This year, the organization Wholesome Games hosted another edition of its indie spotlight show, Wholesome Direct. While not officially a part of E3, the show took place during the time that E3 was going on, unofficially making it a part of that gigantic conglomeration of shows and press conferences – and a breath of fresh air amid all that. While I love the polished intensity and powerful punches that AAA developers and publishers bring to their games – I’ve been playing Apex Legends non-stop for about four months now – it was nice to watch a show and series of trailers that were wholly devoted to a different kind of gaming experience.
In response to the question “Why [start the Wholesome Games community]?”, the website states, “One of the goals of Wholesome Games is to change how we think about which games are taken seriously. For many years, the most critically acclaimed titles have been the ones with the darkest themes and grimmest depictions of life, but there’s also a whole world of hopeful video games with rich storytelling, innovative gameplay, and beautiful art and sound. We want to be a part of showcasing the breadth of experiences that games can have for players.” There’s nothing wrong with games that display the darkest themes and grimmest depictions of life, as the answer says, but sometimes it’s nice to have a complementary experience, something that emphasizes the light and happiness that video games can bring to players. Watching this year’s Wholesome Direct and all the color and light it brought was a great change of pace from the rest of E3 2021.
Many Forms of Color
As I said previously, sometimes I crave the intensity and frenetic pace of darker, more mature games. There’s nothing that can make you feel cooler, more adept, or more accomplished than quite literally destroying everyone you’re up against, in the case of a multiplayer game, or saving the world from a dark and dangerous force in single-player games like Dark Souls or Nier: Automata. Sometimes, though, the visceral experience of one half of the human emotional spectrum isn’t what I want out of my video games. Sometimes, I just want something colorful, creative, and…positive.
Not all of the games presented at the Wholesome Direct are necessarily “happy” all the time – some of them have dark points in their mysteries or stories, which are generally used to get the player more interested in exploring the game’s world or getting to know a character. What connects all of the games shown, though, is that the focus is not on the violence that’s always been commonplace in games. Before you jump down my throat and show me all the studies that show no connection between in-game violence and real-world violence, trust me when I say that violence in games, or any media, is not always a bad thing.
Over-the-top violence can be silly and fun, as is the case with Borderlands, one of my favorite game series. It’s just nice that there’s an alternative to these kinds of games available for those who want them and that such games are being given a similar spotlight to those in major E3 publisher presentations. Many major game companies have become rather homogenous in their games’ pursuit of violent, wish-fulfilment power fantasies, so it’s nice to see games where the focus is on something different. There’s enough violence in the world right now that sometimes I just want to tune everything out and play in a world where brutality is not the focus.
Creativity and Expression
Many of the games shown at the Wholesome Direct had similar gameplay styles and focuses. One of the most common was a focus on creativity: many of the games allowed and encouraged players to be creative in some way, whether that’s in designing their own characters, houses, and businesses, like in The Sims, or in stepping into the shoes of another character, animal or human. (Lots of the games featured animal protagonists and characters – if you love Animal Crossing, you might want to give them a closer look!) Oftentimes, traditional AAA games put us into a very specific kind of character. While that’s great for experiencing another point of view, the creativity inherent in many of Wholesome Direct’s featured games allows players to craft experiences that look and feel more like them; this is especially important for people who don’t see themselves reflected in mainstream games.
This month is Pride month, the celebration of all things queer. It’s a reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. Games that allow players to craft their own character, identity, house, career, and more are especially important for those who are questioning their identity or are unable to be their true selves in the situation they’re in. For example, a visual novel that allows players to choose their gender and date a variety of other characters may help someone explore their gender identity or sexuality. A Sims-like game that allows someone to craft their own physical character model may help someone who’s struggling with gender or body dysphoria. Some AAA games let you do similar things, but the sheer amount of options available in the games featured at the Wholesome Direct – and the more specific focus on queerness in many of them – allow spaces for people to experiment with and explore their identity in a comfortable, private space. It’s an experience not afforded to players through any other medium, and as such, it’s amazing to see these games get a moment in the sun.
I sincerely hope that more games like those shown in the Wholesome Direct are featured in major developers’ and publishers’ shows in the future. While each publisher had a few games that weren’t the usual dark and gritty experiences, the Wholesome Direct was the only place where those games were given a true spotlight. Honestly, it’s never a bad thing to bring more peace, softness, and light to our games. There’s nothing wrong with liking or preferring either kind of game, as both afford different experiences and satisfy different parts of the human psyche, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t great to see more bright, colorful, happy games on the horizon. The hope is that these games inspire people to bring light and color to others’ lives – and to their own.