriate adjustments too. Winter Walden-land enables you to skate over the pond, but then neither boating nor skating are options when the ice starts thawing. Beans and berries can only be harvested during warmer climates; also, fishing is off-limits when the pond ices over.
Walking Around Walden
How players interact with this environment & near-total solitude in the woods is what Innovation Lab poorly manages. From a distance, the main thrust of the game doesn't sound too bad: implementing survival mechanics, such as managing food, shelter, fuel, and clothes, makes sense for the average 19th-century outdoorsman. The problem is it's so boring and repetitive. No matter what contextual action you're making, managing your survival meters come back to one routine: holding LT while moving the control stick in tandem. Doesn't matter if you're chopping wood or mending clothes. The only "variety" here is when this glorified quick-time event (QTE) expects you to rotate the stick vertically or horizontally. Although there's more to touch on beyond this, I have to stress how these QTEs permeate the entire experience.
Putzing around to survive isn't the whole game though. Just as Thoreau was living the transcendentalist philosophy and writing down his inspirations, you step into that role by staying attuned with nature. Walden employs gameplay incentives to reinforce this: collecting scattered arrowheads, finding Emerson's misplaced books, finding your sister's gift baskets next to stone cairns, and espying (RT button) on various objects and animals for Thoreau to jot down. The arrowheads in particular reward players with snippets from Walden (the book) and provide texture about Thoreau's state of mind; they're similar to crossing that invisible threshold for more dialogue in Dear Esther.
The woods and the little slice of Concord next to this pond aren't empty. It's the empty space between these integral landmarks that feel so exhausting. Exploring this landmass is exacerbated thanks to Thoreau's inimical stamina meter. Since this gauge is invisible – unlike your food storage or clothing depreciation – it's impossible to know when that threshold is breached before your vision gets cloudy and you start desperately panting. Once that happens, and you're not near a recovery campfire, you can't sprint more than a couple of steps before being forced to walk again. And since there's also the risk of fainting, chores become this execrable routine of working until breaking point, resting by a nearby fire for ten seconds, and repeat. How does a lusty 27-28 year old manage to seem so weak and never progressively improve while working outdoors? I say this without hesitation: it’s among the worst stamina meters I’ve ever seen in a game.
When you peel away the aggravating gameplay elements what's left is something of a time-wasting enigma. It's one of those cases where it has "mechanics" per se, but with no concrete plan to make them engaging. Sure, you can do surveying gigs, secretly stash food for runaway slaves, maintain Emerson's nearby house, shop at the general store, and so on. Some of these are even stimulating at first! But the issue stems back to how futile these actions eventually feel. Regardless of what those meters say, there’s no tangible struggle with nature to be fought. Even fishing is nothing more than a QTE and the computer randomly determining if I caught something. It’s a desultory experiment that doesn’t successfully juggle nature’s unique serendipity with its open-ended design.
What damages Walden the most in my eyes is its failure as a game adaptation. For a novel about a guy pursuing higher truth and meaning by brushing away all of life's vanities, it seems rather contradictory to craft a digital facsimile of that. Ironically, simplified simulations of nature run sharply athwart the undistilled dynamism & honesty that Thoreau was able to so eloquently capture.
What's worse is the more tone-deaf approach of Thoreau's other seminal work: "Civil Disobedience." Thoreau was intentionally in arrears on his poll taxes out of protest to the Mexican-American War & slavery. After declining to pay them to the constable, he was thrown in jail. It was a conscious decision that shed a new personal revelation on the tenuous relationship between state and individual. In this game? I simply didn't have enough money to pay it off at the general store, picked up a random arrowhead outside, and was whisked away to jail in a cutscene; it implicitly diminishes Thoreau’s intentions. It's an awful design choice in two other ways: there are split achievements between either paying/not paying the tax and even if sent to prison the tax can still be paid afterward. It's like the historical context was given no consideration!
Eventually, all these points culminate to show its design is rotten from top to bottom. It's really strange to act so severely when the supplemental gameplay extras do function. You have these options like boating across the pond, surveying, fishing, assessing wildlife, and so on, but then the game design doesn't care how the player will enjoy them. All of these unnecessary design paper cuts, especially in respect to traversal, start making the adventure feel agonizingly slow.
Doesn't Sound Or Look As Bad As It Plays
Even when considering the development backstory & price, Walden doesn't even measure up to Dear Esther's presentation – as much as I dislike that game. Although maintaining a consistent framerate on my Series X, the easily discernable draw distance and consistent texture drop-in reveal poor engine optimization. You can see – and empathize – with budget and time constraints when looking at the reduced background detail too. There are little details to admire as well though. The varied cursive handwriting found in letters from different people is a nice touch. Beyond this and other era-appropriate accouterments, its underperforming technical polish leaves it behind similar titles.
Fortunately, the sound was given more attention. A quick glance on the IMDB cast list shows Innovation Lab netted some solid actors. Funnily enough, I think the worst creative choice here was selecting Emile Hirsch as the lead. Several hours in and I’ll never buy a late-20s Thoreau sounding like a soft-spoken high-schooler. Michael Sweet's soundtrack is a basic & pleasant composition of stringed instruments and flutes playing on repeat. Although they're varied enough (given the limited environment) the diegetic sounds of this world tend to loop over each other, as though you're dawdling simultaneously between the invisible line triggering the bird and train audio files. Aside from Thoreau's writing, and snippets from Emerson's classic book collection, the sound would be its most consistent quality.
The further away I get from Walden, a game the more it reveals how lacking it is compared to the source material. From a consumerist perspective, you can pay the same amount for this game ($9.99) as the Penguin Classic paperback duo of “Civil Disobedience” & Walden; plus, you don't have to traipse around a simulated world for hours on end to collect a patchwork of Thoreau's great epigrams and deep-rooted values. From its boring gameplay loop to design decisions implicitly contradicting Thoreau's greater messages, USC Game Innovation Lab has crafted an ill-conceived adaptation.
TechRaptor reviewed Walden, a game on Xbox Series X with a copy purchased by the reviewer. It is also available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and PC.
- Respectable Wilderness Simulation
- Good Voice Acting
- Execrable Stamina Meter Poisons Enjoyment
- Insanely Repetitive
- Subtle Design Choices Betray Source Material
- Some Distracting Presentation Issues
- Starts To Feel Pointless