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The "wonderfully simple" winning recipe of Wholesome Direct

We chat to organisers Matthew Taylor and Jenny Windom about this year's show, providing escape and solace, and its publishing label Wholesome Games Presents

The fifth edition of Wholesome Direct took place on Saturday, presenting over 70 indie games.

Originating as a Twitter account by founder Matthew Taylor in 2019, Wholesome Games evolved to become not only a yearly digital showcase from 2020, but also a monthly newsletter, and a large community of like-minded people gathered around the best and brightest cosy games.

This year's Direct saw new trailers for highly awaited titles like Tiny Bookshop, Dungeons of Hinterberg, and Été, a highlight of last year's showcase that is out this July. But it also presented a wealth of new titles, most of them debut games from small indie studios, like Mythmatch, Caravan SandWitch, Littlelands, and many more. A platform for leftfield ideas and silly concepts, the event also delighted us by showcasing Optillusion's While Waiting.

Wholesome Direct feels like a safe space for an entire fringe of the games community and industry that's often been underserved. It gives a platform to underrepresented games, genres, creators, and cultures. This year, for instance, it showcased Niku Games' The Palace on the Hill, a coming-of-age story set in 90s rural India, and Sticky Brain Studios' Rooster, which celebrates ancient Chinese culture. In previous years, the showcase had been giving space to Visai Games' now multi-award winning narrative cooking title Venba as well.

Giving a platform to marginalised voices has always been part of the show's vision, Taylor tells GamesIndustry.biz.

Wholesome Games founder Matthew Taylor

"I think as soon as I realised we had a platform of any meaning whatsoever, I wanted to integrate that into it because that's just another component of changing the industry in a good way that will hopefully outlast Wholesome as a label," he says. "That's a positive impact we can make that literally changes people's lives."

This vision is further exemplified by Wholesome Direct being the only show last week acknowledging the situation in Gaza and showing solidarity to Palestine, with sales of its merch going to the Palestine Children's Relief Fund.

Talking about Venba more specifically, Taylor continues: "Knowing that we had any impact whatsoever on a developer getting such an important project out is maybe the proudest moment for me in Wholesome Games, so that's why it's important to me."

While Wholesome Direct often features a variety of presenters throughout, organiser and host Jenny Windom returned this year to helm the event. She explains that developers' lived experience is encompassed in what the team considers 'wholesome.'

"When we started talking about wholesomeness and what we were hoping to curate, I thought a lot about specifics, how we really, in this wholesome ethos, look at details within games," she says. "A lot of things that people find wholesome are things like little details of [a] kitchen, or the way that the plants are animated. What's really interesting, to carry that over into these stories from developers that we haven't heard from, is that a lot of them are really specific.

"So it's this idea [of] enjoying not only the specifics in our daily lives that we can make more magical and more cosy in a lot of ways, but also taking the specifics of people's lived experiences and really appreciating them for what they are, and allowing people to share them."

Niku Games' The Palace on the Hill released on Saturday off the back on the Wholesome Direct

It's something the Wholesome Games team has been vocal about from the get go: 'cosy' or 'wholesome' isn't a set of specific criteria, it's a vision and a vibe, it's gathering games based on an emotion rather than a genre or a gameplay loop.

Taylor says that every year he hopes that Wholesome Direct is almost the "state of the union" of "If you view it as a whole, you have an idea of what we're looking for."

"When we first started Wholesome Games, I kept saying I want to curate games by the way they make me feel instead of how you play them," he adds.

Windom concurs, saying that the selection process isn't checking boxes against set criteria.

"A lot of it is, truly, we all take a look at every game and have this initial gut impression of what [we] are drawn to. And we've learnt to really trust our gut. For me in particular, I try to look and see not only at what each game individually brings to the table and what gets me excited about them, but also how it fits in that whole showcase.

"If we have a lot of one type of genre, or if we have a lot of one certain type of art style – especially since we're curating within a niche – it can all feel very similar after a certain point.

So looking in really intentionally, trying to curate not simply just what we're attracted to but also a variety of titles. We've seen huge creativity from developers [on] what their interpretation of wholesomeness looks like, so that's been really fun."

Wholesome Direct organiser and host Jenny Windom

Taylor adds that the team really values showing games for the first time, providing a very welcome boost early in indie studios' marketing cycle. Wholesome Games has a 'developer first' approach, which it's taken even further by launching its own label, Wholesome Games Presents. The initiative offers funding, QA, marketing, publishing support, and more. So far it's worked on two successful releases: Doot & Blibloop's Minami Lane, and Jess Yu's Usagi Shima.

While familiar with both these titles, we express our surprise at the fact we didn't realise until recently that Wholesome Games had an involvement in these games beyond the Direct.

"It almost feels by design that you didn't know about it because it's something I'm very eager to start slowly, and build, as opposed to just busting out of the gate and saying 'here we are'," Taylor says.

"The desire was always there for me, to work more directly with certain developers. Mainly games that were small and maybe wouldn't have the eyes on them without our help. And then I started looking at the people we do have on our team here like Jenny and Victoria [Tran, Innersloth's communications director and also Wholesome Direct organiser] and the knowledge that we've all gained either from Wholesome Games or from our day jobs. And it just started to click that we could really offer a little bit more help for a few select games, whether that's just helping them make connections that we've garnered, or offering a little bit of outside perspective."

Sticky Brain Studios' Rooster is due to release in Q1 2025

Wholesome Games Presents wishes to target titles that want to remain small and that do "not care too much about becoming a worldwide phenomenon or a game that's going to make a million dollars so that executives can be happy with it," Taylor says.

Windom adds: "Having Wholesome Presents is really a response to what we've seen in the industry, especially in terms of funding [and] sustainable game development. A lot of teams may not be able to acquire funds, not because the funds aren't available but because they're not seen as viable scalable products.

"This idea of putting support into smaller studios and smaller games is one that moves into a model of sustainability for the industry that I would love to keep doing through Wholesome Presents, and would love to see even more folks participating in, because I think it's one that will help bolster a portion of our industry that does not often get to flourish."

"A lot of teams may not be able to acquire funds, not because the funds aren't available but because they're not seen as viable scalable products"Jenny Windom

Cosy games have been the subject of mockery in the past, often from a toxic fringe of the gaming community that foolishly considers that they're "not really video games." The explosion of farming sims in 2020 off the back of Animal Crossing: New Horizons' success even led to some increasing snark in the games industry itself, with some inexplicably irritated by the concept.

We ask the Wholesome Games team whether they think there's enough recognition for the type of games they're showcasing.

"It's growing, I think it's going to take time, there will always be a little bit of a bias against colourful and optimistic games [in this kind of] industry," Taylor answers. "We have something in our FAQ [about] the games that win awards are often the more gritty, pessimistic-looking games. And maybe that's even true in other mediums too, but I have hope that it'll catch up.

"Even though five years seems like a long time to me working on it, I don't think it's that long in terms of how long the industry's been around, and how long the focus has been on a completely different kind of player and a completely different kind of audience."

We think about the success of Venba, truly a testament to the fact that a different kind of game can win awards and be taken seriously.

Minami Lane is one of two titles that benefitted from the support of Wholesome Games Presents

While Wholesome Direct started during the COVID-19 lockdowns and off the back of the 'New Horizons effect', Taylor adds that the show has continuously grown since, showing that "the players are there, and they're going to stay there, it's not just a temporary thing."

"I think the environment has changed, but the way we make the Showcase is still pretty similar to how it was five years ago, which is wonderfully simple and hopefully really accessible," he adds.

Windom continues: "Even though folks aren't necessarily locked down or quarantined in their homes in the way that they were a few years ago, the state of the world is still pretty dire and there are still a lot of people who are looking for some sort of escape or solace.

"We've got a strong foundation [and] I think it'd be cool to have some sort of physical presence"Matthew Taylor

"People are still seeking out media that isn't simply comforting but also perhaps provides space for them to grapple with some of these harder conversations and harder topics."

We ask the pair what they envision for the future of the Wholesome Games brand, both for the Direct and the publishing label.

"It's interesting because the default answer is 'I want to grow', and I do, in the sense that I want to be able to help even more than we are right now and have more avenues to help," Taylor starts. "I really think we've got a strong foundation between the social presence that continues to elevate games throughout the years, and then the Direct. And now Presents is just a little more of a direct way. So I don't know, but I think it'd be cool to have some sort of physical presence.

"I remember being at PAX East in 2020, just before the pandemic. And that was when a lot of [our] ideas really came to [fruition]. That was the first time I ever met Jenny in person. So many things happened there and I can't help but want that again now that more people know what Wholesome Games is. And in the same way you might go to a convention and know, 'I'm going to go right to that booth because I trust that they're going to have something cool', it would be neat to do something like that. A lot of logistics have to happen for something like that to happen, that luckily we don't have to worry about as much for digital stuff, but that would be a cool next step."

Windom is looking forward to seeing more takes from developers about how they perceive wholesomeness, and is keen for Wholesome Games to grow too, but in a way that makes sense for what it represents.

"[Growing] in the way that we've already been really trying and doing," she explains, "which is being very intentional about it, and not worrying about growth for the sake of magnitude, scale and speed, but growth for the sake of making sure that what we're doing is done right; right by the developers that we're working with, and right by the community who's trusted us for years."

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Marie Dealessandri avatar
Marie Dealessandri: Marie joined GamesIndustry.biz in 2019 to head its Academy section. A journalist since 2012, she started in games in 2016. She can be found (rarely) tweeting @mariedeal, usually on a loop about Baldur’s Gate and the Dead Cells soundtrack. GI resident Moomins expert.
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