The Process Genre in Videogames: Walden, a game pt 1

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Tomorrow marks the 163rd anniversary of the publication of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods. I have decided to celebrate the occasion by resurrecting my old “Process Genre in Videogames” blog post series, turning an eye toward the USC Game Innovation Lab’s recently-released Walden, a game. I ended up having too a bit too much to say about it to fit into a single blog post, so I’ve split up my thoughts across two days.

Just a quick refresher: 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. Today, that means turning to the life and work of everybody’s favorite environmentalist pseudo-hermit, Henry David Thoreau.

The itch.io page for Walden, a game claims that the game is the product of a “very small core team” at the USC Game Innovation Lab working on the project for “the past ten years.” I first became aware of it in November 2011, when Tracy Fullerton sat down and had a wonderful talk with students during a session of the University of Chicago’s New Media Workshop. Back then, Fullerton described the project as a difficult balancing act, balancing the quantitative and systems-heavy “gamey” aspects of games—which are actually right there in Thoreau’s text, making this entire project of adaptation especially tempting—with the need to present nature, and the labor one does when living in it, as a source of unpredictable inspiration, worthy of our respect and wonder.

Ten years is a long time. In her 2011 talk, Fullerton reported finding inspiration for Walden while playing Animal Crossing with her niece. Since 2011, though, we have been in the midst of a glut of “surviving in the woods” games. We’ve seen Miasmata (IonFX, 2012). We’ve seen Don’t Starve (Klei Entertainment, 2013). We’ve seen The Long Dark (Hinterland Studio, 2014–).

And, I think most importantly, we have seen Minecraft (Mojang, 2011).

In fact, I think it’s worth setting aside some time to talk about Minecraft before we get into Walden, as a way of setting the stage. The reasons for this might not be obvious at first, but I hope that, by the end of this next little digression, I will have made my case persuasively.

The Bestand problem

As I mentioned in this series’ inaugural post, depending on where you draw the boundaries around the “process genre” within videogames, the case can be made that it is most popular videogame genre of all time. Its boundaries might be drawn to include both Diner Dash (Gamelab, 2005) and American Truck Simulator (SCS Software, 2016). Both Harvest Moon (Amccus, 1996) and Stardew Valley (ConcernedApe, 2016). And, most monumentally, both FarmVille (Zynga, 2009), and Minecraft.

For a time, back in January, I toyed with the idea of adding a Minecraft entry in the series. It fits many of the attributes of the process genre as laid out by Skvirsky. To enjoy Minecraft, you have to have a rapt fascination with the way humans busy themselves, and produce things. Yes, Minecraft is about “your” labor, rather than the vicarious fascination of watching the labor of others. But you still have to be patient to enjoy it—patient enough to watch hours upon hours of repetitive swinging pickaxe animations. If you can see through the completion of the mining, the cutting of the trees, and the finishing of the construction projects, your reward is the distinct satisfaction that comes with watching a task played out to completion.

So: Minecraft is about labor. Another point of fascination for me, since I first spent time with Minecraft‘s beta, are its ecological politics.

Single-player Minecraft sits somewhere between Walden and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. On the surface, these two literary reference point are obvious bedfellows. Both follow one man, living in isolation in Nature. But scratch their surface, and they point in opposite directions. Walden is a journal of asceticism, of endeavoring to live more simply, more in harmony with the rhythms of the natural world. Crusoe is all about the spirit of industriousness, roughly translated into into the conquest of nature in pursuit of “progress.”

For Thoreau, there is a moral value to living on as little labor as possible, leaving time for other pursuits. An embrace of voluntary poverty is an escape from the ills of commodity fetishism and alienated labor (to borrow terminology from one of his contemporaries). For Defoe, leisure is the handmaiden of the devil. The undertaking of grand projects to transform the natural landscape is a necessity, if one is to escape the evils of idleness.

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Life in the Woods: Renaissance mod for Minecraft

There are ways of playing Minecraft that tip these scales, privileging Thoreau over Defoe. Indeed, there are even tools one can use to enforce this play style. One such tool is the Life in the Woods mod by Phelan, first released in 2014 and subsequently re-released in 2016 as the “Renaissance” edition. The Life in the Woods mod (which is technically a mod pack, combining many smaller pre-existing mods into one thematically-coherent package) explicitly takes its inspiration from Walden, not just in its title, but also in its philosophy. Sporting Thoreau’s famous “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately” quote on its main page, the mod promises to skew Minecraft toward the themes of “simple living, self-sufficiency, creative expression and veganism.”

I have put a fair amount of time into the Life in the Woods mod. My preferred play-style for Minecraft has always favored lean, low-impact development and deference toward (virtual) nature. So the mod—which increases the role of hunger and slows down the process of farming, so as to enforce a more deliberate pace—is in keeping with how I like to play the game, anyway. Life in the Woods, though, still suffers from a typical Minecraft problem, which I am calling the problem of Bestand.

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Life in the Woods: Renaissance

Bestand is Martin Heidegger’s term for the perception of nature encouraged by modern technology. It is usually translated as “standing-reserve,” although I slightly prefer Don Ihde’s less-literal but more on-point translation “resource well.” The Bestand is the conception of natural resources emerging when technology allows us to “unlock” the “energy concealed in nature.” In short, modernity encourages us to understand nature as raw material, waiting around to be used.[i]

As my fellow videogame scholar Daniel Vella has pointed outMinecraft is an unusually pure illustration of this “resource well” conception of nature. “Nature” in Minecraft is constructed entirely from cubes. When you destroy these cubes, they beget resources, which you can store in your inventory. If your inventory chest runs low on planks of birchwood, you can simply go outside, smack a tree, and get some more. The trees, in this way, are literally nothing more than cuboid storage units for resources.

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Life in the Woods: Renaissance

I don’t mean to beat up on Minecraft here, or beat up on Life in the Woods, for retaining these features. This sort of instrumentalist view of nature is everywhere in videogames. Any RPG where you repeatedly kill woodland creatures as a way of grinding for experience points, any side quest that asks you to collect “x” wolf pelts, any crafting system wherein herbs and tree branches are just the means to craft medicines and improve your bow: the logic of the resource well is at work in all of these. It is, however, especially lamentable in the case of Life in the Woods, since the mod otherwise treads so close to the environmentalism and simple living ascetic doctrine of Walden.

Which, of course, raises the question: how does Walden, a game stack up here? Life in the Woods gives us a baseline for what we might expect of an adaptation of Walden into videogame form. How does Fullerton’s project compare?

Cap it off

“The necessities of life for man in this climate may,” Thoreau writes early in Walden, “be distributed under the several heads of Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel; for not till we have secured these are we prepared to entertain the true problems of life with freedom and a prospect of success” (11).[ii] It is an inauspiciously “gamey” introduction to his “experiment”: right from the outset, you can imagine four “meters” that Thoreau is juggling. Thoreau then goes on, over several pages, to offer what he explicitly calls “statistics”: a ledger of the monetary value of everything he brought into the woods, anything he ate or sheltered himself with that he spent money on, rather than making or growing himself. It is almost as if we are moving the budget sliders when setting up a town in Sim City, or doling out SPECIAL points at the outset of a Fallout game.

Walden, a game does not shy away from this. It is, all in all, a fairly “gamey” endeavor. The game does, in fact, prominently feature four meters, for food, shelter, clothing, and fuel, respectively. (It also features one final meter, “inspiration,” which I will explore more fully in tomorrow’s post.)

There are two distinct dangers that come with this: first, that the meters for food, shelter, fuel, etc. will prompt too much of a “resource well” attitude toward nature. Second, that the overall “gaminess” of the endeavor will trivialize the message of Walden, turning the inspiration to be gotten from simple living into a crude process of “leveling up.” Since we just got off of our discussion of Life in the Woods, I am going to start with the “resource well” problem first, and focus on it for today’s post.

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“At a certain season of our life,” Thoreau writes in Walden, “we are accustomed to consider every spot as the possible site of a house” (72). Minecraft is built upon this very impulse. Each horizon brings with it some new feature of the landscape that could be complemented by yet another abode: A jungle treehouse. A glass tower towering above the sands. A fearsome stone fortress flanked by lava flows.

But in architecture, as in all things, Thoreau ultimately advocates for simplicity and voluntary poverty. “[I]f one designs to construct a dwelling-house,” he writes, “it behoves him to exercise a little Yankee shrewdness, lest after all hi find himself in a work-house, a labyrinth without a clew, a museum, an almshouse, a prison, or a splendid mausoleum instead” (25).

This is precisely where Life in the Woods does not go far enough, and where Walden, a game, by comparison, corrects course. However much it wants to be a game about “living as deliberately as Nature,” Life in the Woods is still, inescapably, a game about building. Your can build houses of wood and houses of marble, mansions that literally touch the sky. And even if you don’t do these things (the cabin I settled with, pictured above, is more or less a re-creation of Thoreau’s cabin as represented in Walden, a game), there is still the possibility, ever there in the back of your mind, that you could. The stones and trees that surround you contain within them the means of doing so. This landscape exists to give you something to do.

The way Walden, a game avoids this problem is the same way it avoids most of the problems of Bestand-thinking: it caps its four “necessity meters” quite stringently.

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You do build a house in Walden. In its opening moments, you approach a partially-finished frame, and gradually add walls and a roof to it by undertaking a simple construction minigame. But once your house is completed to Thoreau’s liking, you don’t add onto it, or build additional houses. Every now and then, you need to do upkeep, devote a few more minutes to construction so that the “shelter” meter doesn’t deplete too far. But the game doesn’t offer the pleasures of creating something new, of building a new home whenever a new site catches our fancy. Thoreau is happy with his humble cabin, and the game enforces this happiness, by limiting our building to repair.

Similarly, the ability to create stores of food reserves is quite limited. Although it is possible to purchase some extra storage jars, the game does not reward industriousness for industriousness’ sake. In my first playthrough, I was only able to store up a small amount of my bean crop upon harvest—the rest was sold, or went to waste. Unlike Minecraft, which can encourage a hoarding mindset that transforms large sections of forest into farmland, Walden‘s cap on food saving forces a more immediate, hand-to-mouth relationship to feeding oneself in the woods.

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The purpose of these caps is fairly clear. Don’t get greedyWalden says. Don’t get taken in by labor for the sake of labor. Meet your needs for the day, and spend the rest of it in pursuits to benefit the soul. Thoreau would have hated the wanton industriousness in pursuit of material possessions encouraged by Minecraft. “[M]en labor under a mistake,” he writes, “they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and must will corrupt and thieves break through and steal” (5). Although Thoreau certainly had no love for decadence, he also positioned idleness as a lesser sin than greed. Leisure is the gift offered by life lived deliberately. “The labourer’s day day ends with the going down of the sun, and he is then free to devote himself to his chosen pursuit, independent of his labour,” Thoreau writes. Then, turning to his own self-sustaining lifestyle: “It is not necessary that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brown, unless he sweats easier than I do” (62).

It is a simple move, but an effective one. Yes, berry bushes provide sustenance in Walden, and driftwood provides fuel for your fire. In that way, they are resources that can be exploited. But once those meters have reached their cap, there is no reason to keep picking those berries, or collecting that wood. Thoreau would see no benefit to piling up a mile-high stack of firewood next to his cabin, and so that’s not a possibility in Walden. Instead, you take what little you need, and then get back to enjoying your stroll around the pond.

That’s it for today. Tomorrow, I’ll look at how the game uses its “inspiration” meter, and how it navigates the risk of trivializing the lessons Thoreau learned at Walden.

[i]. Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York, NY: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1977), 16.  For Don Ihde’s translation of Bestand as “resource well,” see Ihde, Technology and the Lifeworld: From Garden to Earth (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990), 120.

[ii]. I’ll be using in-line citations for page numbers of Walden for these two post. Page numbers refer to the Everyman’s Library edition (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992).

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