UnearthU introduces itself as a mindfulness app promising to help you achieve the “highest plane of existence.” Something’s off, though: the photogenic landscapes usually found on such apps, metaphors for ideal minds, are swapped for botanical illustrations, while the video footage has a grainy, analogue quality. Strangest of all is the virtual life coach, a nymph-like figure who shimmers with foliage and speaks with an eerie computerized lilt. Out now on PC and mobile devices, UnearthU quickly reveals itself to be a satire of automated mindfulness; it’s like an episode of Black Mirror that checks in on you with push notifications.
The stage is economically set. FRTHR is a California-based start-up founded by fictional CEOs Edmos Fuller and Zachary Suchers, a pair who boast a collective 30 years of research in deep learning systems for human betterment. KARE is their crowning achievement, the AI who guides you through the so-called “self-discovery program.” UnearthU could be described as an interface game because it takes place within an app (not unlike 2017’s Bury Me, My Love) but it’s more formally slippery than games the term usually describes. Over the course of seven days, you’ll watch inspiration videos, complete guided meditation exercises, listen to short essays, and attempt a checklist of real-world tasks like watching the sun rise and exercising. There’s even a self-reflection section which asks you to write responses to provocative questions such as “What do you need to do in order to be satisfied with your life?”
In recent years, mindfulness has become big business: the burgeoning “meditation market” is forecast to reach $2.08 billion by 2022; Calm became the world’s first “mental health unicorn” in 2019 with a valuation of $1 billion. In that app, you can listen to celebrities such as LeBron James espouse the benefits of “mental fitness” and learn about the ways they “optimize” their minds. These ideas aren’t necessarily new, they’re just newly automated, and they’re increasingly dressed up to sound like a TED Talk.
UnearthU evokes this recent development but leans into the history of the trend, too. In an interview with Funland, Kara Stone, creator and co-writer, said the game is partly inspired by Big Sur’s Esalen Institute, an oceanside complex that housed the transcendental Human Potential Movement of the 1960s. You can feel the sunny sloganeering of Californian hippie culture coursing through UnearthU’s retro-feeling videos. The tone is judged astutely—banal, soothing, quasi-profound; a new spirituality in the grand tradition of those sold to the public as a fix for the ills of modern life.
UnearthU’s satire is often pleasingly spiky, folding criticisms of the tech and wellness industry into a notably environmental outlook. One video focusing on the benefits of simply “doing” pairs a voiceover with images of industrial agriculture, the landscape resembling a factory floor. Then, a few frames later, we see the felling of giant pines, decades of growth erased in an instant. Productivity for productivity’s sake, and the newness this facilitates, is treated with short shrift, a position expressed in the production of the game itself. Its analogue visuals are a collage of materials sourced from San Francisco’s Prelinger Library, the National Film Board of Canada, 19th-century medical books, and Pad.ma, a digital media archive available publicly. In this way, UnearthU can almost be considered a product of recycling.
Far from just being an ecologically flavored critique of Silicon Valley, UnearthU is an effective, surprisingly heartfelt character study of KARE—a tragedy if you like—which makes a mockery of the tech industry’s universal platitudes by leaning into beautiful, heartbreaking detail. I won’t spoil exactly what happens but Stone and co-writer Parul Wadhwa’s thoughtful prose elevates what could easily have been just another story of an AI-gone-sentient. KARE’s burgeoning awareness is accompanied by a shift from blooming florals to more carnal imagery; subtly wrought animations convey the discomfort she feels within her own virtual skin.
This is when UnearthU becomes most captivating. As part of KARE’s own self-realization, she formulates what amounts to nearly a philosophy of existence. She lists where the rare earth materials that go into computer parts originate from; she outlines the way humans and machines both rely on the carbon-based diet for energy; towards the end, flesh, soil, trees, and wires become one in a holistic, wholly elemental view of the world. Hybridity and transformation are emphasized, the traditional boundaries between tech, nature, and ourselves dissolved. It reminds me that my own body is composed of millions of bacteria and other non-human organisms. Nothing is pure; everything is an amalgamation of everything else.
KARE’s revelations are relayed entirely through the text and video of the app itself; there’s no branching storyline or dialogue. This lack of traditional game mechanics is one of UnearthU’s strengths, committing it wholeheartedly to app form. It’s also worth noting that Stone has practiced yoga and meditation for the past ten years. As such, and despite her criticisms, mindfulness is never treated snidely; there’s no suggestion that anyone who finds it useful is deluded. It’s for these reasons I think you can describe the game as an example of “civic mindfulness,” a term coined by academic Kevin Healey and utilized by Ronald Purser, author of the viral essay, Beyond McMindfulness, and a subsequent book. Purser suggests that where most therapeutic interventions place the burden on the individual for coping with malaise, civic mindfulness “empowers individuals to question the dominant orders.” UnearthU is satire, and never pulls its punches when confronting tech and capitalism, but it also feels like a genuine attempt to impart healing.
What does this healing look and feel like? Honestly, KARE changed more than myself, and the game’s great pleasure derives from simply observing this transformation. It doesn’t just ask us to pay attention to ourselves but those around us, and, crucially, to an imperfect world rife with injustices. In this way UnearthU gently suggests we do something anathema to most video games: log off. The sun is shining; I think I’ll go outside.
Correction: This article originally credited Ronal Purser for coining the term “civic mindfulness”; the term was actually coined by Kevin Healey. The article has been amended with the correct citation.