Charlie Kelly remembers giving a gift to her new girlfriend in the early days of their relationship. It was a cute and exciting way to show affection — even if it was virtually.
Kelly and her girlfriend exchanged presents with each other’s characters in the farming simulation game Stardew Valley.
The title is part of a trend of “wholesome gaming“, which are titles defined by their bright or cartoonish visual style, relaxed pace and accessible game design — as opposed to more traditional games that involve violence and strive for visual realism.
While titles that fit the definition have existed for a long time, the term has only emerged recently, coinciding with a boom in interest in the trend.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons, set sales records earlier this year and more than 50 independent publishers and developers came together to showcase their upcoming wholesome games online late last month.
Kelly, who is a Melbourne-based game design student and gaming journalist, said she’s noticed wholesome gaming become more popular as people seek relief from the stresses of everyday life during a global pandemic.
“Whether it’s just entering these shared multiplayer wholesome experiences to feel connected to people again or single player with some great vibes, they’re beneficial to just feeling good about myself,” she said.
Tend-and-befriend instead of fight-or-flight
While some of the best known titles like Animal Crossing: New Horizons come from bigger studios, independent game creators are a big part of the movement.
Wren Brier is a games artist from Brisbane who’s worked on games like Fruit Ninja.
She’s currently working on her first independent project Unpacking, a game where players pull items out of boxes and arrange them in a new apartment.
Brier said wholesome games appeal to new and diverse audiences because they allow people to play with “tend-and-befriend” game designs, rather than the typical fight-or-flight game styles.
Brier attributes the growing demand for wholesome games as validation of the movement’s approach to design, which includes low-stress game mechanics that make failure difficult or even impossible.
“There’s a lot of games that have you reacting very fast to things, games that have a lot of drama, games that are stressful,” Brier said. “When you’re already stressed, maybe it’s not what you’re looking for. Maybe you want something where you can feel good and safe.
“It’s a game about taking out boxes, I thought it was extremely niche. But we’ve had people say ‘why isn’t it out now, I need it now, it would be perfect for right now.'”
A reaction to traditional gaming culture
Wholesome games draw a stark contrast to popular, mainstream releases from major studios like the first-person shooting series Call Of Duty, battle royale game Fortnite or the online roleplaying game World of Warcraft.
Many of these traditional, high budget games popular with younger, male audiences have fast-paced, violent game styles that pit players against each other in adrenaline-fuelled combat or competition.
Melbourne-based game designer Olivia Haines first noticed the diverse, underground community of creators making a different type of games when she started publishing her own projects.
“I started making personal games and then found a lot of people who are similar to me, coding similar things,” she said.
Haines said she draws from experiences in her own life to create games for herself and her friends and family.
Some games are set in distinctive Australian locations, like the bushland setting of studio Paper House’s Paper Bark. These games, Haines said, are an exploration of Australian identity.
Players and creators say the movement has emerged in reaction to traditional gaming culture.
“I think it’s for anyone who doesn’t fall into ‘gamer culture’. A lot of mainstream games are very violent, and there are a lot of other issues,” Haines said. “They have really complicated controls or require a lot of background knowledge, or you have to dedicate a lot of time to them,” she said.
Her projects, by comparison, are smaller and simpler. One game, Drive Me To The Moon, has players control a car containing a couple who are casually cruising around a pastel-coloured town.
“I think it’s a peaceful protest against the status quo of video games,” Haines said.
Should wholesome games be political?
The relatively new and broad nature of the movement means that there are different understandings of what is considered a wholesome game.
Dr Douglas Wilson is a game design lecturer at RMIT and co-owner of a gaming studio, Die Gute Fabrik.
He’s seen a tension develop in the community about whether games can and should contain complex or negative ideas.
His studio’s most recent project Mutazione is often considered part of the movement because of its distinctive hand-illustrated graphics and simple point-and-click design. But Wilson said the Mutazione’s themes — including colonialism and intergenerational trauma — mean the title doesn’t fit neatly into some people’s definition of a wholesome game.
“There’s something here that’s softer, quietened, chilled out, but we hope that it has real political stakes to it,” Wilson said.
While he understands the preference to avoid negative emotions, Wilson hopes that the industry’s idea of a wholesome game will broaden to include games that have the stereotypical aesthetic and design tropes while also embracing complicated narratives.
For Kelly, games with sad or complex issues are still wholesome — and that’s what she likes most about them.
“I play a bit of everything, violent and story driven games included, but I get pulled towards wholesome games a lot,” she said.