The Process Genre in Videogames: Walden, a game pt 2

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Today marks the 163rd anniversary of the publication of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods. I am celebrating the occasion by resurrecting my old “Process Genre in Videogames” blog post series, and turning an eye toward the USC Game Innovation Lab’s recently-released Walden, a game, across two posts.

In this series, I borrow the term process genre from Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky’s work in cinema studies. According to Skvirsky’s definition, “process genre” films are films about labor, films that focus on processes of doing and making, that are fascinated with seeing tasks through to their completion. They are deliberately paced, meditative, and often political. In this series of posts (you can see them all here), I examine games that strike some of the same chords.

Yesterday, I compared and contrasted Walden with Minecraft, including a consideration of the Life in the Woods: Renaissance mod pack, which heightens Minecraft‘s Thoreauvian aspects. Of central concern was each game’s treatment of the natural world as a collection of resources. Today, I turn to the matter of “inspiration,” and how Walden, a game transforms enlightened, deliberate living into a game.

Mission Passed. Inspiration+

I ended yesterday talking about the central mechanical importance of Walden‘s strict capping of its “food,” “shelter,” “clothing,” and “fuel” meters. In forbidding maximalist hoarding, I wrote, the game insists that you “take what little you need, and then get back to enjoying your stroll around the pond.”

What is is that you actually do, as you stroll around the pond? Once you have met the stringently ascetic means of perpetuating Thoreau’s existence, what more is there? What sort of activities do you bide your time with?

Well, mostly, you collect arrowheads.

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The soft glow of an arrowhead on the ground at twilight, when inspiration is high.

It sounds goofy, I know. And, to tell the truth, I wasn’t sold on it at first, either. But I walked away being quite impressed by its implementation.

Each time you collect an arrowhead, you are rewarded by a snippet of the text from Walden. This is spoken as voice-over on the soundtrack (Thoreau is voiced by Emile Hirsch, in a vocal performance I am quite fond of for reasons I’ll get into below), written as text on the screen itself (as can be seen in many of my screenshots), and added as text in your in-game notebook, as if you are witnessing Thoreau’s collection of thoughts for an early draft of the essay.

These appearance of these arrowheads depends partly on location, partly on the weather (the game is broken into distinct seasonal phases, each with their own weather patterns), and partly on the time of day. Upon a change in season, they are usually plentiful, at least in the areas clustered around Thoreau’s cabin and his family house in Concord. As the season goes on, though, the “low hanging fruit” arrowheads begin to disappear. This is where the game’s “inspiration” meter kicks in.

The functioning of the game’s “inspiration” meter is obfuscated in some of its particulars, but some broad rules can be laid out. It is generally easier to feed when food, shelter, clothing, and food are in decent shape. It fills more easily if you’re not over-exerting yourself. (If you spend too long on carpentry tasks without taking a break, for instance, you will become exhausted, and your meter will deplete.) There are certain places on the map where it will fill more quickly than other places: for instance, if you stop and meditate at one of the stone cairns around Walden pond, or listen to the activities in Concord when perched at the edges of the forest. Finally, in a concession to “pure gaminess,” the game offers up honest-to-goodness sidequests, such as collecting books that Ralph Waldo Emerson has randomly left out in the surrounding areas. Doing these will add a burst of inspiration to your meter, much as completing a quest in a BioWare RPG will award XP, or completing a job in a Grand Theft Auto game will give you some cash and/or respect.

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Once Thoreau’s inspiration is high, new arrowheads begin to show up, ones that were inaccessible when the meter was lower. Arrowheads become easy to locate, as well. They give off a pulsing tone, allowing you to track them through audio cues, and they also have a throbbing glow visual effect pasted on. I found this audiovisual enhancement to be quite pleasing: it endowed the search for arrowheads with the same relaxing satisfaction as collecting glowing blue geegaws in Xenoblade Chronicles (Monolith Soft, 2010) or Xenoblade Chronicles X (Monolith Soft, 2015).

All of this—the feeding of meters, the collect-o-thon—is all very indisputably gamey. This is quite obviously what Fullerton wanted. Fullerton could have easily made something that followed the lines of The Chinese Room’s house style, mixing a simple virtual walk around the pond with occasional triggered bursts of voice-over narration. But she didn’t go that route. She wanted systems of challenge and reward in there.

The question is: does making Walden be this gamey trivialize the lessons Thoreau learned at Walden?

Personally, I don’t think it does. I don’t think that traditional game mechanics inherently trivialize their subject matter. I think the risk of trivialization principally arises when these mechanics themselves can be gamed, when the systems in play have an obvious optimal strategy, allowing players to perversely short-circuit the game in an attempt to get the maximum benefit for the minimum amount of labor.

And Walden uses one really good strategy to inoculate itself against such system-gaming: it balances transparency in some areas of its systems (i.e., the relatively clear rewards for sidequests) with just the right amount of opacity in others. There are two factors I particularly want to isolate here.

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“He appeared to know nothing of things in general”

In late fall, I began to notice that there were quite a few arrowheads to be found when tilling the soil and weeding Thoreau’s bean patch at high inspiration levels. This made sense. The quotes prompted by the arrowheads usually comment on some aspect of the immediate surrounding vicinity, when possible. There is rather a lot of the discussion of the bean-field in Walden. Thoreau liked to talk about his beans. He devoted an entire chapter to them. A wide selection of quotes about the bean-field in the book translates into a large number of arrowheads to be found when working said field. Other places of high arrowhead concentration—Thoreau’s cabin, his family’s house in Concord, the perimeter of the Pond itself—bore out this same pattern.

It struck me, momentarily, that one who is intimately familiar with the text of Walden might be able to game this system, as they would know all the best places to hunt for arrowheads. “Ooh, I remember that he talks a lot about the railroad in winter! Off to the tracks!” But then, just as quickly, I asked myself why anyone would ever want to do that.

Most games based around collecting are based around numbers. It is hard to escape a constant awareness of how much of a percentage of each different category of stuff you have collected. Since I already mentioned Xenoblade Chronicles X, here’s a map showing how (un)successfully I had collected the stuff dotting its landscape, upon having poured 80 hours into finishing its main story:

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Walden, by contrast, keeps this sort of quantification hidden from us. Obviously, there must be a finite number of passages of Walden that were recorded for the game, and so there must be a finite number of arrowheads that can be collected to gain access to these passages. But there is no part of Walden‘s interface that outright tells you, “You have collected 180 out of 275 passages from Walden,” or whatever. You can see how many pages you have filled out in your journal. (I got up to 99, by the end.) But that’s it. Otherwise, you are deliberately kept in a state of ignorance, denied any yardstick by which to comparatively judge your “progress.”

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The point here is to strip away extrinsic goals, in favor of the intrinsic pleasures of collecting these passages. When talking about the game prior to its release, Fullerton spoke about her wariness of including things like “You saw a squirrel!” achievements popping up. And this wariness is understandable: extrinsic rewards such as these are antithetical to actual engagement with the lessons of Walden. There is no quicker road to trivialization than this sort of lazy gamification.

Walden doesn’t include achievements, and it goes even further by denying us any view of numbers going up. That sort of knowledge would just be another form of extrinsic reward, and the philosophy of the game demands that collecting arrowheads shouldn’t be satisfying because of extrinsic rewards. It should be satisfying because it facilitates the the simple act of wandering around in this virtual mock-up of Walden Pond, across the various seasons. And hearing little portions of Thoreau’s earnest wit is satisfying. If players don’t find these things satisfying in intrinsic terms, they simply won’t collect the arrowheads. And that’s fine. They shouldn’t: it would be beside the point. The game shouldn’t externally motivate behavior, if the player isn’t on the right wavelength to appreciate the intrinsic pleasures of said behavior. (This design philosophy is readily apparent in the game’s tracking of sidequests, presented as a “to do or not to do” list.)

Works and Days

A playthrough of Walden lasts a set amount of time. No matter how good or how bad you are at Walden, it is going to take you around 6–7 hours to play. Its length is fixed. The game takes place over the course of a year; each season it represented by a set number of days; each day is a set length number of minutes of real time.

Unlike the hiding of how many passages there are, this doesn’t really qualify as an instance of opacity. Quite the opposite, in fact: we know the order of the seasons, so we know more or less what to expect of our time with the game. In that sense, it is a form of transparency.

But it is nonetheless a feature that meshes really well with the game’s lack of tallying up of arrowheads/passages collected. We have a limited amount of time, to use as we see fit. Walden Pond is too large to walk the perimeter of each day, and so we can’t stop by every landmark every day. If there are arrowheads out there that are only around at certain times of day in certain seasons, we are not going to have the chance to see them. We cannot do everything while we are here. Some things will remain unseen, and unheard. The best thing we can do is to set our own priorities and goals, to live out this life in the woods in the way we prefer for the given year.

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This time constraint functions similarly to game’s strictly-capped meters. Both send a message: a maximalist approach would be futile. We’re not going to even bother tell you how many Walden passages there are in the game. Believe us, you’re not going to hear all of them. Try to do everything, and you will fail. It is up to you to decide how to spend the time that remains.

Final odds & ends

Overall, I found Walden, a game to be a pleasantly successful experience. Yesterday, I laid out how I think it successfully avoids the Bestand problem, so common to “survival sim” games. Today, I laid out how I think that even its most explicitly “gamey” elements, such as the arrowhead collecting and inspiration meter, are handled with a deft touch that largely avoids trivializing the subject matter. There are a few other miscellaneous things I like about the game, as well, that I just wanted to mention before closing off this two-part appreciation.

I really like how hitting the right mouse button allows you to identify the plant or animal you’re looking at, bringing up a latin name for it, and a short passage from the text of Walden relating to it. This sort of “information view” has been around at least since Metroid Prime (Retro Studios, 2002), and I was struck by what an obvious fit it was to the material, rewarding close observation of flora and fauna in a way that mirrors Thoreau’s own naturalist inclinations. The fact that, here again, we’re not made privy to a “you have seen 37 out of 50 flowers” progress meter reduces the potentially trivializing effects of extrinsic quantification. We examine things if and only if we’re interested in what Thoreau had to say about them, not because we’re chasing some number.

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I also really liked the refusal to idolize Thoreau. By this point, everyone is well aware that Walden is at least a little bit bullshit. (This New Yorker article by Katherine Schulz, although a little too brutishly iconoclastic for my tastes, nevertheless remains a thorough cataloguing of all the various cases to be made against the man and his philosophy.) As any good feminist can tell you, Thoreau’s “experiment” was in part made possible by women who labored for him, unacknowledged, in the wings. Fullerton’s game doesn’t shy away from this in the slightest. If you’re tired of mending your own clothing, you can simply wander into your family home in Concord, and pick up some freshly-laundered clothes your mother has laid out. You can also swipe a pie off of the windowsill, negating your need to collect berries and fish for today, and prompting a mischievous “mmm!” on Thoreau’s part. Keeping up with the scavenger hunts that Thoreau’s sister painstakingly sets up proves you with a steady supply of food, as well.

On this same line, Emile Hirsch’s voice acting as Thoreau is a tremendous asset. Hirsch might have been cast due to his well-known role as Chris McCandless, another famous American ascetic, in Into the Wild (Sean Penn, 2007). But what I like most about his vocal performance is how young he sounds. I don’t know when his lines were recorded in the game’s protracted ten-year development, but whatever his age when he actually spoke the lines, Hirsch never lets you forget that Thoreau was between the ages of 28 and 29 when he undertook his experiment. Casting someone with a generic “aged wise man” voice would have added gravitas to Thoreau’s words, but that’s not what was needed: I think it is best to remind us that these were the thoughts of a young man, just a few years out of Harvard, still intoxicated by the righteousness of youth. There is a deflationary aspect of this that I really quite like. In his conversations with Emerson (which we hear over and over again, due to their centrality in the book fetch quests), Hirsch makes Thoreau sound downright dopey. I think it provides a good counterbalance to the preachiness of the text itself.

All in all, I’d say that those ten years of development were well-spent. Kudos to Fullerton and her team for a fascinating game.

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