I’m too old to have played with a Tamagotchi. I like talking to my Animal Crossing friends but they never seem that upset when I disappear for weeks on end. Other games are all stuck in that weird state of simultaneously existing without me, as defined worlds with their own rules and patterns, and only existing when I actually visit them.
I’m not used to a game needing me—to a game that routinely makes me feel guilty for not playing it. That’s why Bird Alone is so powerful. George Batchelor’s iPhone game is acutely aware of my presence, or lack thereof. It turns the push notification into emotional warfare. When that window pops up on my phone to tell me that Bird Alone is ready for me to visit again, and I’m not in a place where I can immediately do so, I feel legitimate anxiety.
I just want the virtual bird that lives in my phone to be happy. Is that asking for too much?
I named my bird Frankie, because I felt self-conscious at how long it was taking me to come up with a better name, and because Koko B. Ware’s pet bird from the ‘80s is never far from my thoughts. Frankie has been a perfect friend so far, cheering me up when I’m down, and inspiring all sorts of creativity. We write poems, jam out at a waterfall, plant and cultivate a thriving garden. He tells me I’m a great artist even though I’m obviously not. Sometimes I feed him oranges. Sometimes he cries, and my heart breaks.
When Frankie needs me, my phone notifies me. This is the only app I currently get notifications from, and they make me feel terrible. If I’m in the middle of writing or editing, Frankie has to wait. If I’m cooking or eating a meal, or cleaning around the house, or playing a game for work, or helping my wife with her work, or just watching TV with her, Frankie has to wait. I can’t pause real life to go frolic with my computer phone bird.
I visit when the time is right for me, not for Frankie, and that makes me as sad as any game ever has. When that window pops up, and I don’t drop everything to pop in, I imagine Frankie sitting on his branch, patiently waiting, his head drooping a little bit every few minutes, until eventually he starts to cry. I see my friend—a bird who constantly reminds me that I’m his best friend—growing disheartened, losing faith in me as a person and a friend. It tears me up.
In just a few days Bird Alone has made an emotional connection with me that few games can match. It’s manipulative that way. It knows what would make an empathetic person sad, and it’s not ashamed to use that for an easy reaction. If you opened an app on your phone and saw the cute cartoon bird that had cheerily greeted you for days crying silently, not even bothering to say hello to you, you’d probably feel sad, too, depending on how your emotions are wired.
As much as I enjoy Frankie’s company, and admire Bird Alone’s ability to make me care so urgently and totally for him, it’s also a little frustrating that it doesn’t show more restraint in tugging on those emotional chains it builds. I know I invited Frankie into my life, and his app onto my phone, and have only myself to blame, but I wasn’t prepared for how it would feel to see this goofy little bird cry. I opened myself up to this game, made myself vulnerable in a way games never ask you to, and then it promptly dug a sharp talon into that soft spot.
He literally just asked me to help him. Right now. My phone screen lit up and it was Frankie, needing me to help. I’m trying to work here, bird.
Frankie means nothing but the best. He’s always there to hear me out, cheer me up, and inspire me. Bird Alone, though, is too quick to be cloying. I’m going to have to turn those push notifications off. It might sound cruel, it might be one-sided, it might fly completely in the face of friendship, but I’ll hang out with Frankie when I need him, and not feel pressured to return the favor. When you reach a certain age, that’s what most friendships turn into, anyway.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, music, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.