I booted up Walden, a game, on a recent rainy afternoon. I “hiked” from my cabin down to the Walden Pond shoreline, and clicked to “go fishing.” A swipe of the trackpad tossed the line out. I waited, then heard a splash, and a fish bounced into view, flapping halfheartedly. Outside—in the actual, real outside—rain splattered the roof. I sat at my desk, dry and cozy.

Walden is a simulation game, and you play as Henry David Thoreau. You might remember these names from high school: Thoreau was a philosopher and writer from 19th-century Concord, Massachusetts (Concord like the Battle of Lexington and Concord, so as classic New England as it gets, and about 20 minutes from my parents’ house, where I’ve been quarantining since March). He built a cabin beside Walden Pond, and lived there for two years. The game’s goal: to re-of create his time there.

The first time I read about this game, years ago, I laughed. Thoreau’s experiment—living for years in a cabin he’d built in the woods, to “front only the essential facts of life, and see if [he] could not learn what it had to teach”—did not seem digitizable. He lived outside. How could a game, where the player sits in a house and stares at a backlit screen, re-create that?

This year, though, we’ve had to simulate the un-simulatable. I’ve been to Zoom engagement parties and Zoom weddings—even my grandfather’s funeral. I still didn’t think that Thoreau’s experiment could translate to a screen. But I wanted to try it out, to see the specific ways in which the simulation would fall away from Thoreau’s experience.

Walden simulates a range of Thoreau’s activities. You can walk around the pond; repair your clothes; gather firewood, wild fruits, and vegetables; visit your mentor, and fellow writer and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson; pop into town, where your mother may have baked a pie you can steal off the windowsill (really); take a job, like surveying the land; or till your beans. To perform most actions, you left-click, and a disembodied arm slings out and snatches the air in front of whatever you’re grabbing—berries, firewood, pie. There are a few side quests, and a “journal” mechanic to keep track of your accomplishments, but its first page is labeled “To do or not do.” The game doesn’t emphasize hustle; mostly, you’re supposed to just be.

At any moment, a right-click will zoom in on whatever you’re looking at: the night sky, the pond’s surface, a passing rabbit, the dirt or rocks beneath your feet. All of these are nicely and artfully rendered. The game sometimes rewards the choice to look closer with a bit of Thoreau’s writing about whatever you’re looking at: “Rocks—I cannot expect to change the nature of the rocks and trees and beasts,” or “Driftwood—With thinking, we may be beside ourselves in a sane sense. I may be either the driftwood in the stream, or Indra in the sky looking down on it.” These elements are all scrupulously accurate, down to the birdcalls. The game’s creators, the USC Game Innovation Lab—supported by the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, and Sundance, among others—were very attentive to the taxonomy.

Read Thoreau’s writing, though, and an uncomfortable truth surfaces: he would’ve hated this game. In his 1854 book, Walden; or, Life in the Woods, he writes that he didn’t even want people to copy his life in reality: “One young man of my acquaintance told me that he thought he should live as I did…I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account; for, beside that before he has fairly learned it I may have found out another for myself, I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead.” That’s a condemnation of trying to live like Thoreau did, IRL. We don’t know what he’d have said about the game Walden, but I’ve been playing it, reading Walden, the book, and visiting the actual place.

In the book Walden, Thoreau writes scene after scene of his adventures by the pond, each recounted with specificity and delight. I especially love his story about fishing by moonlight.