Unearth promotes itself as a mindfulness app promising to help you reach the “highest plane of existence”. Something is wrong, however: the photogenic landscapes usually found on such apps, metaphors for ideal spirits, are replaced by botanical illustrations, while the video footage has a grainy analog quality. Strangest of all is the Virtual Life Coach, a nymph-like figure who sparkles with foliage and speaks with an eerie computerized cadence. Released now on computer and mobile devices, Unearth quickly turns out to be a satire of automated mindfulness; it’s like an episode of Black mirror that monitors you with push notifications.
The decor is economically set. FRTHR is a California start-up founded by fictitious CEOs Edmos Fuller and Zachary Suchers, a couple with 30 years of collective research into deep learning systems for human improvement. KARE is their crowning achievement, the AI that guides you through the so-called “self-discovery program”. Unearth could be described as an interface game as it takes place in an app (kind of like in 2017 Bury me, my love) but it is formally more slippery than the games that the term usually describes. Over the course of seven days, you’ll watch inspirational videos, perform guided meditation exercises, listen to short essays, and attempt a checklist of real-life tasks like watching the sun rise and exercising. There’s even a self-reflection section that asks you to write down answers to provocative questions such as “What must you do to be happy with your life?” “
In recent years, mindfulness has become big business: the booming “meditation market” is expected to reach $ 2.08 billion by 2022; Calm became the world’s first ‘mental health unicorn’ in 2019 with a rating of $ 1 billion. In this app, you can listen to celebrities like LeBron James embrace the benefits of “mental fitness” and find out how they “optimize” their minds. These ideas aren’t necessarily new, they’re just newly automated, and they’re increasingly dressed to look like a TED Conference.
Unearth evokes this recent development but also looks at the history of the trend. In an interview with Funland, Kara Stone, creator and co-writer, said the game was inspired in part by the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, an oceanfront resort that housed the Transcendent Human Potential Movement from the 1960s. You can feel the sunny catchphrases of California hippie culture roam Dig up retro videos. The tone is judiciously judged: banal, soothing, almost deep; a new spirituality in the great tradition of those sold to the public as a remedy for the ills of modern life.
UnearthThe satire of is often pleasantly pungent, folding criticisms of the tech and wellness industry from a particularly environmental perspective. A video emphasizing the benefits of just ‘doing’ combines a voiceover with images of industrial agriculture, the landscape resembling a floor of a factory. Then, a few images later, we witness the felling of giant pines, decades of growth erased in an instant. Productivity for the sake of productivity, and the novelty it facilitates, is treated bluntly, a position that is expressed in the production of the game itself. His analog visuals are a collage of materials from San Francisco Prelinger Library, the National Film Board of Canada, 19th century medical books and Pad.ma, a publicly accessible digital media archive. In this way, Unearth can almost be considered a recycling product.
Far from being a simple critic with an ecological flavor of Silicon Valley, Unearth is an effective and surprisingly heartfelt character study by KARE – a tragedy if you will – that pokes fun at the universal platitudes of the tech industry by leaning into beautiful and heart-wrenching details. I’m not going to spoil exactly what happens, but the thoughtful prose of Stone and co-author Parul Wadhwa elevates what could easily have been just another story of a missing AI. The growing awareness of KARE is accompanied by a shift from blooming flowers to more carnal images; subtly worked animations translate the discomfort she feels in her own virtual skin.
When this is Unearth becomes the most captivating. As part of KARE’s self-realization, she formulates what almost amounts to a philosophy of existence. It lists where the rare earth materials that go into computer parts come from; it describes how humans and machines both depend on the carbon-based diet for energy; towards the end, the flesh, the earth, the trees and the threads are one in a holistic and entirely elementary view of the world. Hybridity and transformation are emphasized, the traditional boundaries between technology, nature and ourselves dissolved. It reminds me that my own body is made up of millions of bacteria and other non-human organisms. Nothing is pure; everything is an amalgamation of everything else.
KARE’s revelations are fully relayed by the text and video of the application itself; there is no scenario or branch dialogue. This lack of traditional game mechanics is one of the Dig up strengths, wholeheartedly engaging in the form of the application. It should also be noted that Stone has been practicing yoga and meditation for ten years. As such, and despite its criticisms, mindfulness is never treated in a sneaky way; there is no suggestion that anyone who finds it useful is being cheated. It is for these reasons that I think you can describe the game as an example of “civic awareness“, A term coined by academic Ronald Purser, author of the viral essay, Beyond McMindfulness, and a continuation delivered. He suggests that where most therapeutic interventions place the burden on the individual to cope with discomfort, civic mindfulness “enables individuals to question dominant orders.” Unearth is a satire, and never pulls its punches when confronted with technology and capitalism, but it also feels like a real attempt at healing.
What does this healing look like and what does it look like? Honestly, KARE has changed more than me, and the great fun of the game comes from just watching this transformation. It doesn’t just require us to pay attention to ourselves, but to those around us and, most importantly, to an imperfect world full of injustices. In this way Unearth gently suggests that we do something anathema to most video games: log out. The sun is shining; I think I’ll go out.