It was back in August when I saw Nintendo sharing bits from a presentation on Dragon Quest XI’s upcoming Switch release. I skimmed through the points, with them ranging from improvements made to the battle system to an apparent answer as to what Slimes taste like. However, I stopped to read the details of one of the slides they shared, where they detailed how players could now pet dogs, cats, and horses in the game world. It’s an incredibly minor feature, and it has no bearing or impact on the game as a whole. However, looking at the response, I saw that people were going crazy over it. This was the first moment that made me step back and take a look at this trend in games. This wasn’t the first game where I’ve seen them talk about petting animals, and since then, it has not been the last.
These actions fit into a category I call “Wholesome Culture”. When I first told my family that I was writing about this, they took a negative view until I explained my word choice. Where the 2000’s had seen wholesome as a term to reflect Christian family values from the 50’s, it has since received a revival to instead promote wellness in daily life with no other agenda aside from being happy. Looking back, my definition aligned well with “nicecore”, or media that advertises altruism above all else. Basically, this covers anything added to a game for the specific purpose of promoting positive health, be it physical, mental, or emotional. The most common form of this I see can be through complementing the player, usually telling them how faith is placed in them, regardless of how the player may view themselves. There are also points where the player is given the opportunity to interact with the world in a positive manner, such as petting an animal or helping people live their lives.
In some cases, there can be incentives to do these actions. In Super Mario Odyssey, the player is tasked with collecting dozens of “Power Moons” by completing certain tasks. One such task is sitting with a man on a bench in a crowded city. The NPC specifically comments how sitting on the bench is out of the way, but then thanks the player for easing the loneliness, giving them a Power Moon. Another case is with the dogs in Breath of the Wild and Mario Odyssey. Both of them can lead you to treasure if you befriend and hang out with them, but it’s completely optional. The items you get can be obtained with other methods, but none of those methods involve playing with dogs, and are thus infinitely inferior.
Of course, this isn’t absent in older titles. The Kirby series has had a long history of making very cheerful experiences and loading their games with new and exciting ways to make the already-adorable Kirby somehow even cuter, with the intro to Kirby’s Adventure being a basic guide to drawing the character. But even this goes to the extreme with some of the later titles, such as with Kirby Star Allies, and how the entire premise of co-op involves befriending enemies by throwing hearts at them.
But this same attitude can be seen outside of the games in general. Looking back at E3 2019, when I looked at the accounts of the highlights, many didn’t focus on the games specifically. Instead, they talked about Cyberpunk, and how Keanu Reeves reminded everyone in the crowd of how breathtaking they are, or how despite Bethesda’s conference being rather tone-deaf, Ghostwire helped stand out thanks to the creative director, Ikumi Nakamura, and how genuine her enthusiasm was. Looking at many game communities, they also tend to express appreciation for smaller elements in games. Fire Emblem: Three Houses had a variety of recruitable characters with their own intricate plots and strengths, and yet the only universally-loved character was the nameless Gatekeeper whose dialogue was practically limited to variations of “Greetings professor! Nothing to report!”.
I can see two different aspects of our culture that facilitated this movement. The first is a shift in values. Many of the older values in our society are changing to be more welcoming and inclusive. Where once men were discouraged from sharing emotions and taught to be emotionally isolated from the world around them, we’ve seen a normalization of expression within men. While some people will still say that men can’t show any emotion that isn’t gleaming pride, communities are opening up to softer-spoken men who encourage abandoning toxic masculinity in favor of more self-reflective behavior (such as the aforementioned Keanu Reeves, Terry Crews, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson).
But perhaps a lot more significant is the revelation that we’re all constantly freaking out. I will not mince words here. We live in a burning world where people who ignore our input drag us towards the proverbial midnight. Our increased understanding in medical psychology has also helped diagnose many more cases of depression and anxiety, which are certainly not aided by the focus on disasters and tragedies in most bits of media.
This world may not be ideal, but there’s plenty to enjoy about it. The reason dogs have become so prevalent in culture is because of their joyous attitude. Many of them are very friendly and curious, and some reports even indicate that they love us just as we love them. I can certainly say that my dog is an absolute goofball, but I would also do literally anything to keep her happy. We got her a larger bed so her head doesn’t droop over the side, and all that has done is make her sleep towards the edge, so it will anyway. That doesn’t have anything to do with the story. I just wanted to share that fact with you because I thought it was important anyway. Yet, that is precisely the point that’s being made. I know talking about my dog is overall unimportant, but I want to share these facts with you because I want Greta to brighten your day.
Although I suppose that’s fairly irrelevant compared to 2015, when I noticed more people were talking about Bob Ross. I hadn’t known about him beforehand, so finally watching an episode of his show was a pleasant surprise (or perhaps a more fitting term is a happy accident). He emphasized respecting nature, taking care of the self, and rolling with what life provides you. I even learned that if someone who often wrote to him suddenly stopped, he would check in with them to make sure everything is ok.
Bob Ross isn’t the only figure that has received a resurgence in popularity thanks to their inviting demeanor. Mr. Rogers has had two films made about him, talking about how his positive messages and presentation helped shape a kinder generation. When PETA slighted Steve Irwin on his birthday, countless people rushed to his defense, talking about how much he respected nature and wanted to show its beauty to the world. I noticed an interesting difference a while back with Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan that helped me appreciate the latter. Tyson often uses his scientific knowledge to belittle common practices and thoughts, acting as if he is the smartest in the room. His tone is condescending and self-important, where Carl Sagan invited these alternate approaches to science, knowing the curiosity fueled exploration and led to making many revelations about our universe. These men invited curiosity, education, and understanding of the world around us.
But I’ve also seen a rebellious angle, though this delves a bit into the realm of politics. With the election of Donald Trump, the enactment of Brexit, and other similar political happenings, there has been a sudden surge in xenophobia. While these cases may not entirely be due to these events, there still must be acknowledgement that this became more prominent following these events. These attacks leave a sense of cold isolationism wrapped in ribbons of intolerance. So these wholesome games counter this with unyielding acceptance and overwhelming joy. In essence, these games are internalizing the saying, “killing them with kindness”.
Some people push back against these games and their increased accessibility, chalking it down to “SJW’s ruining the gaming industry”. However, I’ll make the bold claim that this isn’t a majority. I would like to think that many others are enjoying these titles, fine with the increased accessibility and welcoming atmosphere. For some, it may be one of the first games they’ve played that let them play in a space similar to their own situation.
So, what is the point of this article? Really, it is to appreciate the games that try to make the world a better place. I haven’t even mentioned games like Kind Words, where the premise of the game is to just write positive letters to strangers. I guess that’s overall why I wanted to write this. I wanted to share this kindness with the people in your life. When you see a helpful NPC that tells you to never give up, remember that it likely comes from a developer who wants you to see that challenge through. A lot of people think strength is shown by beating down their enemies, but I’d say it shows itself more through picking someone up off the ground. So smile. Go out and do a nice thing for a stranger. Enjoy yourself with your passions, and put your heart into what you do. Share kindness with the world around, and maybe if you have time, go pet the dog.
Matthew Huddleston is a Game Design major with a minor in Interactive Narrative. He lives in Massachusetts, and is currently working on a small platformer about plants. When not working on games, he is typically writing, walking, or playing with his Airedale terrier, Greta.