Although he did not receive enormous popularity during his lifetime, Henry David Thoreau’s contributions as a naturalist, philosopher, and writer helped shape 19th-century America – in no small way either. Walden and “Civil Disobedience” were also influential texts for me as I reflected on my post-high school life. I therefore understand the interest that USC Games would have in adapting its founding work; at the same time, it’s hard to ignore the contradiction of Thoreau’s brutal austerity with a game that’s only capable of creating a programmed facsimile of nature. This incongruity is only the beginning of what I consider to be a misinterpretation of the power of this author.
Just outside Concord in the spring of 1845, a 27-year-old Thoreau began building his modest cabin on Walden Pond. This little slice of paradise was on land owned by Thoreau’s literary tutor and great friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson. From 1845 to 1847, Thoreau’s concentrated asceticism resulted in spiritual discoveries he would otherwise have missed. This intentional austerity is what Walden, a game tries to capture.
When you momentarily bypass the mechanics, the baseline of this game works like a simulation of the wilderness. Of course, this is clearly a Unity Engine game with a vanilla UI, but the spring, summer, fall, and winter seasons are tangibly adjusting – with mid-season changes in between. Wildlife and scenery also make appropriate adjustments. Winter Walden-land allows you to skate the pond, but neither boating nor skating are options when the ice begins to melt. Beans and berries can only be harvested in warmer climates; In addition, fishing is prohibited when the pond is frozen.
Take a walk in Walden
The way players interact with this environment and the almost total solitude in the woods is what USC Games handles poorly. From a distance, the thrust of the game doesn’t sound too bad: Implementing survival mechanics, such as managing food, shelter, fuel, and clothing, makes sense to the average hobbyist of the game. 19th century. The problem is, it’s so boring and repetitive. Whatever contextual action you take, managing your survival counters comes down to a routine: holding LT while moving the control stick in tandem. It doesn’t matter if you are cutting wood or mending clothes. The only “variety” here is when that glorified Quick Time (QTE) event expects you to rotate the stick vertically or horizontally. While there is more to address beyond this, I must emphasize how these QTEs permeate the all live.
Shopping around to survive isn’t the whole game though. Just as Thoreau lived transcendentalist philosophy and wrote his inspirations, you step into this role by staying in harmony with nature. Walden uses play incentives to reinforce this: collect scattered arrowheads, find Emerson’s lost books, find your sister’s gift baskets next to stone cairns, and spy (RT button) on various objects and animals for Thoreau notes them. Arrowheads in particular reward players with snippets of Walden (the book) and provide a texture on Thoreau’s state of mind; they are similar to crossing that invisible threshold for more dialogue in Dear Esther.
The woods and the little corner of Concord next to this pond are not empty. It’s empty space Between those integral benchmarks that seem so exhausting. Exploration of this landmass is heightened thanks to Thoreau’s hostile stamina meter. Since this gauge is invisible – unlike your food storage or clothing depreciation – it’s impossible to know when this threshold is passed until your vision turns blurry and you start to gasp desperately. Once this happens and you’re not near a recovery campfire, you can’t sprint for more than a few paces until you have to walk again. And since there is also the risk of passing out, chores become that miserable routine of working to breaking point, resting by a nearby fire for ten seconds, and starting over. How does a vigorous 27-28 year old manage to seem so weak and never gradually improve while working outside? I say it without hesitation: this is one of the worst endurance counters I have ever seen in a game.
When you remove the aggravating gameplay elements, what’s left is a time-wasting conundrum. This is one of those cases where he has “mechanics” per se, but without a concrete plan to make them appealing. Of course, you can do surveying missions, secretly store food for runaway slaves, maintain Emerson’s house next door, shop at the general store, and more. Some of them are even stimulating at first! But the problem stems from the futility of these actions. Regardless of what these counters say, there is no tangible struggle with nature to be waged. Even fishing is nothing more than a QTE and the computer randomly determines if I’ve caught something. It’s a rambling experience that fails to juggle nature’s unique serendipity with its open design.
Transcendental translation error
What damage Walden most in my eyes is its failure as a game adaptation. For a novel about a man searching for greater truth and meaning while sweeping away all of life’s vanities, it seems rather contradictory to create a digital facsimile of it. Ironically, the simplified simulations of nature run counter to the undistilled dynamism and honesty that Thoreau was able to so eloquently capture.
What is worse is the more muted approach of Thoreau’s other founding work: “Civil Disobedience”. Thoreau was intentionally behind on his local taxes in protest against the Mexican-American war and slavery. After refusing to pay them to the constable, he was thrown in jail. It was a conscious decision that cast a new personal revelation on the tenuous relationship between the state and the individual. In this game? I just didn’t have enough money to pay for it at the general store, I picked up a random arrowhead outside and was taken to jail in a cutscene; it implicitly diminishes Thoreau’s intentions. It’s a terrible design choice in two other ways: there are mixed achievements between paying / not paying tax and even if sent to jail the tax can still be paid afterwards. It is as if the historical context had not been taken into account!
Eventually all of these highlights to show that his design is rotten from top to bottom. It’s really weird to act so harshly when the extra gameplay bonuses are working. You have these options like navigating the pond, surveying, fishing, assessing wildlife, etc., but the design of the game doesn’t care how the player will enjoy them. All of those unnecessary design paper clippings, especially when it comes to the crossing, start to make the adventure extremely slow.
Doesn’t sound or look as bad as it plays
Even taking into account the backstory of development and price, Walden is not even up to the task Dear Esther presentation – as much as I don’t like this game. Although maintaining a constant frame rate on my X series, the easily discernable drawing distance and smooth texture reveals poor engine optimization. You can see – and understand – the budget and time constraints by looking at the reduced background details as well. There are also small details to admire. The varied cursive writing found in the letters of different people is a nice touch. Beyond that and other period-appropriate props, its underperforming technical polish leaves it behind similar titles.
Fortunately, the sound has received more attention. A quick glance at the list of IMDB players shows that USC Games has attracted some solid players. Oddly enough, I think the worst creative choice here was to choose Emile Hirsch as the leader. Several hours and I’ll never buy a late twenties Thoreau that sounds like a soft-spoken high school student. Michael Sweet’s soundtrack is a basic and enjoyable composition of stringed instruments and flutes playing in a loop. While quite varied (considering the limited environment), the diegetic sounds of this world tend to overlap, as if you were simultaneously dragging between the invisible line triggering the bird and train audio files. Aside from Thoreau’s writing and excerpts from Emerson’s collection of classic books, sound would be his most consistent quality.
The more I get away from Walden, a game the more it reveals how much it lacks compared to the source material. From a consumer perspective, you can pay the same amount for this game ($ 9.99) as the pocket duo Penguin Classic from “Civil Disobedience” & Walden; Plus, you don’t have to wander through a simulated world for hours on end to collect a patchwork of Thoreau’s great epigrams and deeply ingrained values. From its boring gameplay loop to design decisions implicitly contradicting Thoreau’s more important messages, USC Games has crafted a poorly designed adaptation.
TechRaptor reviewed Walden, a game on Xbox Series X with a critically purchased copy. It’s also available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and PC.