Review: WALDEN, a game (PS4)

Walden, a game 01

No, it’s not some new-age hipster ready-made, silly. Here’s where you start off the game. Now, get to getting those walls up before dark, buddy.

Walden, a game PS4Wait, what? Yes, there’s actually a game based on Henry David Thoreau’s autobiographical slice of life book and it’s pretty neat as well as quite educational on a few fronts. Developed by Tracy Fullerton and the USC Game Innovation Lab over a 10-year period, Walden, a game ($18.99, also on PC) rolls out events from Thoreau’s time spent up at Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts in a tiny cabin he built and maintained. It’s an “open world” game with plenty to see and do, but it’s also an initially timed experience where you need to attempt to accomplish as much as possible during each day. That means you can choose to follow the flow of suggestions the letters Henry receives during the game or simply go off and explore at your leisure, discovering experiences as you go.

Actually, doing a combination of both is very highly recommended as this will maximize the overall experience while filling in chapters from the book as well as other events that affected Thoreau’s life.  While the game has a few performance quirks, if you’re a person who likes “walking simulators” (a term I dislike, mind you) or “survival” games (ditto on the dislike thing) without worrying about zombies or other creatures chomping at your heels, this is going to be right up your alley. Granted, I’m going to gather that market is slim among most of today’s gamers. Nevertheless, I’d still highly recommend this if you want something truly different and amusingly enough, something to show off to your kids (if you have them) as an honest to goodness learning experience. Yes, there’s also a great teaching aid for the game, as it’s meant to be used in schools as part of curriculum in tandem with the book.

Walden, a game 05

Your humble shopkeeper in the game. Basically, he’s Tom Nook with even more vintage stock. Or: you’ll pay through the nose for those much-needed goods.

(Yeah, it’s me again!)

 

As you can see above, the game is quite languidly paced compared to more action-oriented fare, but this slowness has purpose. Searching for those arrowheads and stone monuments looking closely at different flora, fauna, and other objects gives Thoreau inspiration to push on and write his book. This also translates to motivation to do tasks because he’s not the best physical specimen what with his somewhat realistic stamina levels. Although, to tell you the truth, I couldn’t build a cabin from scratch if it was inflatable. Hmm… does IKEA make cabins? I can handle a building a STUGA as long as there are instructions in clear order.

Anyway, Henry has a limited amount of time each day before it winds down and he jots down bits of his book. Initially, you get to start off a new day in his cabin, but as you progress you can choose to start exactly where you left off in the woods, in Concord or anywhere else. This is quite helpful if you were, say 3/4 of the way to an important location and don’t want to hoof it all the way back. However, in some cases you’ll want to go back to the cabin. If you’ve beans to pick, need to repair your clothes or just need to be there because certain tasks demand it. There are a few side quests where you’re helping out different people who need Henry to deliver or procure items from the area around his cabin (or far from it). You’ll also need to drop manuscripts off at the post office, stop by the family home for supplies and other items, and hit up the general store when necessary.

Walden, a game 02

Walden, a pond. Okay, it’s a lame joke, but it’s all I’ve got, ladies and gents. Hey, I could have said “Walden, a map”, but then I’d have to change that to “Walden, a map inside a journal that’s not a real journal”, which would really get too meta, right?

As this is an outdoorsy game, weather comes into play as the seasons change and Henry’s needs increase. The beans he’s planted and other plants in the area are seasonal, so most will stop producing crops when the temperature drops. Henry needs to support himself by doing odd jobs for others or selling beans, so you’ll learn quickly to load up your food jars with anything but beans in order to sell those off for much-needed cash. You’ll want to do your fishing before the lake freezes over (of course), but once it does, you can skate across it, cutting travel time to the further reaches of the map down considerably as well as locating some arrowheads you won’t be able to get to in any other season. Once you discover a boat, you’ve access to new parts of the map worth exploring during the warmer seasons. Night travel is also recommended no matter the season, as yes, those arrowheads and certain animal life will only appear when darkness falls.

In a total curve ball of a sequence (well, if you don’t know Thoreau’s life story), Henry walks into Concord and is promptly arrested (!!!), leading to a somewhat thoughtful entry that’s somewhat (alright, very) amusing if only because it’s quite political in a way pretty much everyone would agree on. There are also few dramatic elements from Thoreau’s life that play out in letter form with voice over accompaniment that add a bit of emotional impact. You may or may not shed a tear, but if you’ve got a sensitive bone in your body, you’ll be affected by these moments. Is it time for another video? Oh,  I think so (just while I go top off my tea. Pardon me for a sec):

 

(Hi, me!)

 

Now, the game isn’t flawless by any means, but this is a case where budgetary constraints and the amount of passion put into the project make for a good justification for supporting what’s more or less a class project with an educational price point.  Controller input could be smoother when doing the more strenuous tasks (I found that things go smoother if you “reload” a move instead of repeating it), there are occasional hitches when moving and yes, there are some low-poly images in the distance when zooming in as well as some pixelization when getting too close to objects. But other than the character models which are a bit stiff and the too simple Concord location which hides the bulk of the village behind a fence you can’t cross, the game offers up some pretty convincing environments that change with the seasons. Plants lose their foliage, the ground becomes covered in a layer of well-trodden snow (you can actually make out paths better in the wintertime) and you get some nice lake reflections and painterly skyboxes.

While the aural experience is limited compared to other games, it’s important because it’s also a source of inspiration for Henry. The game notes at one point early on that even the sounds he hears can be important, but you’ll need to be extra cautious or wear headphones in order to pick up those cues. While the game only gives you a limited time to do as much as you can, there’s a post-game mode where you can continue your adventure and pretty much chill out and get your exploring on at even more leisure. This ends up making for a game that while seemingly limited in scope and appeal, is actually a pretty nice way to take a breather from a stupid and often stupidly hectic world, and I’m all for that these days.

Walden, a game 04

Winter on Walden Pond, where Henry will indeed be skating on not at all thin ice. He’s pretty good at it, too. Like Olympic athlete-like stamina.

Score: B (80%)

-GW

Yep, I bought this on sale on PSN (it’s temporarily half off on PSN until August 7 if you’re a PS Plus user)

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