Calm waters

Bonding with my mom under the (virtual) sea

How the iPad game ‘Hello Whale: Idle Aquarium’ brought the writer and her mother closer together during a most horrible year.

One night, I got an excited text from my mother: “I FINALLY GOT AN ORCA!!!”

I sighed out loud. To be quite honest, I was a bit jealous. Next to me on the couch, my husband looked up, one eyebrow raised in question.

“Mom just got an orca,” I told him. He rolled his eyes and went back to what he was doing, mumbling a teasing, “You two and that silly fish game.”

“That silly fish game” is a free-to-play app called Hello Whale: Idle Aquarium (formerly known as Abyssrium World). In it, players look after an underwater “town,” collecting and caring for brightly colored fish and other sea creatures. The orca, you see, is my personal holy grail of sea life acquisitions, and Mom had gotten one before I had. Still, I was proud of my 70-year-old mother. I hadn’t expected her to stick with the app for so long. I’m glad she did, because it turned out to be something of a lifesaver.

Flero Games

Last year, I became very ill (not with COVID) for a long time, incapable of doing anything other than laying on the couch. I couldn’t work, and I was miserable. Getting medical care wasn’t hard, but due to the pandemic, visits from friends and family were impossible. My folks live multiple states away, and flying to come stay with me was not an option.

Just when I was nearing my absolute fill of streaming awful TV, my husband pointed me to a new game for the iPad. “It’s probably not your thing, but it has fish in it,” he said. I was desperate for a new distraction, plus I’m an avid fish lover, so I downloaded it immediately. Anything to keep my mind off my discomfort.

The game, with its ambient music and pretty graphics, was instantly calming, and soon enough I was playing it whenever I needed an escape from my ailments. Still, there were days when the misery took over, and I would dial Mom to wail about my suffering. I know it pained her not to be able to physically take care of me. In my distress, I would often sign off our FaceTime calls with “Time to go check on my fish.” She took note.

“What is this fish game?” she finally asked late one night. So I told her about the app that soothed me like a fine cup of tea. Aiming my screen toward my laptop’s camera, I pointed out the fish and described the basics of how it worked. The game centers on a lone coral that slowly grows as players cross off tasks. As your reef colonies expand, you acquire fish and decorations, learn how to manage valuable resources, and cultivate your town, which other players can visit.

She listened intently, and to my delight, reached for her own iPad to download it herself.

Separated by nearly 900 miles, we forged an even deeper bond through a silly iPad game.

Mom learned the game over the next couple of days. And here is where something happened that neither one of us expected: My mother and I, separated by nearly 900 miles, forged an even deeper bond through a silly iPad game.

Suddenly, we had a new common language. I could tell Mom that I made the “Mimic from the Rainbow Beach Ball recipe,” and she would instantly know what that meant. She would tell me she needed “2,000 more AO before she could upgrade her colonies,” and I would cheer her on.

“It gave us both something to talk about that wasn’t so serious,” Mom says now. She recalls joking when some of our sea life was less than impressive, saying “There was that one shark that didn’t really move, just floated around awkwardly.” And we were able to share stories about “settling” fish in other colonies — a mechanic for rotating fish out of your town. Or, as we would joke, “putting them out to pasture.”

Even the ads players are forced to watch in order to progress faster gave us common subjects to giggle over. “There were those few bizarre weeks when the ads bordered on softcore porn,” Mom remembers. “What would your father have thought if he’d seen?”

I would often wake up early in the morning to find my town had already been tidied up by my mom.

If Mom had been by my side, she would’ve made her signature chicken noodle soup. Inside the game, she found other ways to alleviate my distress. Hello Whale involves cleaning “pollutants” for the health of your town. Once we discovered the ability to clean pollutants in each other’s villages, I would often wake up early in the morning to find my town had already been tidied up by my mom. With each piece of trash that she removed, I swear I got a fraction healthier in real life.

When I visited her coral town, I’d marvel at the podium she’d set up for fish lectures or the carefully placed rock steps leading to a fancy statue at the top of a hill. I watched with mild awe as my mom garnered accolades from other players in her message box. The day her village level progression surpassed mine was monumental. “Well, I’m retired, and you were suffering from illness,” she says, “so I had a lot more time to sit in the game than you.”

Today, I’m much healthier. My mother and I don’t play Hello Whale as much — we have concluded the game’s story — so I mostly just pop in to the game to do maintenance. (I now own orcas of my own.) While there’s no way to truly know how much my health was boosted by playing with Mom, I can say for certain that I’m much better now than I was before. I’m up on my feet and back to work.

“I’m not ready to stop playing the game until you’re ready to stop,” Mom tells me. “It’s like our own little secret world, and we can play in each other’s aquariums.” And so we continue visiting each other’s magical coral villages, growing our orca pods, and waiting for the day we can finally hug each other in real life again.