I’ve recently become addicted to the self-care virtual pet game Amaru, and it’s sufficiently rare for me to become addicted to an app that I thought I would write up a review, for the benefit of my fellow non-app-users.

Amaru is a virtual pet game with a twist. In addition to feeding and petting your virtual pet, you take care of your pet by taking care of yourself in real life.

Every day, you need to collect three Goal Gems. If you maintain your streak, Amaru will be happy; if you skip your goals for long enough, Amaru will be anxious (and have a heartbreaking scared-Amaru animation). By default, the three goals are feeding Amaru, meditating, and journaling, but you can also change them to goals such as exercising, drinking water, waking up on time, or doing art. (You aren’t allowed to put in your own goals—you have to use the self-care goals the app has—but there’s a pretty reasonable range of possible custom goals.)

Virtual pet games live or die on how cute the virtual pet is, and fortunately Amaru is damn cute:

They put a lot of effort into making Amaru’s animations adorable as hell, and the satisfying reaction when Amaru is happy is pretty much the most motivating aspect of the app.

The biggest problem with the Amaru app is that at this point it’s very much a minimum viable product. There are many planned expansions, but right now it’s pretty much the least you could expect to make it a playable game. This is my reason for writing the review: I would like it to be less of a minimum viable product so I’m hoping to convince other people to use it—in particular, other people who aren’t fifteen like the rest of the fanbase and therefore have money. So my description is going to seem pretty slight, but I’m optimistic that they’ll expand it soon.

The Amaru app has four built-in guided meditations: a body scan; a deep breathing relaxation; a meditation where you focus on the breath; and an odd sort of pseudo-metta meditation thing where you imagine positive energy appearing in yourself and then spreading throughout the world. Each meditation is available in different versions for beginner, intermediate, and expert meditators, and at two or three different lengths. The meditations have music (which you can turn off) and captions for people who are hard of hearing or Deaf. If you have your own preferred meditation app, like doing non-guided meditations, or just want to sit quietly instead of meditating, there is also a meditation timer without guided meditations.

Personally, I’ve had much more success with these meditations than with any previous meditation app: I’ve been repeating each of them more than once a week for months and haven’t gotten bored of them yet. I’m not sure to what extent this is about Amaru and to what extent this is about me. But I do find them consistently relaxing and grounding, and they make me feel better.

There are two journals: a gratitude journal and a burn journal. The gratitude journal asks you to list at least one thing you’re grateful for and why. The burn journal is freeform; when you press the “burn” button, whatever you wrote disappears in a very satisfying burning animation. I’ve generally found the burn journal to be a great way to put intrusive or distracting thoughts or worries on paper and then feel like they’ve been dealt with. I hope they put out more journals soon; perhaps the most serious flaw in the game is that “think about good things in my life” and “rant into the void” don’t even begin to cover the space of ways I want to use private writing to process my feelings.

The burn journal has to be unlocked. As I understand it, it’s the first in a planned series of many unlockable journals and meditations, which haven’t been rolled out because this is a minimum viable product.

When you complete one of your Goals, you get between three and five Gratitude Glints. Each gratitude glint gives you an inspirational message, which range between the genuinely heartwarming (“try again, fail again, fail better”) to the blandly Instagram-y (“remember that you are loved") to the puzzling (“if you feel like you’re drowning, concentrate on the lilypads.” With all due respect, this is terrible advice for drowning people.) You also get a random drop of fake money and maybe food.

I think you get entirely too many Gratitude Glints; it’s just not possible to reflect on eleven different inspirational messages a day, even if you assume that some of them are going to not resonate with any specific person. Instead of feeling inspired, I find myself clicking through them without really reading them to get the random drops. You also get so much money and food through random drops that as far as I can tell you’ll basically never run out of them, which in my opinion makes play less rewarding. You don’t really have to save up for things in the store. (This is just my experience though; some people in the server have managed to run out of food for their Amaru. I have no idea how.)

Once you’ve finished your goals for the day, there are three ways to interact with Amaru. First, you can wake Amaru up and tuck them in at the end of the day, as a reminder to yourself to wake up and go to bed on time, but I don’t use this feature so I can’t comment.

Second, the Explore feature involves sending Amaru out to explore the world. You’re supposed to spend the time Amaru is exploring off screens yourself, although there’s no enforcement mechanism. I guess that it’s probably good that random apps can’t brick your phone but “be off your phone” is 100% something I can’t do on the honor system.

Third, you can play games. The games are pretty fun casual games: there’s a Whack-a-Mole clone, a song memory game, and a game where you try to stack stones. I think the games are a kind of annoying deviation from the overall theme of Amaru, which is self-care and not Whack-a-Mole. It just feels wrong that you can get random drops in the self-care game from something that isn’t self-care! You do want to be able to play with your pet in any virtual pet app but I’d make the games less game-y and more self-care-themed: for example, maybe there could be a “listen to a song you really like” game with an animation of a dancing Amaru? You could even retheme the games that already exist: for example, maybe the flavor text of the Whack-a-Mole clone should say that it’s intended to help distract you when you’re ruminating.

You get in-game money from completing your goals, playing games, and Exploring. Completing your goals drops food; playing games and exploring drop food and random items. In-game money can be exchanged in the store for guided meditations, new locations, and items that cause rarer random items to drop. New locations have different music, different backgrounds, and different random items. The random items don’t do anything, but they’re decorative, and their captions reveal more lore of the world of Amaru.

One of the things I like most about Amaru, compared to other games, is the ways the developers seem to be on your side. Far too many mobile games are trying to hack your motivation system to get you to give them money for an experience you are addicted to but aren’t even really enjoying anymore. Amaru’s developers seem to have put serious thought into making sure that their incentives are aligned with those of the app users.

The most important is that you can’t exchange real-world money for in-game money. You can complete your item collection only by playing the game. There’s no incentive for Amaru’s developers to make in-game money increasingly difficult to get over time, forcing you to spend money on the game in an illegible way once you’re sucked in. All the possible payments are clear and upfront. While much of the game is free, if you like it you can spend $10 in a lump sum to unlock the full game, forever. If you continue to like it, you can spend a few dollars on cosmetic changes like seasonal locations (Halloween, winter) or changing your Amaru’s color; everything non-cosmetic is included in your $10. These are not random like lootboxes; if you spend your four dollars, you get the same seasonal location as everyone else.

There are none of those annoying timers that mean you have to be constantly checking your phone for fear a timer has gone off. In fact, there are no notifications at all! Amaru is available whenever you want it. You do put a cap how much time you spend playing games on the app; the most generous cap is fifteen minutes. Once your time is used up, Amaru is sleepy until tomorrow, in order to encourage you to do something else with your time than play reflavored Whack-a-Mole in order to get more pretty drawings.

I encourage people to check out Amaru if for no other reason than to incentivize mobile game designers to actually make their customers’ lives better rather than worse. If you like virtual pet games and want to be gently encouraged to meditate, Amaru is an excellent choice.

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