The rise of wholesome games

In February 2019, I started a Twitter account called Wholesome Games to curate the type of games I enjoyed the most. I didn’t think much of it at the time. It wasn’t until PC Gamer wrote an article contrasting the kindness and positivity of my feed with the often depressing nature of social media that the concept fully clicked for me. As a game developer myself, I couldn’t be happier or prouder to explore these games every day, and hopefully give a name and a sense of community to my favourite genre.

What are wholesome games, though, and why are they growing so quickly? The simplest explanation is this: the kids who grew up on titles like Animal Crossing are not only hungry for more, they’re making more. On the more practical side, the enormous success of games like Stardew Valley and Slime Rancher has proven the audience for this genre isn’t niche. Recent panels at industry events have shed light on how to craft cosier experiences, which will, in turn, produce even more developers ready to throw their hats into the ring. I spoke to the developers of three genre-defining wholesome games to get their opinion on what qualifies as wholesome, how their games contribute to the conversation, and how wholesome games will evolve in the future.

Wholesome Snacks

At the heart of Wholesome Games is a trend of game developers less concerned about how you play, and more concerned about how you feel. Erisa Liu is the artist behind Snacko, a colourful farming adventure starring cats and other friendly animals. Before development began, Liu asked herself a simple question: “Wouldn’t it be cute if our cats did this?” – and just like that, Snacko was born. 

“It started from simple things such as imagining a world where cats could drive cars, plough fields, open a bookstore, or use an ATM,” Liu explains. “If we find something cute, we try to incorporate it in some way. One recent example was noticing how cats love to sleep in empty boxes – so we turned what was planned to be a normal sleeping bag into a cardboard box!” Wholesome games are often made by wholesome people, and I’ve never felt more certain of that than listening to Liu explain the inspiration behind a project that now receives almost $600 in monthly Patreon pledges.

Speaking to such a wholesome developer, I have to know: what’s the most wholesome feature in Snacko? “We think it would have to be the town-building feature. It’s wholesome in the sense that your character is spending their time and resources making an inviting place for other animals to come and live, and it’s also a wholesome experience for the player; we think having the freedom and tools to plan out a space and execute it to your imagination is a very cosy and fulfilling activity.” This freedom and creativity is far from a genre requirement, but it instantly reminds me of the most iconic wholesome games: Animal Crossing, Stardew Valley, and even The Sims, which Liu mentions as a wholesome influence. Perhaps creativity is a secret sauce in the wholesome world.

Build a boat, explore the world, and care for spirits before releasing them into the afterlife. Spiritfarer illustrates that wholesome games can still get heavy.

When asked about her first wholesome gaming experience, Liu points to a simple feature that elicited a strong emotion. “I think it would have to be Pokémon Crystal, the feature where you would swap numbers with trainers along your journey, and they would call you and ask for a rematch or just tell you about their day. It did a great job of using simple dialogue to make you feel as if you had friends in that universe.” This small touch, which we can assume was not the highest priority for Pokémon developer Game Freak, struck a chord with young Liu. Conveying the feeling of genuine friendship is no small feat, but it’s a recurring theme in my conversations with each developer.  

Catch Them All

Now that Animal Crossing: New Horizons is available, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more anticipated wholesome game than Ooblets (though it is technically out already in Early Access). Ben Wasser represents half of the core development team behind the unique creature-farming, dance-battling, life-simming indie. When I ask Wasser about what lessons a wholesome game can impart on the player, he cautions me. “People have conflicting ideas of what it means to be good or right about things. I think what’s a lot more valuable is to encourage and teach the idea of empathy, which people can apply to any situation. It’s about putting yourself in other people’s (and animals’) shoes before you hurt them or let them be hurt by others.” At this point, it’s perhaps something of a cliché to mention the unique empathic powers that video games offer, but wholesome games represent a rare genre where creating compassionate characters and situations isn’t simply icing on the cake, but the very reason we sit at the table.

Switching from Pokémon-style creature battles to dance-offs may seem like an unusual decision, but it helped make Ooblets’ gameplay as wholesome as its graphics and writing.

Recalling the still-in-progress development of Ooblets, Wasser stresses that the game has undergone a lot of changes. “I think we always had it in mind to make a cute game in the same vein as Pokémon and Harvest Moon, but we did have some elements we made more wholesome over time, like replacing battles with dance-offs. A lot of these decisions came up when we were world-building and writing dialogue about why you’d be dog-fighting and capturing these cute creatures. It just didn’t fit.” 

Although there was already a precedent for cute creatures fighting to the point of ‘fainting’ in Pokémon, the decision to go a more wholesome route with dance-offs has given Ooblets yet another way to differentiate itself, not to mention the other features the change has given birth to. “One of our goofier features is how you get new ooblets,” says Wasser. “We redesigned it away from capturing ooblets who lost battles, to having to outdance them in a dance-off and then offer them consolation prizes for a chance to get a seed you can plant in your garden to grow your own ooblet.” Instead of forcing ooblets to join your squad by overpowering them, now the ooblets are consoled and befriended. It’s a compassionate and infinitely more wholesome interaction that runs contrary to the power trips we’re accustomed to.

It’s impossible to overstate the influence Animal Crossing has had on wholesome game developers.

Do Your Best

After raising nearly $70,000 on Kickstarter, Megan Fox’s SkateBIRD – a game about tiny birds riding even tinier skateboards – has proven that wholesome concepts resonate far beyond the genre staples of friendship and farming, but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t learned from those games, too. “Stardew Valley and Slime Rancher come to mind, in terms of aesthetic choices and ways of creating challenge or achievement for a player that is expansive and choice-driven, as opposed to typical game achievement approaches, typically driven by fear – fear of dying, of having to try again, of not advancing.” 

Fox has clearly put a lot of thought into the design principles behind wholesome games, but her simple observation about a lack of fear is a particularly resonant one. So many of us grew up with games that put our feet to the fire, filling us with anxious thoughts about everything that could go wrong. Wholesome games aren’t devoid of obstacles and challenges, but they’re undoubtedly more carrot than stick. Wholesome games ask: “If we try our best, what could go right?”

The charming SkateBIRD

Friendship, empathy, and motivation without fear. These basic principles can result in a variety of experiences too expansive to imagine, and yet each is linked to a wholesome centre. SkateBIRD has the magical quality of being a unique concept that also manages to feel familiar and comforting. There’s something about seeing a bird flapping its tiny wings just before sticking the landing that feels so right. 

Fox mentions avoiding forced time limits as a way to make the game feel as cosy as it looks, but even beyond the game’s technical design, there’s a wholesome-ness underpinning the whole experience, including the marketing materials: “…and if you bail, you just get back up – because above all else, skate birds try their best.”

Remaining inclusive

Each developer I spoke to was keen on expanding the idea of what a wholesome game can be. “It seems like the intention is to celebrate kindness and empathy instead of falling into the trap of sterile puritanism,” Wasser explains. “It allows for a lot more creativity and personality. Ooblets isn’t totally candy-coated and has a lot of weird elements, but I think it fits these new conceptions of what wholesome can be, and that seems like a great thing.” 

In my interview with Fox, I made the mistake of lumping “excessive sexuality” in with a list of things that might disqualify a game from being wholesome. She smartly countered, “It’s more of a vibe thing. Sexuality can be wholesome.” She directed me to how do you Do it?, a game which puts players in the role of an eleven-year-old girl using her dolls to ponder how sex works. “But guns and violence are anti-humanistic, so you could argue that anti-humanistic themes are unwholesome in general.” 

“There are many aspects of day-to-day life that are unwholesome,” Liu says. “Games that highlight and discuss these aspects are important, but can leave most players feeling helpless and frustrated.”

Beyond farming and town-building, Snacko also features puzzle-filled dungeons, a nod to the team’s original design of a cat protagonist exploring mysterious ruins.

The future

A year or so ago, I was simply a fan of these games; playing, enjoying, but not particularly thinking much more about their broader impact. Now I’m in a unique position to shine a spotlight on them while encouraging the developers of tomorrow to learn from their work and continue the journey. The Wholesome Games community on Discord, in particular, has brought together fans and developers alike, creating countless real friendships as discussions of virtual friendships flourish.

With those real-world friendships in my mind, Wasser’s answer to the question of where things are headed next is particularly fitting. “I’d love to see some more multiplayer or massively multiplayer games that elevate human interaction,” he says. “I keep thinking back to that week or two when Pokémon GO first came out, and everyone was outside talking to each other, making new friends, and having a good time. If a game has that sort of power, it can change the world for the better.” 

Nice Dream

Will wholesome games create wholesome players? “Wholesome games often feel wholesome because the player is doing good deeds or because they’re in a pleasant situation,” Liu explains. “Using Animal Crossing as an easy example, players feel rewarded when they help locate the owner of some lost mittens, or are incentivised to take care of the town’s environment. We think these attitudes carry into daily life, where players may subconsciously or consciously seek to improve their interactions or environment to get the same wholesome feeling.”

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