Walden is a survival game about doing more than just surviving.
Based on Henry David Thoreau’s famous work of the same name, the game gives players a simple task; survive in the woods for the space of a full year, ranging through 8 levels and 4 seasons. Players finish constructing a cabin to live in, gather food, and perform other daily chores – everything they need to do to survive.
But over time, basic survival starts to become menial. Colors in the game start to become grayer, and tasks start to become a grind. This is where Walden opens up, and encourages its players to occasionally stop and explore – to collect arrowheads, examine plants, and, every once in a while, to simply stand still and admire a sunset or listen to the distant sounds of a civilization.
It’s not just an aesthetic choice – Walden literally tracks how much time you spend observing these phenomenon (self-deemed “wonders”), and makes the world more colorful, lush, and interesting as you encounter them.
Walden has been in development for nearly 7 years, and it served as a centerpiece to Tracy Fullerton’s musings on what game narrative is evolving towards: the potential of games to communicate ever more complex and nuanced ideas.
“It’s a big rock that people keep on trying to push up an ill-defined hill”
To this extent, a recurring theme throughout Fullerton’s talk was the role of narrative in games. In modern games, she explained, narrative is misunderstood and misapplied: a component of interaction that we know is important, but aren’t sure of what to do with it or how to best show it to an audience. ”It’s a big rock that people keep on trying to push up an ill-defined hill.”
“At their core, games are systems of play, ” Tracy remarked, “but for some reason, and I think valid reasons, we also crave for games to be dramatic, narrative, meaningful, and sublime.”
Tracy may have spent a good portion of her early career looking for ways to push narrative forward in games, experimenting with branching storylines, choose-your-own adventure style interactions, and complex, multi-layered stories, but she came away from her explorations with the opinion that, ironically enough, the games’ authors often liked these experiences more than players.
There was an odd disconnect between the academic ideals of the creators and the people actually looking at them, and the narratives being created had an all-too dreamlike quality: they felt engaging in the moment that the player was experiencing them, but fell apart in the light of day, or when re-communicated to other players.
Frustrated, Tracy decided to try tackling the problems of narrative from, as she put it, more “oblique” angles.
When an author tells a story, Tracy explained, the listener may be thinking of different things. He/she might misinterpret what’s actually happening in the story, what its themes are, or come away feeling a disconnect from what the author actually wanted to communicated, even though the author and listener were each given the same information.
Learning to Dance
To solve these disconnects, we evolve memes and genres, which contain composite bundles of information that we can apply to every story we enter. Memes, stereotypes, and our expectations of how they play out allow us to minimize the upfront work required to process complex stories and interactions. For example, all good guys wear white hats, and we instinctively know to root for people wearing white hats.
Games however, haven’t really learned to use these genres effectively. They’re simultaneously stereotypical and arcane or obscure: filled with mechanics and hooks that non-gamers can’t relate to, but also rooted in the most predictable and over-told stories, often lacking any surprise or subtlety outside of their mechanics.
“At their core, games are systems of play.”
Traditionally, games have attacked their reputations of triviality and cliche by attempting to brute force more narrative, exposition, and plot twists into whatever short stay they have with a player. These strategies don’t hit at the roots of the problem though, and yield diminishing returns as we increasingly commit more and more of our resources to them.
To hear Tracy talk about narrative, stories have always been less about the dissemination of abstract information, and more about their tone, themes, and the emotional reactions they draw out of the people that experience them. She describes the relationship between authors and consumers as a literal dance, where “sharing the narrative and interpreting the narrative is in itself a creative act.”
And rather than try to reiterate over the same three dances over and over or to dominate our partner in a vain attempt to control their movements in that dance, we should embrace the collaborative aspects of atypical narrative.
What do you see?
As an example, Tracy hearkened back to the earliest days of development on Cloud, arguably one of the most critically acclaimed games she’s worked on. Originally , the team had an extremely complicated backstory for the main character: an alien who was attempting to wash away pollution from their world.
After taking time off from the story to focus on gameplay and tone though, the team started to notice that the story wasn’t adding much, and indeed was actively in contrast to the simplistic and elegant design and feel to the rest of the game. So they layered the simplest story possible, about a hospital resident imagining themselves floating in the air.
Many of the themes of pollution and nature remained, but they were exposed in more subtle ways, through levels where players washed decay away with rainclouds, and with vast scenic islands.
What the team found was that people started not only empathizing with the character more, but also bringing their own memories into the experience and investing them into the narrative, and they were able to do this because of purposeful gaps and open areas of the game.
Tracy explained that these gaps “promote professional and amateur expansion.” People are able to fill in many details on their own, to flesh out the narrative of the game on their own; and these newly constructed stories are much more personal and empathetic than they otherwise would be.
“If you ask me about my play of Journey, ” Tracy elaborated, “the feeling of that lost civilization and the fact that there was a lost civilization does give me a feeling, but, really, it gives me a tone.”
That freedom, and the concentration on the tone and theme of a story beyond specific details, treats narrative as a framework upon which players build their own experiences. It’s, in Tracy’s eyes, a more respectful, cooperative way to make games.
Tying a story to a specific piece of information, an extra level of complexity that forces the player to interact with the games themes only from a specific angle and via a very specific methodology, gets in the way of all of that. You can risk drowning your audience in an attempt to make sure they “get” every piece of your experience and ignoring the potential cultural and personal gaps between author and consumer.
Again, Tracy emphasizes, this is a dance.
Playing with stories
All of that leads back to Walden, and Tracy’s constant struggle towards games that invoke that elusive sense of sublime. After 7 years of development, Walden still hasn’t been released, but Tracy seems happy with where the game is going.
“Games have the possibility of being lenses that amplify our personal experiences and our narratives.”
“You can trust in your process and your team as long as you stay centered on what attracted you to a difficult idea,” she explains.
Well-trodden stories and arcs like the Hero’s Journey are great, but Tracy’s looking for new ways of approaching narrative in entirely, and she’s convinced that these atypical frameworks will enable creators to steadily get closer and closer to the ‘sublime’ they’re looking to express.
Tracy reflected on a previous experience she had playing Warcraft and visiting a mountain in the game with a friend. While playing the game, she suddenly recollected a previous hiking trip in China, and was surprised to find that both the similar and contrasting elements served to underscore and enhance her memories.
She clarified, “Games have the possibility of being lenses that amplify our personal experiences and our narratives.”
Tracy is adamant that it’s through games that she wants to explore this idea. She’s seen the attitude that art experiences and sublime narratives are separated from games and should be pursued separately, but disagrees.
“I love games and I think they’re one of the most beautiful aesthetic forms we’ve ever created… When a form changes and when it evolves, that doesn’t mean it divorces itself from its really beautiful roots.”