Walden, a game (PS4) - ReviewPaul Broussard , posted on 17 May 2018 / 2,522 Views
Every now and then, a game comes along that I find difficult to review because it’s so different than anything else I’m used to. Such is the case with Walden, a rather quirky title for the PS4 that was previously released on PC last year. Walden is designed as a recreation of Henry David Thoreau’s book by the same name, and attempts to transfer that experience as accurately as possible to a video game. The result is perhaps as good a reminder as any that interactive and non-interactive mediums of storytelling are often kept distinct for a reason.
If you’re not familiar with the book Walden, it is the real life story of Thoreau, who spends two years living in the middle of the woods in an attempt to live more thoroughly. Thoreau largely cuts himself off from most human interaction and convenience in the hopes of gaining a supposedly higher understanding of existence by living simply. To its credit, Walden the video game does about as good a job as would reasonably be possible of taking a book like this and making it an interactive experience. The player is in the middle of the woods and can build shelter, collect food, and take care of other necessities. As time passes, so too do the seasons, which in turn give the player the chance to experience what is essentially a cliff notes version of Thoreau’s stay in the woods.
Unfortunately, the game Walden falls apart as soon as it becomes an experience to be played rather than simply an accurate representation of the book it’s seeking to imitate. Walden is so tedious, so monotonous, and so utterly unenjoyable that I often found myself instinctively checking my phone or laptop out of sheer boredom. The idea of camping in the woods and largely having to fend for yourself while seeking to connect with nature might sound like an exciting prospect in real life. But as a video game, it is quite frankly one of the least interesting experiences I have ever had.
As a gameplay premise, Walden isn’t in a terrible spot. A survival game with limited resources and the need to build shelter and find food isn’t a bad starting point. The biggest problem is that Walden takes every single one of these activities and makes them as dull and unengaging as possible. Virtually every single action taken by the player in the game is accomplished by either a single button press or a single button press and rotating the control stick. From fishing, to chopping wood, to building a home, nearly every survivalist action the player takes is little more than a glorified quick time event. There is nothing fun about going down to the lake to fish every single day with no skill required except the patience for the random number generator to decide when you’ll have enough successful fishing attempts to fill up your food storage. It’s also a bit annoying how little player involvement there is in resource management; one would reasonably think there’s no need to keep firewood stocked in the middle of summer, but the game insists that you do and will automatically take away any firewood you have stored in reserves without any chance for player input.
The other big gameplay feature is the idea of connecting with nature. The area in the woods that the player occupies is filled with various landmarks and animals, and by interacting with them the player can boost an invisible meter that measures how connected with nature they are. Failing to do so causes the environments to become more washed out and grey, and they will stay this way until the player sufficiently reconnects with nature. Exploration itself is significantly hampered by the player having the smallest amount of stamina I can recall in a video game since Link at the beginning of Breath of the Wild. Walden, however, actively compounds this annoyance in two ways. First, the game limits the player to a slow walk when they run out of stamina until they find a spot to rest at, so running can only be done in short bursts. Second, the stamina gauge is not visible, so it’s very easy to accidentally go over the limit and be forced to trudge slowly around. I can’t even say this is done for the sake of realism; Thoreau was only 28 when he wrote Walden, there’s no way he would be this incapable of physical activity.
But the biggest condemnation by far for Walden is that it all feels so pointless, which is kind of ironic for a game attempting to replicate a book about finding meaning in life. Surviving is no challenge at all; it’s just a tedious exercise in repeating the same old quick time events and revisiting the same locations. There’s no reason to really explore beyond the aforementioned color pallette dulling, and given that the graphics aren’t exactly impressive it’s not much of incentive. There’s nothing to find beyond the odd collectible; nothing you can locate by exploring will help you survive better than the tools within short walking distance of your house. Everything in Walden beyond simple survivalist tasks is just meaningless, and once that realization kicks in, the desire to explore just vanishes.
To the game’s credit, there are a few places that can be visited outside of the woods which do help break up the monotony somewhat. The nearby town will occasionally have letters for the player to read, as well as the odd gift or logic challenge from Thoreau’s parents, and there’s a house that Thoreau can visit as well. However, I think it speaks to the sheer mind numbingness of the rest of the experience that receiving the odd letter is probably the most exciting part of the game. There’s just far too little to be found in these areas to make them even a moderately engaging distraction by most video game's standards, let alone one as devoid of content as this.
There are a few other annoyances to be found. The game produces an absurd amount of motion blur while turning, which makes the world look like the player is on a roller coaster every time they switch directions. The same flute and violin sounds are often repeated and become annoying to listen to day in and day out, and the game has a bad habit of playing the same nature sounds over each other, at which point it becomes very obvious that there was only one clip collected for each type of bird chirp or cricket noise.
Simply put, Walden does a good job of being like the book, and a very bad job of being a video game. If you’re absolutely desperate for the opportunity to live like Thoreau did without having to actually doing so, then you might extract some odd sense of enjoyment from this. For everyone else, I can’t recommend it. Read the book if you’re so inclined and save yourself a frustrating experience of tedious quick time events and tiny stamina bars.
This review is based on a copy of Walden, a game for the PS4
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