Wholesome Games Are a Growing Trend, but What Does ‘Wholesome’ Really Mean?

We spoke to several indie developers involved in the Wholesome Direct showcase about what ‘wholesome’ means to them.

When we talk about “wholesome games,” we talk about them in a variety of ways, from colorful and vibrant colors, to charming and lovable characters, and even a distinct absence of violence. It’s easy for us, as the audience, to sit back and assign labels like “wholesome” to different games. But how do the developers react to having such a label placed upon them?

Fanbyte spoke to several independent developers to find out, many of who have games primed for the Wholesome Direct this weekend on June 12. This volunteer-run showcase is establishing a platform for games that identify as “wholesome,” a genre filled with games like Ooblets, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and the recent Chicory: A Colorful Tale. The community originated on Twitter, but now over 200,000 members exist across additional platforms like Discord, YouTube and Instagram.

It clearly isn’t fazed by the competition, or even toxic internet comments bemoaning the very existence of wholesome games, as the organizers behind the event have dealt with in droves over the past few days. Not to be deterred, the Wholesome Direct returns this Saturday, with plans to show over 70 indie games. 

Christine Gariépy, the marketing director for Paralives, believes it’s entirely appropriate to call her indie life simulator “wholesome,” as the development team is acutely aware elements like “no violence and cozy feel” fall well within the confines of what is considered wholesome. It’s a sentiment shared by many of the other indie developers Fanbyte spoke to, who work on games like Spirit Swap, Unpacking, and Snacko.

Erisa Liu of Bluecurse Studios, a developer currently making the adorable “cat-venture” farming game Snacko, feels similarly: she isn’t surprised at all to hear her game described as wholesome. However, the label is occasionally unexpected for some. 

“When we were first contacted by Wholesome Direct about having Spirit Swap, our first reaction was ‘…wait, are we wholesome?’ The game is pretty upfront about being thirsty,” says developer Alex of their match-three game, which uses lo-fi beats as a backdrop to humans and demons coupling up and smoothing in hetero or queer relationships. Once they read that the event organizer believes “wholesome games” are entirely subjective and completely open to interpretation, it seemed to be a good fit. 

“I suppose there is some measure of internalized queerphobia on my part in automatically assuming any direct involvement of queer thirst or sexuality is automatically no longer wholesome, but why shouldn’t it be?” Alex continues. “If our game brings people joy and helps foster acceptance, I’m more than happy for anyone to call it wholesome.”

Spirit Swap

The organizer that Alex mentions is Matthew Taylor, who’s helping put together the Wholesome Games Direct. For the Direct’s part, he tells us that there’s “no right answer” for what wholesome games actually are. He calls the genre “fluid and inclusive” — much like its surrounding community.

Though this niche community is growing, Taylor also recognizes a need to “broaden the conversation” industry-wide about taking the genre more seriously.“For many years, the most critically acclaimed titles have been the ones with the darkest themes and grimmest depictions of life,” he says. It’s hard to argue with the belief, with a landscape dominated by blockbusters like Call of Duty, God of War, and The Last of Us. This is why Taylor is helping put on the Wholesome Games Direct, to showcase the “breadth of experiences that games can have.”

Lead developer Wren Brier of Unpacking, a game about taking items out of boxes and learning about life along the way, agrees with this. She laments that most games falling under the wholesome umbrella are easily overlooked, especially since they aren’t considered ‘traditional’ games. Publicly using the wholesome label can help market games like Unpacking to specific, niche audiences that developers may struggle to find otherwise. “There is a gendered aspect to this as well, as these are often games that cater more to women,” Brier tells Fanbyte. “Having a label helps bring together the fans of existing games in this category, i.e. Harvest Moon and Pokemon Snap, and creates a cohesive audience base for these kinds of experiences.”

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“As long as it is not viewed as a list of requirements that must be met, we think that any labels can be embraced, improved upon, mixed together and so on,” says Gariépy of Paralives. “There really are no rules.”

But there’s no true consensus among developers as to whether the “wholesome” label hinders or helps a game. Liu of Snacko has a slightly more skeptical view, explaining that it’s okay for labels not to entirely capture the nuance and diversity of the subject they’re seeking to categorize, because they are merely a way to introduce an audience to a game. 

Paralives

Platforms like Steam are a good example. There, labels are assigned to video games so they can be split into associated categories under search filters. Rareș Cinteză, the founder of Romanian-based indie studio Gummy Cat, sees this as a positive. He says wholesome games should be seen as a form of curation for an ever-expanding games catalog, pointing to the rising number of new titles coming out every year. Forming communities around tags, he says, should be encouraged.

This is especially important since these games cater to an audience that has typically been under-served for years. “[Wholesome games] often have a very low skill cap which translates to a low barrier of entry for many casual gamers,” says Patrick Gauthier of Reky Studios.

Liu calls the wholesome label “extremely subjective,” and believes that’s actually one of its strengths, because the trend can grow to include a wide variety of experiences. “There are wholesome games that would be obvious, such as Animal Crossing, and some that people would disagree with me on, such as Yakuza 0,” says Liu. The developer points to certain activities in Yakuza 0, like singing karaoke and getting plushies from claw machines, as making them feel the same way they do while playing Animal Crossing.

Developers of self-ascribed wholesome games certainly hope the label grows to encapsulate more games for more people. But for now, some adversity still exists around the trend online. “I think a lot of the negative reactions come from a sense that this represents an erosion of other game experiences,” says developer Tim Dawson of Unpacking. “Hopefully in time people will just come to terms with the fact that an indie dev making a game about cooking isn’t denying them a war shooter.”

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Hirun Cryer

Hirun is a freelance games reporter. He can be found wasting away in front of JRPGs and being really bad at Apex Legends.

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