Walden: How Walking Sims unlock uniquely profound experiences

Games are fun by allowing people to experience and learn in a safe and controlled environment. Walden, a game operates no differently, immersing players in a world where they can experience Thoreau’s experiment and derive learnings that extend beyond the simulation itself.

Game still from Walden

Walden, a game

Walden, a game is an exploratory open world simulation developed by Tracy Fullerton and the USC Game Innovation Lab. It places the user in the shoes of American philosopher Henry David Thoreau during his experiment in self-reliant living at Walden Pond. The game begins in the summer of 1845 when Thoreau moved to the Pond and built his cabin there.

Gameplay & Fun

Players share the same goals as Thoreau himself: survival through self-reliant living, gaining inspiration through nature’s sounds and sights, and self-discovery through Thoreau’s experiment. The game is anchored by events that loosely follow Thoreau’s first year in the woods, with each season holding its own challenges for survival, inspiration, and learning.

In this way, Walden, a game cradles the careful balance of two types of storytelling: emergent narratives and evocative spaces.

Catching fish in-game, No widgets, powerups, or health bar used…

Evocative Space

Players follow in Thoreau’s footsteps. If not for the game’s utilization of Thoreau’s likeness and our collective mental model of Walden (the book), Walden, a game would be relatively indifferentiable from any other open-world sim. It is by allowing players to enter the space they’ve imagined, as Thoreau saw it, that its most compelling narrative is allowed to shine through.

Emergent Narrative

Though the game could have more closely simulated Walden and the events of Thoreau’s experiment, it foregoes structure at any point that it can. In turn, players allow narrative to take shape through actual gameplay, effectively forcing players to “create their own story” like Thoreau himself. Moreover, the game abandons the trope of man’s body against nature, focusing the experience intimately on the mind against nature. Without the distraction of physical fatigue or real-life sickness, players are forced to wade through repetitive tasks and ponder nature’s imagery getting to the core meaning of Thoreau’s experiment.

Rainbow appearing in-game

Immersion and Meaning

Given the content matter, this strategic combination of evocative space and emergent narrative produces a remarkably immersive space that allows the player to actually embody and experience Walden Pond like Theoreau, confronting the same ideas and thoughts that naturally emerge when enduring repetitive tasks in nature’s images.

The lack of traditional game UI elements, like a health bar or task menu, actually enhances the experience. The lack of tasks or clearly defined goals, a hallmark of the “walking sim” genre is what allows Walden, a game to shine. No other approach to this narrative would have produced a more compelling and immersive experience than what the dynamics of walking sims afford us. Free from distractions, players are urged to confront nature head-on. They must wander, create their own meanings, and practice self-reliant living in order to endure the mental obstacles of such a still and slow-moving reality.

Though Thoreau was no fan of technology, I would argue that Walden, a game is a fantastic simulation that truly allows players to immerse themselves in Thoreau’s learnings through actual experience.

Anchoring in the real-life mental model of Walden Pond

Beyond the Simulation

Games are fun by allowing people to experience and learn in a safe and controlled environment. Walden, a game operates no differently, immersing players in a world where they can experience Thoreau’s experiment and derive learnings that extend beyond the simulation itself.

And indeed, it accomplished its goal. Walden, a game was one of the top purchased games of 2017 on Itch.io, as well as one of the top tipped games on the platform of that year. Press reaction to the game was positive, citing beautiful visuals, a slow pace allowing for reflection, and historical accuracy of the content. It was featured on The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, The Smithsonian Magazine, The Times, USA Today, CNN, Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Slate, Salon and Rolling Stone, among others.

Though “walking simulators” as a genre has been used dismissively in the past, Walden, a game shows us how the genre opens doors to uniquely profound and imaginative experiences.

Play it yourself

Find the game here on itch.io

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The focus of CS 247G is an introduction to theory and practice of the design of games. We make games (digital, paper, or otherwise), do rapid iteration, and run user research studies appropriate to game design with the goal of improving and refining our design instincts.

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Tyler T. Su

Tyler T. Su

Design + Engineering @ Stanford | Incoming Product Designer @ Roblox

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