Weary, hungry, and alone in a dark forest in the middle of the night, I lift my lantern to illuminate a half-built shack. It's certainly nothing I haven't done in other games before, but there's nothing spooky about this, even though the image above may look that way. I'm playing Walden, a new entry in the Early Access survival genre, and a game in which you play as essayist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau spent two years in the wilderness around Walden Pond, as he put it, because he "wished to live deliberately." Now, you can too.
Walden is "an open-world narrative exploration title based on Henry David Thoreau’s classic literary work, Walden," and I've been playing it a bit today. There are survival elements: I've gathered berries and gone fishing to stock up my food supplies—though I'm not sure if Thoreau actually dies if you don't feed him. I've completed my half-built cabin by hammering boards together, and also chopped some firewood after borrowing an axe from Ralph Waldo Emerson's house.
Thoreau also gets tired (I passed out after working too hard on my cabin) and regains his energy by resting by the fire or reading in-game books in a secluded spot, which feels about right. Despite his desire for solitude, Thoreau's cabin is only a short walk to the town of Concord where you can buy supplies and tools and visit the post office.
As you might by now suspect, Walden is an educational game. Gathering arrowheads scattered around the map slowly fills in the text of Walden, as Thoreau finds inspiration in his surroundings and begins writing his book. There's also lots of information on wildlife and nature you can glean by zooming in on things with a mouse-click. On my visit to Concord, I discovered I had a large tax bill that needed to be paid, which is accurate (Thoreau was arrested and jailed for not paying six years of taxes).
Walden is currently in Early Access over at itch.io and aiming for a July 2017 release to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Thoreau's birth. Walden's development at USC's Game Innovation Lab was supported by grants from the National Endowment of the Arts and other programs.