Amaru: self-love through gaming with a virtual companion

While scrolling casually through Twitter, I came across a Kickstarter campaign talking about a Amaru: The Self-Care Virtual Pet and was immediately intrigued. Like most Tweeters, I’m an animal-lover, so I clicked.

Amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic, the game company, Six Wing Studios, developed the game in the hopes of helping those with mental health issues like stress, anxiety, and depression by utilizing one of my favorite pastimes: a video game. 

I sat down with the founder and director of Six Wing Studios, Dr. Gabriel Pappalardo and Lexie, dubbed “Amaru Mom,”–for designing him–to learn more!

Trying to get to know someone through a Zoom call can be a struggle, but Dr. Pappalardo was immediately friendly, keeping the conversation casual while telling me how he came to create Amaru. I asked him how he came up with the idea of a virtual pet to encourage personal healthy habits. Dr. Pappalardo recounted that his inspiration for the game stemmed from having lost his brother to suicide, and mental health issues that he personally faced. As an adult, he received a doctorate in psychology, but ran into corporate burnout very quickly when going into the technology field. Instead of taking a break, he turned to yoga to learn about meditation and breathing techniques.

“[….] The challenge I came up with was, ‘Well, I want to create a game that’s gonna support people and their mental well-being, and it’s been about three years researching lots of different ideas for what that game could look like.”

Having been a gamer himself, Gabriel told me about several ideas he had for things like a neuro-feedback headband and making an adventure game, possibly with VR. But having realized it was too pricey for the people he wanted to focus on–children and young adults–he stripped it down until it was something more accessible.

Image obtained from Amaru: The Self-care Virtual Pet Kickstarter campaign

“At the National Alliance for Mental Illness conference, I spoke to everyone who’d talk about mental health. The most commonly heard thing was ‘I want to get improvement on my mental health so that I can help others.’”

After talking with therapists and discovering the difficulty of getting patients to take care of themselves, he was told that “when people have to take care of something else, it makes it so much easier. You check in with your pet, you check in with yourself. …. I think the biggest struggle that people who use self-care as management for mental health is just sticking with the practice.”

With that comparison in mind, I immediately thought of my own dog, Maui, as my emotional support animal with Gabriel agreeing that the concept is very similar.

One of the attractions to the app is Amaru itself; I asked Gabriel and Lexie how they came up with the design.

Gabriel: “Mostly inspired by the character Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon, so I really love that character and really love that series. So that was a big inspiration there. I’m also a big cat person; I like cats a lot, and so Lexie of course brought Amaru to life. We hadn’t settled on a name for a long time.”

He showed me the original Amaru plush with the base design, but voiced how he’s evolved over time. He thinks that future games could rethink the design much like how Legend of Zelda redefines its art style from game to game.

Lexie: “When we were starting out, we were kind of throwing a lot of monster ideas at the wall—like cute monster ideas—and I was just like ‘oh there’s a bush monster, one kinda looks like a Chocobo, this one kinda looks like Toothless the Dragon but more like a cat, and that was one that they really liked, so we focused on that one. And eventually it turned into Amaru.

“You would communicate with Amaru much like you would a house cat; he’s got similar body language and such. If we were going for special abilities, he can fly, he can breathe a little bit of fire, not a lot of fire.”

They described how he has a caracal chirping sound, like echolocation, because Amaru–as a species–tend to live in caves. They also hunt similarly to peregrine falcons by “divebombing” prey.

Image of Amaru walking through various regions of Enso obtained from the Kickstarter.

I asked Dr. Pappalardo  how they came to create the world of Enso and how they included mythologies from across the world. “The reason I bring up Avatar [the Last Airbender] is when I have this story in my head for the Fog of Maya, it’s this giant epic, and we reduced it down to this one location, Lotus Village, and then we reduced it down to Amaru. Then we’re going to scale back up as we grow over time. Everything in this Fog of Maya series, I want to tackle mental health topics from different angles and kind of appealing to different audiences. So with Amaru, we’re sort of targeting sort of a younger demographic, but with kind of the way Avatar aged up into Legend of Korra, we want to be able to build stuff that ages with the players over time. The Avatar inspiration comes in with the elementally-aligned civilizations.” 

Gabriel admitted that he hadn’t seen Avatar previous to working on Amaru, and when describing “the notion of a fire-based civilization, a water-based civilization, an earth-based civilization, everyone was like, ‘Have you seen Avatar?!’” Initially, he drew inspiration from India and other East Asian cultures, but then incorporated Native American culture. “We have an air and thunder-based civilization, water, fire, and earth. And the sort of capital of Enso has been governed by this sort of balance of light and dark which gets thrown into imbalance, and that sets off the major events of the story.”

After discussing the general aspects of the game, Gabriel described how the app helps players learn and maintain healthy personal habits. “So basically what happens in the game is you’re gonna be able to customize a self-care routine that works for you. And so, there are these Goal Gems, and you can get three of them per day, and they brighten what’s called your Aura, and when your Aura gets stronger it dispels this mysterious Fog of Maya that lets you advance the narrative of the game.”

With Goal Gems, you can choose different things you want to do. Examples are a guided breathing exercise, body scans, meditation, and gratitude journaling. These choices are geared towards your needs, as they allow you to utilize a library of options to customize your routine to your needs. For example, breathing exercises help center those experiencing anxiety, while gratitude journaling helps the brain see more positivity for depression relief. 

One stretch goal for the Kickstarter is the Hydration Garden which encourages you to drink more water; when you do, you water a plant in-game that produces fruit to feed to Amaru! There’s also the option to free-write a goal in exchange for a Goal Gem; such goals might include not smoking cigarettes for a day or doing 20 push-ups. Upon completing this goal, the game rewards you with said gem.

Dr. Pappalardo describes the game’s reward system as such: you strengthen your Aura and bond with Amaru, you attain the content of the game faster, such as unlocking additional locations and endgame currency for unlockable items. I was fortunate enough to get a sneak peek at what could be available to players, and–without spoiling anything–they certainly help to develop the world of Enso!

The cycle of meeting Amaru, building your bond to strengthen your Aura and progressing to clear the Fog of Maya, obtained from the Kickstarter.

Worrying about what happens when someone doesn’t reach a goal for the day? “Nothing really! In the first iterations of the game, we actually had a pretty punishing system where if the player didn’t wake up on time, Amaru would get anxious that you didn’t come back on time. And then basically instead of having an emotional support animal, you got this like ‘emotional guilt animal’. And players really didn’t like it, so we’ve translated it.” Now there’s more gentle–and cheeky–corrections such as Amaru raiding your inventory.

Gabriel discusses how forgiveness mechanics are important to making the player not have feelings of devastation or guilt for losing a streak. The maximum streak is only five, a number he feels is not too difficult to obtain and therefore not a devastating loss either. There are also streak-savers and day passes available within the game.

While the ultimate goal was to host a subscription-based app, the team turned to Kickstarter to get it out quicker in light of recent events concerning COVID-19. “I think we are all in need of some coping mechanisms. I’m really keen on making that accessible. Even people who are struggling financially and stuff like that tend to have smartphones these days. And this is getting those coping skills that I mentioned (that I found really late in life) that helped me with my anxiety, my depression… just trying to get it to people earlier so that it can become a practice and just be on people’s minds from a young age so it can develop as a habit going into adulthood.” We also spoke about the benefit of a mobile app as opposed to being offered on other consoles because it can be accessed in a socially distant way.

The primary target group are young people struggling with mental illness, and Gabriel spoke directly with clinicians about how to approach this. “They are completely overwhelmed with the number of requests for support that they’re getting right now […] gamers in general have a tendency to seek escapism and fantasy. This may be a place where they bring skills out of that experience that can help them in their real lives.

“From a physical disability standpoint, I think we have some work to do. The guided meditations for instance… we would need some help to work to caption the instructions and deliver that in a compelling way. We’ve been sensitive to colorblindness; we run colorblindness checks on some of our designs to make sure they don’t blend terribly.”

With the disabled community being disproportionately affected by and having more difficulties stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, building tools for mental health in this community is essential. He also confirmed that captions will be available when the final draft of the app releases to the public, but the test build is only a “proof of concept, but we want to do quite a bit more with it.”

Discussing the long term goals for the series, Gabriel describes, “having additional pets, a much richer and deeper content library of stuff to do. For instance, for Amaru, we’re targeting to have about 20 guided experiences in that, but if we were to do the full [subscription], there would be an entire content library. 

“The other thing we want to do is get our plushies out into the world, so the Kickstarter is getting a test of them now. I would love it if people would go to the store and enter the toy aisle, and Amaru’s got a tag with a download code that’s like you get the stuffie and it also comes with the app.” That being said, the Kickstarter does have a pledge in which you can get an Amaru plush! Lexie sewed the prototype Amaru plush herself and let me see him during the interview!

The last thing I asked Gabriel to explain was what the future of the series could look like, and he painted a broad picture speaking about future apps and more! “Those would both be mobile experiences, but then we would want to break out into console and even some augmented reality experiences. Like I would love it if people would go for a walk and see Amaru, Pokémon Go-style. So we have a lot of places we want to go. And this is sort of the foundation and the starting point for our brand and for our concept.”

Having played Pokémon Go, Masters, and Animal Crossing Pocket Camp myself, I agreed with how exciting these future ideas sounded—he had me laughing when he explained how Amaru would help people better focus on themselves: “I’m a very insidious game designer: I’m actively encouraging people to put away the game and that’s actually why again the subscription type is what makes sense, right?

Guardians of Mental Health praises Fog of Maya series obtained from the Kickstarter.

The Center for Humane Technology is a big inspiration for me and how I do my design. When you actually do an analysis on what apps make people the happiest, it’s actually the ones they spent the least time in because they get in, get the benefit of the app, and then they close it and move on with their lives. Ones that are more extracting your attention and keeping us on screen are the ones that tend to be ad revenue based and micro-transaction-based obviously. […] I’m pretty big on trying to make people happy, so….” and he laughed.

If your interest has been piqued, Amaru: The Self-Care Virtual Pet is available to beta test now on their website, and you can support the game via their Kickstarter which ends on August 20th. The game supports iOS 13 (iPhone 6s and newer) as well as Android 6.0. It is due to be released in full February of 2021.

Edited by Gabrielle Scauso

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