Monday, May 14, 2012

The other Walden, the Videogame

Savvy reader Adam points out that Walden, A Game is not the first attempt at a Thoreau video game and directs us toward Transcend, a no-budget app game by Chris DeLeon (who calls it a "notgame," which is evidently now the video game counterpart to the ten-minute student art film). Not that you're necessarily going to like this any more, but this did affect me in interesting ways, writes Adam, and just like that I became obliged to investigate Transcend.

The "game" is simple: using the touchscreen, you guide your character (represented by the letter "A") along a procession of screens representing such diverse, immersive environments as "field rendered in ASCII characters," "underground path rendered in ASCII characters," and "cave rendered in ASCII characters." Along the way you encounter three companions (each represented by a different letter of the alphabet) who blurt out a greeting, follow you around a while, and then peace out when you reach the beginning of the next "level."

Transcend is an inane, clunky, sub-bush league game that's no fun to play and can be completed in less than fifteen minutes if you're able to blunder your way through the more arduous screens. But the whole thing basically exists to feed you Walden quotes (which appear onscreen as a deliberate voice reads them out loud) whenever you cross from one screen to the next:

Our life is frittered away by detail.

“Is not this railroad which we have built a good thing?” Yes, I answer, comparatively good, that is, you might have done worse; but I wish, as you are brothers of mine, that you could have spent your time better.

Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at.

Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.

I know of no more encouraging fact than the ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.

In the long run, men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, they had better aim at something high.

I am eager to believe that DeLeon is the most brilliant troll to haunt the "art game" scene, but his website and all the text in Transcend that wasn't extracted right from Walden suggest he might have acted with the same oblivious, totally unironic earnestness as the academics working on Walden, A Game. But either way, he's managed to design and put up for distribution on the App Store a game that actually berates you (though indirectly) for wasting your time on it while you're playing it. Adam writes:

It made me angry. I played it on an iPad I'd just gotten as a gift, and it made me hate myself for using the thing, angry about my job, etc.

I never used it again after that, quit my job the next week, and gave away the iPad a few weeks later. And some time thereafter actually picked up Walden at the library.

This is a Walden game I can support (even though I'd never play it again or actually recommend it be played by anyone else). By trying to render the "world" of Walden as an expansive pseudo-environment where the player is made to spend minutes or hours virtually tending his virtual bean patch, foraging for virtual berries, observing virtual chickadees, and other narcotic Harvest Crossing XI-type activities, Walden, A Game overreaches and becomes something totally contrary to the principles argued for in the very book on which it is based. Transcend, on the other hand, is a piece of shit game designed for an inessential electronic toy/status symbol that repeatedly tells you that you'd be better off doing more worthwhile things with your time. If Thoreau were sufficiently alive to appreciate the irony (whether intentional or no), I think he'd be positively tickled.

Well played, Mr. DeLeon! (Or notplayed, as it were?!)

(Before anyone asks, my own relationship with video games remains complicated. That might be a talk for another time, though.)

No comments:

Post a Comment