You hear the gentle sound of ocean waves lapping at your feet as you stroll down the beach. A cute seagull flies overhead, and you zoom in on your smartphone to snap a picture.
Then, you frown, noticing a plastic six-pack ring peeking out of the sand — the kind that is infamous for choking turtles. You toss it in the trash, trying to do your part to be a good citizen of planet Earth.
This might sound like just a normal day at the shore... until a friend beckons you to save a beached dolphin. Things start getting even weirder once you start spotting wildlife laying on the ground, suffering from toxic waste poisoning like something out of an environmental disaster movie.
This is no ordinary day at the beach.
It's a scene from the highly compelling indie adventure story that is also the perfect pandemic game for nature lovers: Alba: A Wildlife Adventure, which is out now on Apple Arcade and on Steam for PC.
Throughout the pandemic, we've heard the same advice repeated so often that it feels like a lecture from Mom: go take a walk.
But instead of a well-meaning parent, scientists and wellness gurus are the ones berating us: Get off the couch! Get some Vitamin D! Soak up some sunshine! You'll feel better!
To be fair, for many of us working from home, a daily walk has felt like a small reprieve from the confines of a too-small apartment, or the noisiness of living with roommates, pets, and for some, family members 24/7.
The scientific benefits of engaging with nature are well-documented. Stepping outside your door and communing with the natural world may boost immune function, and reduce chronic stress, to name two purported benefits.
But what happens when your daily walk begins feels more like, well, a trap?
That's how I felt earlier this year. My life had turned into the most depressing of time loops: wake up, work, go for a walk, go home, watch Netflix, go to bed. Rinse, repeat, every single day for almost a year.
A walk around the block, an activity I had once enjoyed, eventually became a daily trudge I actively resented. At least, that is how I felt until I stumbled across Alba: A Wildlife Adventure.
In the game, you play as Alba Singh, a young girl visiting her grandparents on a Mediterranean island called Pinar del Mar. The island is filled with all sorts of unique fauna. As Alba, you hop around the island to take photos of wildlife with your smartphone.
The game's simple controls effectively replicate what it would be like to zoom in on a flying bird using your fingers on a smartphone in the real world. So effective is the illusion, in fact, I often felt like a naturalist conducting important fieldwork, instead of a hobbyist playing a game.
Periodically the game gives the player tasks to record a certain number of new animals on your phone. This was so much fun, I ended up looking for new wildlife regardless of whether I had a task or not.
There's also an amusing subplot involving an elusive Iberian lynx. This big cat is in truth an endangered species, but conservation efforts have brought its numbers up in recent years.
But, mostly Alba has the user cataloging a lot of Mediterranean birds. Tons of birds, in fact, like a little-ringed plover skittering down the beach, or a colorful European goldfinch flying around the island's farms.
Much as in real life, the user often hears the birds before they see them, which makes for a delightful challenge as you try to find a tiny bird hiding in the reeds of a marsh.
If the player successfully captures the birds on camera, the creatures are uploaded into a wildlife guide, which tracks animals based on their habitat range. The player can also use the wildlife guide to replay each bird's unique sounds and calls.
Slowly, but surely, my daily walks began to take on meaning again.
While playing as Alba, I carefully looked for birds hidden on my smartphone. Likewise, I began to pay greater attention to the fauna on my walks in real life.
When an unfamiliar bird chirped, I looked for the source of the noise. When a hummingbird paused briefly to suck in nectar from a nearby flower, I lingered to observe instead of moving on.
And just like Alba, I began taking photos of birds on my phone, hoping to one day identify them.
Even though I don't live on a pristine Mediterranean island, I can still appreciate and find joy in my urban environment.
Finding connection to the outdoors by staying indoors might seem counterintuitive, but I'm not alone in finding a renewed connection to nature through games. Whether it's planting pumpkins in Animal Crossing, or farming in Stardew Valley, people have found a greater appreciation for nature through games.
Perhaps these brushes with nature in video games are analogue to buying a houseplant during a pandemic.
I also connected with Alba on another level. As a woman of color, I don't always see myself reflected in the environmental justice movement, but playing as Alba reinforced the importance of communities of color, who are often invested in preserving nature.
Likewise, Alba could also inspire young girls and women of color to become birders and scientists.
Of course, it wouldn't be a game without conflict. Alba again echoes reality: The war of human expansion against natural, wild habitats.
In the game, this aspect of the plot can feel cliché. But in the real world, many coastal and riverside communities — and their local wildlife — are under threat from human development. In countries like Cambodia, for example, these communities are being swept away to mine sand — which in turn can go to developing beachside hotels in richer countries, like Singapore.
As in real life, community advocates are putting up a fight. As Alba, the player works to gather signatures from island residents for petitions opposing hotel construction.
Pick up trash and you get signatures. Repair a few birdhouses and save a few squirrels from toxic waste, get a few more signatures.
This clever reward system has the effect of making you care about the environment. It is a virtuous cycle in action.
In the gameplay, it is clear how much Alba's grandparents and the wider community care about conserving the abundant local wildlife. By playing as amateur naturalist Alba, you get to talk with these passionate community members, and you become invested in saving the local wildlife, too.
The game's message is simple, but effective: To save an ecosystem, it takes the whole community — even its smallest members.
Alba: A Wildlife Adventure is out now on Apple Arcade and on Steam for PC. A wider release is scheduled for spring 2021 for Nintendo Switch, PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X/S, and Xbox One.