Not all video games fit our expectations of what video games are or what they are supposed to be. Some bend the rules, even break them, on their quest to surprise us, make us feel something, or free us from a fixed mindset. Bird Alone is one such video game that encourages you to explore not as much what’s on the screen as what’s inside you.

Bird Alone can be best thought of as a simulation—think Tamagotchi pet, but with a more philosophical bent. You’ll name your bird friend (I chose Lotus), feed it oranges, even rub its belly. You’ll also write poetry together, make music, cherish memories, and exchange contemplations of some of life’s biggest questions. There’s enough here to keep you surprised each time you return to say hello, something I found myself often looking forward to. But the thing that sets the game apart is its second half. (Stop right here if you don’t want spoilers.) Your bird friend starts to die, and you are forced to grapple with the truth of impermanence.

As taught by the Buddha, impermanence refers to the truth that everything—physical, mental, and yes, even virtual—is in flux, unreliable, and subject to decay. All the game elements work together to foreground this truth and keep it active in your mind. The first and most crucial hurdle that Bird Alone must clear is getting you to care about a simulated bird friend.

The game is fairly brief, clocking in at around three hours, but it is designed to be savored in bite-sized chunks over days rather than binged. Bird Alone restricts you to playing this way, as the bird informs you it will have new content only once or twice per day. Push notifications let you know when your bird friend has something new to share: “Hey, best friend!! Quick, I want to ask you something!” So while the actual playtime is short, Bird Alone stretches into an experience that lasts weeks, weaving itself into the fabric of your everyday life. And it doesn’t hurt that the game’s colorful art is the perfect home for a feathered friendship: the sounds and music are a delight to hear, and the design includes small joys, like the fact that the game’s sky matches the weather where you live.

Yet beyond any given activity or aesthetic touch, the thing that will keep you coming back to Bird Alone is a real feeling of connection—dare I say friendship—that you will find growing as you play. If you’ve never experienced a virtual friendship before, you may find this element hard to believe. But the game’s excellent writing and masterful use of psychology make for some clear and powerful heartstring tugs. At times it even seemed as though my friend Lotus had had some meditative training in compassion and sympathetic joy. For example, each day it asked me how things were going, providing me with two options for my answer, such as “Always good” and “Not good anymore.” When I reported that things were good, Lotus would exclaim in delight and celebrate my happiness. But when I reported things were not so good, the bird consoled me with statements such as “I’m here with you—the good times are coming.”

Once you’re immersed in the world of Bird Alone, the game switches over to its main project of getting you to notice and accept impermanence. One day Lotus seemed surprised and melancholy to see that life is full of change, even after it had noticed small changes from one day to the next. This left me having to decide whether to join Lotus in its melancholic contemplation of change (“Nothing lasts forever”) or to report instead that “I like the change!!” When I chose the latter, Lotus perked up, so that my own embrace of change appeared to be rewarded by the cheerfulness of my bird friend. The encounter lasted but a minute, underscoring its message. Through encounters like this, Bird Alone transforms the phone or tablet in your hand into a sort of hand mirror, offering you pauses for self-reflection. As your friendship progresses, this gentle inquiry into impermanence deepens, allowing you to view it from different angles. You’ll laugh, commiserate, and yes, even grieve the death of your virtual friend.

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Why, you may ask, would anyone want to play a video game like this? According to the Buddha, noticing and contemplating impermanence is actually an essential part of a fulfilling life. The Buddha considered impermanence to be one of three marks of existence—the others being no-fixed-self and dissatisfaction—that characterize each and every moment of our lives. When we are asleep to impermanence, we are likely to cling to things that won’t remain, causing unnecessary pain and suffering. Learning to stay awake to impermanence takes dedicated time and practice, but ultimately it can offer us more freedom and delight. As the Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah said once while drinking tea, “To me this cup is already broken. Because I know its fate, I can enjoy it fully here and now. And when it’s gone, it’s gone.”

In this way, playing Bird Alone may be seen as an ally on our journey toward accepting and embracing impermanence. Each time you open the game, you’re choosing to lean in—to a fleeting yet touching connection, to reflections on the meaning of life, and to working with many kinds of emotions. Choosing to play Bird Alone is not unlike choosing to sit down and practice meditation. Sometimes you find freshness, connection, and delight, and sometimes you find stuckness, loneliness, and sorrow. Whatever you find, seemingly good or seemingly bad, issues an invitation to appreciate your humanness for what it is. As Lotus often reminded me, everyone has both good and bad days, and difficult moments can serve as inflection points leading toward more genuine connection.

It’s there, in the emotional and existential impact of Bird Alone, that you will either fall in love with this game or decide it’s not for you. I for one don’t think there’s any shame in not wanting topics like loneliness, impermanence, and death to infringe on your playtime. Maybe you simply prefer to keep these topics a bit closer to your meditation cushion. Then again, if you think you might be open to exploring something like this in a video game, Bird Alone—with its unique gameplay, charming aesthetic, and meaningful contemplations— is likely to prove worth your while.

Bird Alone ($2.99), by George Batchelor, is available for download on iOS and Android.

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