Walden, a game Review
Release Date: May 15th, 2018
Developer: USC Games
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PC
It is without a doubt that throughout American history, Henry David Thoreau is one of the most recognizable names in classic novels alongside George Orwell, Mark Twain, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. There have been adaptations of many things throughout the history of art across a vast spectrum of mediums that inspire each other, seeing games turned to film, books turned to film, TV shows lead into comics, among more authentic pieces like biographies and paintings that can be referenced and inspire music, architecture, philosophy, and so much more. All of these complement each other whether the source material intended for it to or not, but one thing you don't see much - certainly not in a mainstream light such as The Witcher - is the adaptation of books into video games. Thoreau's Walden, which dates way back to the 1850s, seems like one of the last things you'd expect to be adapted into a video game, yet the small team at USC Games managed to pull off a decent game that gives the book more depth, serving almost as an education and interactive companion to making Walden a more personal and relatable experience.
Typically when you hear the word "survival" in relation to video games, most minds would immediately lean towards a Horror game or maybe something with perma-death, a roguelike, or along the lines of titles like Don't Starve and The Forest where it is imperative that you eat, build shelter, and hold onto weapons to defend yourself from any evil that may be lurking close by, but for Walden, "survival" is vastly different. You don't really die in the game, so the survival aspect is more so seeing if Thoreau can really survive out in the woods where resources may not be as plentiful as they would be in a more civilized location. You'll be doing the usual survival things you would do in other games like gathering food, such as fish from Walden Pond, wood for fires and maintaining your shanty, tending to a small bean field, and other tasks. There's no repercussion for really ignoring any of this except for losing "inspiration" that will cause you to walk slower, get tired quicker, and just overall become sluggish and fatigued; surviving in Walden more so translates to adapting to a new way of living.
Walden advertises itself as an open world simulation game, but it's really not. The bulk of your time will be spent around Walden Pond, and while it's a fairly big location to walk through and explore (including riding a boat on the pond itself), you won't be seeing much outside of that. There are two more locations you can go to outside of Walden Pond, the town of Concord and Thoreau's close friend Ralph Waldo Emerson's house, but these locations are separate maps and have to be loaded after moving a certain distance outside of the initial map of the Pond, further proving that it's not really open world. Concord isn't too big of a town visually, but it feels super small once you realize you can only walk into two buildings, your parent's home and the post office, and everything else is locked or blocked off. There are signs located on each portion of the map that will indicate where it'll spawn you into next once you pass it, and about ten seconds of walking from entering Concord to the opposite side will have you seeing the whole thing before it teleports you to the next location. There's not much for exploration unfortunately, and even looking at it in terms of depth is a bit of a let down too. Your job to get more inspiration is to basically write in your journal as you look into the environment around you, where basically everything you can see has an entry. From fauna to flora, landmarks to structures and everything in between - this can all be recorded in your journal as you zoom in with R2 or the Circle button to examine life around you. This is essentially the bulk of the game as it's needed to write down your experiences of the day. There is a light narrative that surrounds this by collecting a bunch of arrowheads scattered throughout, which mostly contain brief monologues about the current state of affairs or, if glowing orange, will recall a memory pertaining to the location found.
Normally I'm not one to make a big deal about graphics because I'm a firm believer that gameplay is most important, because no matter how pretty something is to look at, if it's not good, I want nothing to do with it. However, in Walden's case, the graphics aren't particularly pleasing to the eye, and it doesn't help that colors are washed out, and I find this particularly problematic in Walden's case because it puts a heavy emphasis on nature and the beauty of it, meanwhile thanks to low quality textures, stale animations, and poor draw distance (among other technical aspects), I'm left feeling disconnected to the world and wanting to look away rather than immersing myself in the scenery. There's not much gameplay in Walden, and while the sound design is fantastic and truly feels like you're in the middle of the woods (especially with headphones on as you hear the birds chirping, crickets, wind rustling the leaves on trees, etc.), the least that could have been done was making a beautiful environment that's memorable and a pleasure to look at. From the washed out colors I tend to feel a lack of inspiration and wanting to run away back to town instead of being stuck in what looks like the outskirts of Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. The models for some of the townsfolk you run into as well as Emerson don't look very good either. The UI that pops up when conversing with others or purchasing goods in town also leave much to be desired, taking up a big portion of the screen that's displeasing with font that doesn't do it any favors either. It's like this weird mix of Papyrus and Chiller with a hint of Times New Roman that really makes you want to hurry up with whatever prompt it is you have to do and get out. Visuals aside, performance is rock solid at a steady 60fps with very little issue outside of that besides draw distance woes that can cause trees and other foliage to pop in and out at any given moment as the gray fog ahead consumes the distance as a whole, but primarily in the woods.
Walden should be seen first and foremost as an educational piece that does its best to adapt the source material that was never meant to be flexible enough to be translated into the gaming spectrum. It achieves what it's set out to do, and while it won't be for everyone - even those that tend to love walking sims like I do - there is certainly a sense of appreciation that comes from seeing games like this. It sheds new light on a potentially forgotten pastime or moment in history while we consume more and more information on a daily basis with only so much capacity for it that our brains can handle. I will say, however, that asking almost $20 USD for a short, albeit educational experience with a very small demographic of players that this could connect with is a bit steep. I'm no literary professor and I've never been one for the "classics" like Homer's The Odyssey or Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, but I love different interpretations of art and keep an open mind with most genres and mediums I jump into. That being said, I can see Walden being rather appealing anywhere between $7.99 - $12.99, giving a lower cost of entry for an interesting amalgam of genres that can make for a profound and somewhat memorable experience.
It's rather amazing to see a book like Walden become something playable, and it is without a doubt that USC Games' efforts should be commended. It's an intriguing experience if you're a fan or have read Thoreau's original work, but there is this constant need to remind yourself that you're playing something that wasn't intended to be interpreted as such. It can get rather tedious and boring at times doing the same thing over and over again for days, weeks, and literal seasons on end, and add slow walking and the lack of fast travel to it and simple gaming mechanics like this that are absent oddly make Walden feel dated, but from the perspective of real life and experiencing a moment in time in which a very real person underwent these very real moments, it opens your mind as we live in the modern age to see how things may have been for Thoreau in the 1800s, and Walden does so in a way that respects the original work and, as previously stated, can serve as a companion to those studying literary history, Thoreau, or simply reading the book itself. Walden serves as an educational piece rather than something intended to be more traditional in the gaming landscape.
- Serene music that helps give a sense of tranquility as you make your way through the seasons and live life out in the woods
- The heavy collecting aspect of its gameplay acquiring all the arrows as well as materials to ensure survival can be rather enjoyable
- A unique view on an American classic that helps see life through Thoreau's eyes
- It advertises itself as an open world game but it's really just a gigantic lake and a small town in which you have access to a few buildings and that's it.
- Not much changes between the seasons outside of aesthetic, leaving you to rinse and repeat the usual "make sure you're stocked up on food and maybe tend to the bean field if you want" gameplay
- Some of the controls are questionable, feeling rather uncomfortable at times
- A rather short experience that can feel tedious and uneventful
A big thank you to USC Games for giving us the opportunity to review Walden, a game for Playstation 4