Tracy Fullerton is an American game designer and Associate Professor at the University of Southern California, where she’s currently working on a role-playing video game based on Henry David Thoreau’s essay-cycle Walden. Here’s what we asked her:
When did you first read Walden or Life in the Woods?
TF: I first read Walden when I was a teenager. My father’s family is from the Boston area and we visited there during the summers. My aunt and uncle live on a pond, not Walden, but nearby. I remember floating around in their rowboat and reading Walden and a bunch of other classics one summer. I think I read [Nathaniel Hawthorn’s] The House of the Seven Gables and took a failed stab at Moby Dick that same year. The things that struck me when I was a kid were the “exciting parts” like the war of the ants. I read it again in college and of course at that time I was more intrigued by his critique of society, because I was pretty critical of society myself. And then reading it again as an adult, I was amazed at how perfectly topical it is, over 150 years later. He is describing a moment when the pace of living is accelerating so quickly that people are being swept away by it. He calls the phenomenon “railroad time,” but today, we are caught up in “Internet time” and experiencing many of the same challenges to finding balance in our lives.
How did you come up with the idea of a video game based on Walden?
TF: This game is something I thought of making about 10 years ago when I was visiting Walden Pond and re-reading the book. I only jotted down some ideas back then, but I kept it in mind over the years. I then wound up working on several experimental games, such as Cloud and The Night Journey, and this brought me back to this thought about a game in which you could play out Thoreau’s experiment in living. The way he writes about his ideas, the choices he made, that we all make and their effects on the quality of our lives seemed an interesting and topical basis for a game. I think a lot of people can relate to the fact that Thoreau was writing at a time when life seemed to be getting more and more complex, to move faster and faster. We’re also living at a time when the speed of communication and technologies seem to be making our lives more and more complex. It would be great if everyone could take some time to conduct an experiment like Thoreau’s, but that isn’t likely for most of us. So this game is an experiment itself, one I hope will challenge the audience and awaken ideas in them about the balance of our lives and the way our choices determine our experience of the world.
The game allows the player to take Thoreau’s perspective and do the things he did: collect berries, fish in the pond, walk around and observe the seasonally changing nature. This obviously isn’t a jump ’n’ run game. What is the game about?
TF: The game starts, as does the book, with the building of the cabin and the understanding of the “economy” of the experiment. It takes place in both the woods and in a section of Concord. The player takes on the task of fulfilling the basic needs of life that Thoreau discusses — food, fuel, shelter and clothing — and balances those tasks with seeking out the more ephemeral experiences that make up much of the book — sounds, solitude, visitors, reading, etc. The game, like the book, will progress through the seasons of the first year, in a loose tutorial that introduces many of the memorable sections of the narrative, including the bean field and, of course, the pond itself. In the book, Thoreau tells us that the second year was much like the first, and skips to his return to civilized life, while the game will allow players to keep going as long as they like in the open world. The player will be able to explore a significant area around the Pond, as well as going into Concord for supplies and such. The focus of the game is on the individual’s relationship to nature and so a key tension will be in keeping a balance between maintaining your basic needs and seeking out those more evocative experiences that we know are there if we explore the woods. Your relationship to nature is signified in the game by a changing lushness of the environment and the richness of the potential experiences you can find, so in that way, you have a strong influence on the game world, but this is really a reflection of how you are playing the experiment.
Video games began as a genre for children and teenagers and are now not only a common form of entertainment for adults but also a popular new medium of visual art. The Night Journey, one of your previous projects, is the result of a collaboration with American video artist Bill Viola. It’s a game about the odyssey of an individual searching for enlightenment and it shares a number of characteristics with your current Walden project: the first person perspective and the importance of literary sources – on your website you name Rumi, the 13th century Islamic poet and mystic; Ryokan, the 18th century Zen Buddhist poet and Shankara, the 8th century Hindu mystic. How important is literature for your work?
TF: I am definitely influenced by literature, no question. But I would say I’m equally influenced by other media – film, photography, music and games – and by personal experience. Some of the inspiration for this project has come from sources as disparate as early Autochrome photography and painterly romanticism, or games such as The Oregon Trail and Animal Crossing. And some of the inspiration has come from my own memories of visiting the pond and neighboring areas. I tend to look for inspiration for my games in odd places because I’m not interested in re-making experiences that have already been proven. One of the areas I am interested is defining a genre of “reflective” games based in serious yet evocative play. For many reasons, Thoreau’s work seemed like an excellent starting point for this kind of play, in which reflection and insight will be an important part in the player’s experience.
What are the advantages of transferring a literary experience to a new medium?
TF: Any act of translation requires a multitude of judgment calls. The game touches on many of the key moments of Thoreau’s text, but just as many are left out. And of course, the experience takes on new rhythms and a different feeling in the videogame form. I don’t know if there are really advantages to one form over another, but it has certainly been an interesting creative process to translate this piece of literature to a new medium. In the beginning, we all read the book and we each had our own favorite passages and things that popped out at us as things that should be in the game. So, in many ways, it is a testament to all of our different minds interpreting the original text. And, of course, we’ve also looked at a lot of other period material and references. Just deciding which trees and animals to put in our forest took several readings of the text! In the end, we decided to focus on those that Thoreau mentions the most, because those are the ones that he seemed to connect with most.
The Night Journey was presented as a part of the exhibition Real Virtuality at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City – is this also a setting where you see people playing Walden or do you strive for a more commercial form of distribution?
I hope that Walden will find its place in a number of settings, both at home and in exhibits. The Night Journey was always intended to be played in an exhibit situation, but with Walden, the experience is longer than could be finished in that kind of setting. I could see people beginning the game at an exhibit, but then wanting to take it home to finish out the full “year” of play.
In wide parts of Europe an experiment like Thoreau’s today wouldn’t be possible anymore because the bits of nature left between two cities are simply too small. Did you have a sense of historicity when you designed the game in so far that it confronts us with a 19th century nature, long gone now?
That’s an interesting question, as the Pond itself has been preserved, much more than the area around it at least. So, ironically, we’re recreating a place that still exists. And, even in Thoreau’s time, he wasn’t going off into the “wild,” rather, he was close enough to walk to town and did so several times a week. He wasn’t conducting an experiment in survival, but really one of focus and intentional simplicity in life. Much of the book is a critique of society as seen through the lens of one sitting just out of sight of it, close enough to hear its sounds and clatter, and even to benefit by its closeness, but far enough away to have some perspective on it. It isn’t a book about a pastoral kind of nature that is long gone, but rather about finding that perspective in our lives through simplicity and balance. I believe that potential has not escaped us even in today’s world.
Thoreau was a politically active writer. He has been often criticized for being too ambiguous and contradictory in Walden. Yet the openness of the text makes it appealing for a lot of people – Walden has been appreciated by Republicans (for the idea of self-determination) and left-wing American counterculture (for its counterdraft of a life less capitalist and more closely related to nature) likewise. Do you see your game as political in any way? Concerning an ecological consciousness, for example?
The game is not making a binary political statement, if that is what you’re asking. It doesn’t take a stance on capitalism or ecological sustainability, for example. But Thoreau’s words can, as you say, be interpreted politically, and his words are a large part of the game experience. So, you can find some of those themes there. For example, we include his brief moment in jail for refusing to pay a tax, and his musings on government and the response of citizens to government, in that instance. The game focuses on a particular set of themes from Walden, however, which are more about the quality of one’s life in regards to how one lives it.
You got a 40.000 $ funding by the National Endowment for the Arts. Was it hard to convince them of the necessity of a video game based on Walden?
Strangely, no. In fact, the NEA has been extremely supportive of the game from the outset. I think that once you think about Thoreau’s book as the description of a system of living, one that he “played” at himself, it becomes less strange to think of translating the book into a game.
When are we able to play it?
We are looking to have a festival build of the first season mid-summer, and a full release mid 2015.
The team working on Walden includes Tracy Fullerton, Todd Furmanski, Luke Peterson, Logan Ver Hoef , Alex Matthew, Michael Sweet, Kurosh ValaNejad, Shaun Kim, Dan Wilson, and Kyla Gorman.