I am a sucker for virtual pets, I always have been. I’ve had a ton of them, from Tamagotchis to the original Digimon devices, from two-bit up through the modern, technicolor pets that can magically transport out of your device and into your computer. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I picked up Bird Alone, an iOS game about befriending a colorful parrot, but I was delighted to find that it scratched many of the same itches that older generations of virtual pet games have, while also dipping into some light but still useful mindfulness techniques.
The mechanics of Bird Alone are pretty simple; you’ll meet and name your bird, (I creatively named mine Birb) and you’ll check in a couple times a day to chat with your new friend. During this time you’ll give him (or her) belly scratches, nibbles of fresh-picked oranges, make music together, plant a musical garden, compose poetry, and even try your hand at a couple works of art. Unlike your traditional virtual pets, you won’t have to worry about your bird going hungry, and you also won’t have to clean up poop.
Birb is not the fastest thinker, and can’t talk for too long, or for too many times a day. Birb always welcomed my visits, but would not have anything new to say unless a significant amount of time had passed, or he called for my attention. The more time passed, the more the world around him grew. The foliage changed colors, the barren landscape behind the waterfall became a lush garden, custom galleries full of poetry and poorly-scribbled artwork filled up. And slowly, Birb began asking deeper, more profound questions.
Each day Birb would check in, asking how I’m doing, and comparing my answer to my last one. The binary nature of the ‘good’ and ‘not so good’ answers lead to my answering good most of the time, partially out of habit and mostly because saying ‘not good’ felt like nitpicking my day. I remember blinking in a pleased surprise when Birb announced that things always seemed to be going so well for me. Yeah, Birb, you’re right, I have been doing pretty good lately, despite how chaotic everything feels. It was a nice little reminder, and I found myself looking forward to chatting with my bird friend–even if his notifications were often the type to send ice water through my veins. I can’t be the only one who gets a sinking feeling of dread upon reading a message that reads “Hey, got a second?” or “Can we chat?” I found myself so absently enamored with the silly little bird that I actually started asking “Where’s Birb?” when I couldn’t find my phone.
I could not conclude this review while keeping it spoiler free, so it’s time for a warning:
There are spoilers below. Please skip to the summary and score section.
What I did not realize, going into this little game, was that my time with Birb was temporary. One day, Birb started asking leading questions about what happens after we die; another day, he commented that he felt ok when the colors around him changed because he was ready to face change, even if it was scary. I remember sucking in a surprised breath when Birb informed me that he could feel it; this would be his last day. I assumed he was being dramatic, gave him some good belly rubs, and nervously tapped the app open the next morning.
The canopy was empty save for what appeared to be small blobs of energy, rising towards the sky. There was no button to start over. No way to summon Birb back. I quietly closed the app, and opened it again the next day. And then the next day. Finally, just as I was actually starting to accept that Birb, though a digital and completely not-real bird, was really gone, an egg appeared. Birb was gone, the screen informed me, but the memories I had were mine to keep, if I chose to start over with a new friend. I summoned Birb Jr to my phone, and felt a surprising surge of emotion when the title screen produced a new set of words: In loving memory of Birb.
Birb Junior has continued to be a delightful companion, asking me a new set of questions, requesting different drawings, and challenging me to craft new poems. While the broad strokes of our relationship are the same, just as with most relationships, it’s the small things that make him unique, though I will admit that I don’t check in on him as much as I had the original. When I’m feeling stressed, or need a distraction, it’s always a treat to peek my head into the jungle to be greeted by my cheery, often shouting feathered friend.
Bird Alone is simple, it's wholesome, and it's a surprisingly good tool for tracking your mental well being, something that many of us can likely use these days. Part virtual pet, part mental health coach, this simulated friendship can be quite entertaining, and surprisingly deep at times. While certainly not a full length game, it's a delightful distraction that scratches the itch of old school Tamagatchis, swapping out pooping, evolving monsters with a brightly colored, easily excitable bird friend.