Since the pandemic, wholesome content has been trending. From Stardew Valley to sourdough baking, we distract and comfort ourselves with cozy content and experiences. Wholesome memes, anime, and games are widely searched for by consumers by now. But what does wholesome mean in the context of gaming? What’s the power behind these cute, comforting games?
Media can heal us. A beautiful term Japanologist Paul Roquet uses for these healing narratives is “ambient media”. These are media “oriented towards tinting the space around them with a particular mood or emotional tone”.
These are, in other words, media which center around affect that generate specific emotions in their consumers – warmth, coziness and even a sense of transcendence. This is achieved through background music, rich art and even connections to therapy and self-identity.
During the pandemic, we searched for these ambient media. A commonly used term to describe this content is “wholesome”. As this Google trend diagram shows, users have increasingly searched for “wholesome”, with “wholesome memes” and “wholesome anime” being listed among the top trends. Similarly, wholesome games have been trending.
But what exactly is a wholesome game? Steam lists this genre as: “Brightening your day with cute, friendly, compassionate, cozy video games!” Such games are perhaps best defined through examples like Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Stardew Valley. The gaming community Wholesome Games (Twitter account) kickstarted by Matthew Taylor describes the genre as: “uplifting, thoughtful, compassionate, cozy”.
The term “thoughtful” ruffled some feathers in the past. It applies in particular to thoughtful content, including inclusive representation of marginalized groups. In a FAQ created for E3, Wholesome Games states: “If a game is cute and cozy but contains harmful stereotypes, is it wholesome? We say no!” This criterion led to backlash – groups of gamers sadly critiqued Wholesome Games for its stances on inclusivity and toxic positivity.
The beauty of wholesome games is that they address different identities and problems in empathic way. I do believe thoughtful representation is a good way to capture this genre. Empathic design is another way in which this can be described – opening yourself up as a player to new experiences, feelings, and ways of being. Designer David Edery (Cozy Grove) emphasizes that the key to a successful empathic design is storytelling: “I’ve always felt that it’s easier to be empathetic when you understand and can relate to someone else’s suffering. And the more you know about someone’s story, the easier it is to understand where they are coming from.”
In other words, wholesome games are not just cute in terms of aesthetics and design, like Untitled Goose Game, Pokémon Snap or Neko Atsume. Of course wholesome games can be kawaii pixel games, but they also have a certain depth to them. They are all about affect, and do not shy away from meaningful representation and deeper themes.
Let’s look at a few examples!
Kind Words is an anonymous multi-player game in which you send letters to others. Perhaps you want advice, a listening ear, or just a platform to share a frustration that you faced. As a player, you can send out requests or respond to them. A cute deer then sends your messages to other players. Thankful anonymous user cannot stay in touch with you or thank you in another letter, but they can send you a sticker in return for your reply.
Ambient sound, cute aesthetics, and a friendly interface – Kind Words ticks many wholesome boxes. This charming indie has been very popular during the Covid-19 pandemic. But at its heart, it encourages users to discuss the problems in their lives. You can decorate your room with the stickers you received, and chill in it when you don’t want to reply to a prompt.
Kind Words is a friendly space. It has zero tolerance towards bullying. It encourages users to share their feelings and thoughts, and to openly communicate about mental illness. The anonymity is part of the beauty of this game. While being an anon can lead to problematic behavior in many online spaces, it facilitates openness and transparency in this game. That being said, the strict guidelines of this community help keep it free from trolls. Being in Kind Word is like having a virtual support group. Discussing its pandemic impact, Malinda Hetfield in VG24/7 summarized it as “the gamification of kindness”.
But Kind Words can be hard work. I spent many hours corresponding to others in this game, and it could be difficult to really find the right words to send back. Wholesome content doesn’t always mean relaxing, then. It is not necessarily soothing, but deeply connected to healing of yourself and others.
Through games, we can care for others, advise them, and show empathy.
What if you could bring your friends and family to the afterlife? In this cozy indie resource management game, you play as Stella, the new Charon who brings spirits to the afterlife. You tend and befriend these spirits, grow crops, cook food, and mine ores. Different sets of these resources help you improve the boat and houses of the spirits until you finally say goodbye to them. Please note: There are some spoilers for Spiritfarer below.
Each spirit has its own past and eventually, you learn how who they were to Stella when they were alive. Recently a DLC (“The Lily update”) was released, the first of several, which includes a new spirit and Stella’s background story as a palliative nurse, as previously explained in the artbook. She has met several of the spirits, such as Gustav, through her profession. The DLC adds a new layer to the story, and also fixed some problematic content around Gustav’s disability.
Driving your boat in Spiritfarer is relaxing. You water your plants and fish for ages. Perhaps you leave something on the stove too. You can multitask, or just do things one by one and take your time. Spiritfarer is an ambient and relaxed take on a genre that is usually stressful. (I am personally not a fan of the genre because of this). Music is a key part of that atmosphere too. The soft piano music helps easen the stress of fishing and other tasks in the game. You can just drive through the thunder storms to water your plants, and to enjoy the sooth sounds of the rain.
But Spiritfarer can be confronting as well. One moment that truly touched me was when I had to accompany one of the dying, aging spirits around the ship. She was getting slow, and it was difficult to see. Many of us will be reminded of our own loved ones and family members who went through similar situations.
This is more than a tend and befriend game. Each spirit has their own story that is slowly revealed. They get upset at you before they are ready to pass on. I always found that the most difficult part. They close their door. Leave the ship. Some sleep for days. Finally, you reconcile with them, and bring them to the gate so they can cross over. You have to let them go, if you want to progress in this game at all.
Spiritfarer is an exercise in saying goodbye. When Stella finally has to go through the gate herself, and leave one of her friends behind, you are crushed. After many hours of collecting, building, and cooking, you realize that nothing is forever. You can’t take these items with you. You can’t keep the spirits you befriend, like you would in Animal Crossing.
This is a game about coping. You learn to nourish, collect and build things only to let them go.
Wide Ocean Big Jacket
Camping during our childhood is an experience that many of us remember fondly. This game captures that nostalgia perfectly. Uncle Brad and aunt Cloanne take their 13-year-old niece, Mord, and her boyfriend Ben out camping. You control each of these four characters in this short and lovely indie game.
Relaxing, talking and observing is a large part of the game play. You go for the occasional hike with several of the characters to the beach or in the woods. At night, there’s campfires and roasting hot dogs. The goals of the game are simple. Carry some logs. Go birdwatching. Drink a beer. Do cartwheels on the beach. You can take your time.
Wide Ocean Big Jacket has a minimalist style. Switching characters is interlaced with cuts to written dialogue scenes, like a visual novel. You turn from character to the next and cut to white text on a blacked-out screen.
While I found this mix of styles jarring at first, I quickly warmed up to it. As D.M. Moore writes in The Verge: “The blacked-out screens allow the game to cross-cut between scenes across different times or locations without being disorienting.” The result is an engaging and interactive narrative technique. As Moore also points out, you feel like a participant more than an observer or reader.
The heart of the game is often hilarious character-driven dialogue. Each of the characters responds in their own unique ways, and the teenager Mord really is a character I’ll remember for years to come. She is perfectly written and a lot of fun. The game has many intimate moments as well that I won’t spoil, but I think it really captures the beauty of travelling and camping.
There are no big decisions in this game, but that is not to say there is no dramatic tension. Some of the key points in the narrative might surprise you.
Wholesome in this context? A delightful and heartwarming mini-holiday. A slice-of-life story. A relaxed atmosphere with few obligations.
Wholesome games are not just a hype or gimmick these days. They are a must in this challenging time. This trend deeply reminds me of the development of the iyashikei genre in Japan (seinen manga that are “healing”). In an article on the iyashi trend in Journal of Japanese Studies, Paul Roquet emphasizes how entertainment around healing (“iyashi”) emerged around 1995 during the economic recession and after the Tokyo subway sarin attack. His key insight? Wholesome content was a way of mood regulation after traumatic events.
We see a similar healing boom right now. Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing, in other words, could not have reached us at a better time. More content is coming. Book of Travels, for instance, is a highly anticipated wholesome RPG.
As we are going through a global pandemic and shifting to a new normal, we need wholesomeness more than ever. This is not just cute or cozy. Through play, we heal.