We’re currently working on a review for Walden, A Game, so I got in touch with USC Games to talk about the game’s development and the port for its PlayStation 4 release.
PS4Blog: Hi! Thank you for joining us this morning. Could you please introduce yourself to our readers and tell them a bit about yourself and your work?
Hi, I’m Tracy Fullerton, a game designer, and professor at USC Games, and I’m most interested in creating experimental games that take on unusual challenges in design, for example, translating Thoreau’s book Walden into an open world game. Before working on Walden, I also worked with the media artist Bill Viola on one of the earliest art games, The Night Journey. That game has been on exhibit all around the world and is also coming to PS4 soon!
As a professor, I also like to challenge my students to create unique games, and those who have come out of my classes have gone on to create console games like Journey, flOw, and Flower (Jenova Chen, Kellee Santiago), as well as mobile games like Threes (Asher Vollmer), and VR studios like Survios (Nate Burba, James Iliff), and many more. I love seeing these kinds of innovations — whether I’m designing them myself or helping others to do so.
PS4B: Walden, a game, is now out on PlayStation 4. How would you describe this particular project?
Walden, a game has been a decade-long labor or love to bring Thoreau’s world and experiment to life. We started with the book, and how he describes the “rules” of his life there, how he lived simply, in nature. The daily tasks he talks about become the core mechanics of the light survival simulation at the core of the game. But he goes on to write about the inspiration he found in the woods and on the edges of society, and so those aspects of the book form the balance of the game — encouraging you to look beyond the simple daily grind of living in the woods to find the small hidden beauties of the woods and pond. Overall, the game is a six-hour experience, going through the first year that Thoreau spent in the woods. At the end of this year-long exploratory narrative, you can leave the woods, or you can choose to stay as long as you like in sandbox mode, living in the woods on your own.
PS4B: What drove you to develop an open interactive experience based on Henry David Thoreau’s book?
I was reading the book one time, while at the pond and thinking about the critiques that Thoreau raises about how we spend so much of our time working and not enough time engaging with the more inspiring aspects of nature and life in general. I thought, more people should read this book, actually, because he is talking to us! At the time he was writing, the technologies that he felt was “speeding up” life were the telegraph and the railroad, but today, we feel the same way about the Internet and digital technologies. It’s important sometimes to take a step back from this pace of life and think about how best we should be spending our time here on Earth. I thought a game that really allows you to take on Thoreau’s experiment would speak to people today who were feeling the same kind of “crunch” in their own lives.
PS4B: How long did it take to adapt the book’s overall message, values, and experience into a video game presentation? Where there any particular challenges or hurdles you had to overcome?
It took us over ten years to adapt the book. We started out reading the book carefully, and trying to extract a system from Thoreau’s discussion of “How I Lived and What I Lived For.” That system became the core mechanics. And then we built a world around those mechanics that would allow players to play as Thoreau would have lived, or against that, to kind of allow them to forge their own way. We also built a series of narrative quest lines that, if followed, will reveal more about his life and times — some of the personal, historical and social challenges that he faced. One of the particularly difficult things about adapting the book is that it is not a classic “hero’s journey” — there is no antagonist, other than nature. But nature is also the “love interest” if you will, the character you are trying to pursue. So, we worked to balance these things in the game.
You start off in summer when life in the woods is easy and romantic — picking berries off of trees for food, living outdoors in an unfinished house, etc. As the seasons progress, it gets more difficult to just find the bare minimum to live, unless you’ve really gotten to know the woods well. You can always go into town and eat at your parents or take a job and buy food at the store — many people criticize Thoreau for doing just this, but they may find themselves in the same situation in the game.
PS4B: How big is the game? On average, how long would it take someone to see everything this open world release has to offer?
The game encompasses about 70 acres of woods surrounding Walden Pond, as well as a small section of Concord, the nearby town where Thoreau’s parents lived, as well as his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson. We have built the narrative of the game to take place over the first year, over 6 hours of play. However, it is not likely that players will find and explore everything in the world in that first play through, so we also allow them to choose to stay on after the year is done, if they like, and complete any of the quests they haven’t gotten to yet. It’s a pretty expansive experience; one of the most ambitious indie games of this type I’m aware of, in terms of content and scope.
PS4B: Once again, thank you for taking the time to do this interview. Is there something else you’d like to add before we go?
Thank you! I’d just like to throw out there that I hope players take a chance on a game like this! It is not a traditional game, with action-packed adventure, but it is an important story, from a rich source, and playing it may give people a sense of peace and reflection during our turbulent times…