This story is part of OUTER LIMITS, a Motherboard series about people, technology, and going outside. Let us be your guide.
My first brush with transcendentalism came as an undergraduate in New York City. The text was Emerson's Nature. I don't know when exactly Henry David Thoreau, the author of Walden, read it, but we were both in our 20s. In the essay, Emerson addresses the connection between joy, reason, and time spent in nature, decrying everything else that comes in between. "Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?" he writes. It was a question that I, too, wanted answered.
The problem for me, then, became my proximity to untouched Edens. The parks were mobbed and a ticket upstate was upwards of $30. Minecraft, however—a video game whose low level of graphics allows it to be procedurally generated, or, in other words, endless—was free. My roommate and I spent countless hours exploring low-rez forests, abandoned mineshafts, and lava falls. Two years later I would move to Colorado to hike, fish, and teach outdoor education, but at the time this video game fed my desire for exploration and solitude.
So when I heard of a Walden video game, I couldn't resist.
Walden, the Henry David Thoreau classic, was written 170 years ago, and centers on one character: himself. It lacks any real arch, narrative, or conflict to speak of (outside of some mild, transcendental tax evasion). The work has faced increasing scrutiny over its present-day relevance, empathy, and privilege. Like you, I struggle to think of a text less suited for a videogame adaptation.
Yet, 10 years after its inception, Walden, a game, has arrived, helmed by Tracy Fullerton, director of the USC Game Innovation Lab at University of Southern California. And the game, as it turns out, is wonderful.
Fullerton's Walden simulates Thoreau's experiment living two years on Walden Pond, replete with over 12,000 individually programmed trees, period-appropriate flora, fauna, and star map. It expands upon the original written work and, more specifically so, the location in which it was conceived.
Maybe I went to the actual place on a bad day: a wet, over-crowded afternoon in late spring. Or maybe it's not about the place, but in the thoughts it inspired. But I would much rather visit Fullerton's pond, alive with the quiet beauty of the Hudson River Valley painters, than that real-life lagoon, beset with signs, crowds, and guard rails. Either way, in Walden, a game, Fullerton has created a vision of nature and solitude that provides opportunities for both experiential learning and a startling tranquility.
But can a fabricated vision of nature really bring us closer to nature?
Your experiment begins in summer. The first objective is to collect arrowheads, a narrative device that quickly introduces you to the game's straightforward mechanics. Click on a glowing arrowhead, and the camera pans to a view of the pond, sky, and woods. Cue Thoreau's voiceover (performed by Emile Hirsch) reading selections from the book. The more arrowheads you collect, the more of the text you hear, which in turn appears in your journal. At the end of every day, your journal opens, and you are able to read the passages you have added to what will undoubtedly become your seminal work.
There is no tutorial, and the player learns as they go. You may open your journal at any time, revealing a map of the pond, where you have explored, tasks that need completing, and the road to Concord. Fullerton has placed the town much closer than it was in actuality, one of several liberties taken, including flipping the side of the street Emerson's house is on (an aesthetic decision).
Even the stars, although not so different 170 years later, are true to their bygone positions
In Walden, a game you can wander the woods, eat huckleberries, and find fishing holes. You can head into town and to the post office, where you can accept jobs surveying or collecting specimens from the woods. As with Thoreau, both present the player with the same ethical dilemmas: survey the land and prepare it to be developed, or collect specimens and prepare it to be domesticated.
Whichever you choose, don't forget to make time for quiet contemplation of the natural world, or your inspiration will drop. This, perhaps, is the game's best and most clever mechanic.
The more time you spend analyzing new plants and animals, the more your inspiration grows. The more you walk the path to Concord and listen to the church bells and carriage wheels, the more your inspiration grows. There are stone cairns around the pond, much as there are today, placed at particularly peaceful places. When you stand beside the cairns, Hirsch sighs contemplatively, and the longer you look, listen, and observe, the more the color and music seeps back into your world—and the sunsets, particularly from Emerson's Cliff (a location inaccessible to today's visitors), are pretty spectacular, even on my 11" monitor.
The bird sounds are true to the birds of the mid-nineteenth century Walden. "Not that anyone cares but us," jokes Fullerton. The same goes for the animals and the fish. Even the stars, although not so different 170 years later, are true to their bygone positions, and change with the game's changing seasons. Fullerton and her team recently released free versions for teachers.
There were some elements of the game I did find frustrating. Initially, all I wanted was to chase digital minks and watch sunsets (like you, I'm sure). After several minutes, my food stores ran low. I needed to rest; completing these actions grew monotonous. Yet, as the seasons changed, I rescheduled my days. Depending on what needed my attention, I might choose to wake in my family's home in Concord, or my pond-side cabin. I would immediately fish, or head up to the bean field to see if my plants were ripe. Next, I might mend my clothes, or hammer some nails into my cabin. Then, the day was mine, the whole ten or 12 minutes of it.
You also have the option to aid runaway slaves, or to spend time in town working on your manuscripts. This you accomplish by bringing your work from your parent's home and to the post office.
Yet, what I enjoyed most was the seasons. Each day lasts 15 minutes, with twilight and night taking up the final five. Each season is six days. In summer, the pond is a veritable paradise. However, autumn, just as with my parent's house in Massachusetts, is my favorite. I remember waking one morning in my digital home to find the sky a uniform grey, and a digital rain falling. The sense-memory triggered was shocking. I fished, ("They still bite in the rain," a friend had told me only days before in real life, the two of us fly-fishing along the Arkansas), then set about my routine of collecting food and arrowheads. About an hour later, winter occurred—overnight, as it often does in the Northeast—and I awoke to snow.
And so the days go. The Sun rises, it sets, you eat, mend your clothes, collect The Iliad and other books for Emerson. You avoid paying your taxes and find letters warning you about it on your front stoop. The game is simple, the pleasure's equally so. You do not get attacked by bears. There is no way to judo chop Horace Greeley. The worst thing that happened was, when alerted to my growing fatigue, I hammered nails until I fainted. On awakening, I realized my inspiration had dropped to zero, and my world sapped of color.
I found myself disappointed when, on one night in late spring, the Sun having set, I was alerted to the fact that my experiment would momentarily end. I checked my map and changed direction, hoping that, with my last final moments in the game, I might finish upon Emerson's Cliff. As seems both poetically appropriate and hyperbolic, I did not make it.
"I think there are more of us out there than we know," said Fullerton when we spoke, "who love playing games after working hard all day. It's this choice between super competitive hardcore games and casual games, which are cool. But where's the middle-ground game that is engaging people with ideas, and doesn't require you to have superfast reflexes?"
Having logged many hours of Halo in high school, I offered that as an example. She grinned.
Read more: The People Who Think Outside Is an Immersive Video Game
"Ironically, I was a huge Halo player— Halo 2 especially," she said. "That was my game. I had a clan, we played every night. We had all our own rules, like rocket launchers on Foundation. And even then, what was that mirror map? There was a gully in the middle, and those two—"
"Beaver Creek," I offered, stunned that this person, who only moments ago had been quoting sections of Walden and telling me how she'd bought copies for her entire team so they were clear on its importance, was talking to me about Halo 2 battle maps.
"Beaver Creek!" she said. "My friends and I actually used to hike Beaver Creek."
"You could crawl and sort of get up along the edges of the map," Fullerton continued, "and sometimes we were just done fighting, and we'd hike Beaver Creek. I played with a bunch of friends from college, and we lived in different places, but we'd meet every night—we'd call it 'in the backyard.' If you got a text that said meet in the backyard, it meant meet in Beaver Creek. And when we were tired of playing, we'd just hang out."
Maybe, then, that is the answer. Maybe Walden, a game is for those who do not have access to nature, or solitude, or the quiet and distance Thoreau desired. Maybe it's not all that different from visiting the Hudson River Valley paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and losing yourself in the lush, intricate landscapes of Thomas Cole or Asher Brown Durand.
"I think a lot of these things tie together," Fullerton said, "in this desire to have these more…meditative spaces, that are designed as beautifully as these places where we usually make war."
A year ago I left the mountains and returned to the city, but just the other day, a friend and I took his mom's truck upstate for a day hike. That, to me, is essential. We spend so much time working and resting that it becomes near impossible for most nature-deficient city dwellers to pick up that Zipcar, or buy that train ticket. I'm not suggesting videogames are the solution. But perhaps a love of nature and one for physics engines and computer-generated textures are not so mutually exclusive. Perhaps a simulated natural world can at least be the beginning, or a brief respite, while on our way to discovering that "original relation with the universe."
At least, I'd like to think so.
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