“Wholesome” does not describe a genres of games.
There are no structural or mechanical requirements to be considered a wholesome game, the term instead directly references a feeling, an aesthtic, a player experience and so of course everything is a mess of definitions, because different things make different people feel wholesome.
The term is much more about rejecting violence based gameplay loops and less about a conrete set of unifying traits. So you can have wholesome skateboarding-, farming-, platforming- and anything-else-that-doesnt-include-murder- games. Pretty much any genre can be made non-violent or be given a fresh coat of paint and then qualifies to be called wholesome.
Any mechanical innovation that is happening here can not directly happen inside a shared design space of wholesome games. Instead every genre that gets reframed examines its systems through the lens of wholesomeness.
So all these games, coming from wildly different branches of gaming history, only share an intended player experience of wholesomeness, resulting in a kind of Lo-Fi Beats to relax/study to vibe to the whole thing, a heavy emphasis of ghibli-esque colors and heightened attention to mental health and inclusivity.
And thats cool, it really is. Interesting work is being done in active rejection of violence. Thats great!
When i was 7 or 8 years old I played a game where you take care of rabbits, play with dogs and provide a nice environment for all sorts of pets. It was cheaply produced, probably because it was aimed at the unpopular “girl” segment of the market, but today, with some new colors and music, it would have been called a wholesome game.
These games and mechanics did not appear from nowhere, they have existed for a long, long time, they just never got taken seriously by the gaming mainstream. The pandemic (and general state of the world) just made it more acceptable to engage in gaming activities that are trying to be relaxing and cute and …wholesome.
So the whole things becomes not only more profitable, it also gets a concrete label that you can use when pitching to investors, something that helps your, previously sneered at, game to get funding.
Wholesome games are shooting up left and right, but there is no clear definition of what wholesome is, there is no single big game that everyone tries to replicate and, of course, the cynical cashgrabs and earnest efforts become harder to separate over time.
Because the lo-fi nature and soft definition of the whole movement means that making a wholesome game is within reach of many developers and, wew, it is hard to make a living as a small dev. There should be no sneering at those who make wholesome games, even if their only motivation is to make some money off of a trend. They probably need that money to survive.
What is much scarier to me is that wholesome games, while being able to talk about death and race and mental ilnesses on a surface level, can never really be thorough, they can never go too deep into any of their themes or they risk breaking the promise of wholesome relaxation.
You expect a nice resolution to any conflict and a hug in the end. Every problem you solve in wholesome games only exists to facilitate a cathartic conclusion of self love and community, just like every enemy you kill in more conventional games only exists to fuel the power fantasy machine.
It is not the rejection of violence, but the mandate of comfyness that rubs me, personally, the wrong way.
There are, undoubtedly, horrible things happening in the world at all times and escapism from that is sometimes healthy, often needed and always a bit indulgent. It does not really matter wether you safe skyrim by killing hundres of skeletons or run a cute bike repair shop in a quaint village, you are, essentially, enjoying the same fantasy of meaningful action.
Personally, I want to make games that are not as satisfying, not as endless, but that try to express something that is so complicated and hard and impossible to say, that I have to design it instead.
That is my personal goal and i dont hold a grudge against anyone for thinking thats pretentious or dumb or whatever, it just explains why I have been kind of judgemental of the concept of wholesome games for some time now:
They feel safe.
We need and deserve to feel safe and its fucking amazing that there is now a whole category of games that tries to facilitate that and explores new stuff on the way, but I do not want to make safe games.
Being safe means not challenging anyone too much, not pushing too hard. Of course, the majority of games I personally enjoy (and probably also end up making) are not really pushing the envelope of what games could be.
Downwell is about murdering thousands of little critters, but thats acceptable, thats the norm, thats safe, just has Hotline Miami, in its extravagant violence, is a standard videogame that never really does anything substantially subversive.
So when I criticise the concept of wholesome games for being safe, I am really just turning a blind eye to all the safe stuff that I enjoy myself.
I think that this sums up all the debate that has been going on, at least on surface level:
The attribute of “wholesome” allows previously ignored types of games to get attention and funding as long as they do not become too subversive and People who enjoy the old non-subversive games feel a bit threatened, while both kinds of “safe games” ultimatly just try not to challenge their audiences too much, so that the developers can survive while the people who control the distribution platforms make all the money and do not have to give a shit about what specific type of fantasy people are escaping into.
P.S.: I would like to add that while ive been thinking about this topic for ages, it was tweets by https://twitter.com/sonofbadru and https://twitter.com/ellaguro that compelled me to write them up! They clearly expressed some things i had been struggling to get a grip on and i am very thankful for that :)