Wholesome. It's a word that gets tossed around a lot these days when it comes to games. If there's a game with a cat, a tea minigame, a pastel palette, and/or some kind of farming mechanic, you bet your buns it'll be called "wholesome" at least once.
Wholesome Direct, a showcase of indie games presented by the independent, volunteer-run Wholesome Games team, has been gathering steam over the last couple of years as a source of games that eschew traditional power fantasies and violence in favour of softer, gentler storylines. Their upcoming 100-game not-E3 showcase on Saturday, June 11th promises to be no different.
We managed to grab just a few minutes of time from the incredibly busy Wholesome Games team to chat about the "wholesome" label, their hopes for the future of games, and what the deal with frogs is...
NINTENDO LIFE: At Wholesome Games, you’ve fully adopted the term “wholesome” – which automatically positions you as one of the experts in a popular sub-genre of games. How do you ensure that you’re representing the community well?
JENNY WINDOM, ORGANISER AND HOST OF WHOLESOME GAMES: I don’t think I would say that it automatically positioned us as experts. When we began this endeavor, it was more to find and facilitate a community of folks who also were interested in a certain type of game experience that wasn’t really highlighted in a lot of the traditional outlets and showcases. First and foremost: we are fans of games that are cozy, kind, thoughtful, and (often) non-violent and gentle!
First and foremost: we are fans of games that are cozy, kind, thoughtful, and (often) non-violent and gentle!
As our community on various channels have grown, we’ve used feedback and conversations (in places like our Discord) to talk through some of the growing pains that happen when you start getting hundreds and thousands of folks joining… and we hope to continue to use feedback and the input and involvement of community members to help inform what we do. We’ve constantly explored the question of what we mean when we talk about “wholesome games”, for example.
And, as a whole, we are consistently trying to find ways we can use this platform we’ve been afforded to give back to the community. Whether it’s through hosting a “low-key game jam” to bring both new and seasoned developers the chance to work together, to using our shows to fundraise for causes like the International Rescue Committee and Galaxy Fund. Overall, we hope to continue to be able to listen, learn, and grow as we continue to do what we love, which is highlighting these incredible titles!
MATTHEW TAYLOR, FOUNDER OF WHOLESOME GAMES: It’s an interesting question because there’s a fine line between shouldering that responsibility of representing the community without losing the fun, do-whatever-we-want indie-vibe which is part of what got us this far.
At the end of the day, Wholesome Games doesn’t exist without amazing game developers trusting us with their hard work, so that’s the one aspect that I always take very seriously. Building those relationships and making sure that every game developer–no matter how connected they are or how far along their game is in development–knows that they can trust us to share it with an audience that will appreciate it.
There has been some backlash in the past about the “wholesome” label being patronizing, infantile, or ineffective at dealing with serious topics. You’ve responded well to it in the past, but how would you respond to it now?
JENNY: It’s a conversation that does seem to get revisited each year in some form, doesn’t it? “Wholesome” is the term we’ve used for our name and organization, but the actual meaning of it, to us, is subjective and can shift based on context. What’s wholesome to one person may be a little different than what another would deem wholesome, and coming up with a one-size-fits-all definition feels like a disservice to all the nuances that goes into how we think about and experience games. This snippet from our FAQ is one that I often reference:
“If a game is cute and cozy but contains harmful stereotypes, is it wholesome? We say no! If a game is violent, but that violence is about overthrowing an oppressor, is it unwholesome? We say no! The opinions presented by our curation are just that: one group's opinions.”
The FAQ honestly still reflects what we feel overall, and I love to encourage folks interested in what we do to read it. We do recognize how certain groups have co-opted the term and use it to reflect non-inclusive values, and we disagree with that wholeheartedly. Ultimately, we want to continue to show folks through our actions that our definition of “wholesome” is one that is inclusive and can include exploration of more serious or heavy topics.
MATTHEW: I agree with Jenny. I am still very proud of that FAQ. Boiling so much down to one word like “wholesome” will always have its drawbacks, but over time I hope we can build an understanding even with those who are averse to the term.
Do you find that the “wholesome” label has grown more nebulous over the years, or are there still solid criteria of what you’re looking for?
Boiling so much down to one word like “wholesome” will always have its drawbacks
JENNY: Less nebulous and more nuanced! I feel like over the years we’ve seen more and more thoughtful explorations of cozy, wholesome elements in games, which has allowed our exploration of that question “what is wholesome” become more flexible and interesting over time. I think, especially years ago when this community was still a fledgling one, “wholesome” or “cozy” almost always referred to a farming sim or Animal Crossing-style game, or perhaps even more “kiddy” games.
But now that there’s been so much visibility and creative energy behind developing more of these types of gameplay experiences, I could say “wholesome” and have that mean any number of types of titles. Games like Spiritfarer, Pikuniku, and Mutazione are — to me — quite wholesome, but offer very different types of experiences (and all three don’t shy away from complex and serious topics!) I love seeing the ways that games have evolved as a result of being more open, and in a way, confidently, exploring play and interactivity to tell a story.
There’s a reimagining of mechanics that I’ve really enjoyed observing as a player and developer. The idea of a FPS, but shooting with a camera lens instead of a gun. Or dance battles instead of actual fights where cute creatures faint by the end of it. Or even “reverse city builders” where you reconstruct an ecosystem instead of building massive cities to consume it. So, in this way, ‘wholesome’ has become incredibly interesting, engaging, and comprehensive.
As I alluded to in the previous question, there are elements that are absolutely not “wholesome”. Games that are generally non-inclusive or utilize harmful stereotypes against groups of people, and excessive and mindless violence are two examples of things that are absolutely not in-line with what we’d consider a game we’d highlight.
I wanted to show that our definition of “wholesome” wasn’t always going to be a perfect life without conflict
MATTHEW: I remember being very grateful that Spiritfarer agreed to take part in the first Wholesome Direct, when viewers were even more curious about what to expect from the genre than they are today. That was an important game to me because I wanted to show that our definition of “wholesome” wasn’t always going to be a perfect life without conflict.
To me, wholesome encompasses the “whole” of life, and that can include tremendous sadness and conflict. My favorite wholesome games don’t ignore those emotions, instead, they confront and address them in a thoughtful, human way with at least a glimmer of hope to latch onto.
What's the crossover between wholesome, lo-fi, and cottagecore? Is it important to keep them separate?
JENNY: I feel like while there is crossover, it’s important to see each of these — wholesome, lo-fi, and cottagecore — as separate entities. Especially as each has its own origin and history. For example, lo-fi absolutely comes from the music world, while I believe cottagecore originated more as a fashion/aesthetic.
But I would definitely agree/affirm that there is lots of crossover! I think all three of them have a sense of nostalgia and explore the use of time in different ways. Cottagecore romanticizes a pastoral, slower pace of life largely absent of technology. Lo-fi music embraces slower beats per minute and often more relaxing and chill vibes. And wholesome games are often created with both of those concepts in mind or as sources of inspiration!
MATTHEW: I feel like lo-fi and cottagecore are more descriptive of the game itself as opposed to how it makes you feel. I’ve always said that Wholesome Games began life as a genre more concerned about how you “feel” than how you “play”, and I meant that in comparison to genres like first-person shooter or racing that literally describe how you interact with the game world, but I believe that same sentiment may apply to things like lo-fi or cottagecore, the difference being that those genres are perhaps more concerned with describing aesthetics as opposed to emotions.
Your Wholesome Direct has around 100 games in it. That’s a lot of games! What’s your selection process like?
JENNY: As for the selection itself, It’s a tough one for us! We have a love/hate relationship with the process, as there are always more games than we’d ever be able to fit into a singular showcase event.
Once games have been submitted and submissions are closed, Matthew often takes a first pass at exploring the titles and seeing what would be a good fit. Then, we take a day as a team to go through every single submission together. Even after Matthew does the first pass, we are usually still left with a couple hundred games to go through together, and it’s both extremely fun and extremely hard. Fun, because we get to start to see the skeleton of the show come together, and hard because, as I mentioned before: there are so many incredible titles!
MATTHEW: As an indie developer, I’ve been on the other side of the submission process many times, and I always appreciated events like Day of the Devs that just used a simple Google Form for submissions. That gave me the sense that truly anyone could participate because there wasn’t any special connection or fee required, so that’s exactly how we do it, too: anyone with some video or screenshots of their game can submit and we consider every single one.
The Wholesome Games community has gone from a relatively small curation of games to its own empire, with a TikTok, Twitter, regular showcase, and a community of well over 300,000 people across your various social accounts. And it’s still volunteer-run! How do you manage all of this without becoming very un-wholesomely burned out?
MATTHEW: I only really become aware of how much work it is when it's time for another Wholesome Direct, once I start reviewing games, editing the show, and coordinating with the folks who help us broadcast it. I feel a tremendous amount of responsibility given that so many developers are trusting me to get their games to as many viewers as possible and that can–if I’m not careful–lead to burnout.
For the rest of the year, most of my time is spent just sharing indie games that I discover and frankly, that’s something I would be doing in my free time even if Wholesome Games didn’t exist.
There’s quite a bit of crossover between the wholesome games community, the LGBTQ+ community, and female gamers who perhaps don’t see themselves represented in other games coverage. Why do you think these communities are drawn to wholesome games?
JENNY: There are a couple of reasons that immediately come to mind!
I feel like a question I often hear about games is “What is the player’s ‘power fantasy’?” or “What is [game’s] power fantasy?” But, the industry has traditionally only captured a specific type of power fantasy, one that didn’t represent many of the communities we’re seeing drawn towards wholesome and cozy games. Many of these games blend the whimsical, the fantastical, and a high attention to detail with the mundane in a way that embraces a different sort of player fantasy.
Just from talking with teams who’ve participated in the showcases previously: these are groups of folks creating the games they wish they could’ve seen and played when they were younger. I think there’s power to that: finally having access and ability to create something that represents you, and — as a result, probably resonates with lots of other people who haven’t seen aspects of themselves in a game either.
Many wholesome games are also more readily accessible and welcoming to players who may not have felt welcomed to join or consider themselves “gamers''. Titles like Cozy Grove are accessible on mobile, for example, — so a console or high-end PC isn’t needed — and paced so that you don’t have to spend more than 30 minutes or so a day to play. A Short Hike is an open-world experience without combat. And Unpacking requires minimal input and dexterity to engage with: you click and drag items to their proper location.
MATTHEW: For the majority of its existence, the video game industry has catered almost entirely to the interests of young white men. That isn’t to say that brilliant games and developers haven’t emerged despite those limitations, but I think wholesome games have become somewhat of a rallying cry for all the people who didn’t feel represented in games before now.
What can the games industry as a whole learn from wholesome games?
JENNY: I love seeing all the different ways developers have been able to explore different methods and mechanics of play. Finding innovative ways to include competition but without combat (a la Ooblets) or reimagining how we can engage with a world in first person view (a la Slime Rancher). It’s so exciting to see what’s been done — and what’s coming up in the future!
I appreciate that many wholesome games are providing a foundation for other titles to take on typically unpleasant or challenging topics
I also appreciate that many wholesome games are providing a foundation for other titles to take on typically unpleasant or challenging topics. Donut County’s addressing of gentrification, for example, or I am Dead’s reflection on mortality. Encountering these themes and topics in a game doesn’t have to be (re)traumatizing, and many of these titles provide a framework to tackle tough issues in a gentle manner.
Finally (last thing, I swear!) — the appreciation of small details is something I love, and while it’s not new to games, I think wholesome games have fostered a fresh love for those details. Can You Pet the Dog? is one of the big ones that’s now included. Lots of celebration of food, cooking, and fashion. Again, it’s the celebration of the “ordinary” that brings me joy.
MATTHEW: One of my favorite things is hearing from game developers who aren’t working on wholesome games, but who still go out of their way to say that they appreciate how challenging it is to find non-violent game mechanics, so I think there’s a lot of innovation to be discovered if the bigger companies would invest in it.
Last question, and this one’s just for me: Why does every game have frogs in it? What is it about frogs that makes them so wholesome?!
JENNY: What’s NOT to love about frogs? They are so tiny. And cute. And helpful. And they just hang out and vibe.
MATTHEW: Every year a new animal seems to “win” Wholesome Direct. Will it be the frogs this year? You’ll have to tune in to find out!
Hopefully now you have a better understanding of what "wholesome" means: It's frogs. Frogs and tea.
Let us know what kind of games you're hoping to see in the Wholesome Direct in the comments below!