Cosy creations and community spirit: what makes a wholesome game in Dreams?
Is there anything better than curling up in your favourite chair with a good book, rain pitter-pattering on the window and a purring cat on your lap? Well, yes, actually: doing the exact same thing, but with a video game.
Often indie, slow-paced and free-form, with appealing art styles and personal stories, ‘cosy games’ have been around since the early days of video games. Remember the cow-farming bliss of Harvest Moon on SNES back in the 90s, or relaxing real-time life sim Animal Crossing on GameCube?
But cosy games, or wholesome games as they’re also often called nowadays, are becoming increasingly popular as the audience for video games broadens - and the world outside seemingly grows ever more stressful. (The fact that communities on social media platforms such as TikTok have formalised the easily searchable ‘cosy’ and ‘wholesome’ terms - helping other users find more games like their chilled-out faves - has surely helped boost their popularity, too.) Little wonder, then, that the mini-internet that is the Dreamiverse is filled with wholesome creations.
Small, but perfectly formed#
You don’t have to Dreamsurf very far to find the adorable diorama art of Tinydiorama. They’re one of Dreams’ most prolific and popular creators, and their sculptures are what we’d call ‘classic wholesome’. Pastel colours, softened edges, smooth clay-like textures - and, usually, animal characters with charmingly cartoonish proportions, or miniature houses with glowing windows that seem to invite you in (well, if you could fit).
“I’d say my creations are wholesome,” Tinydiorama tells us. “What makes a creation wholesome is the feeling it inspires. I think wholesome creations make people feel happy, and give them a chance to just relax and smile.” Their ‘good vibes’ test is usually to show their brother or sister their latest sculpt, and “if it makes them smile, then I know I’m doing a good job.”
But what is it about these pint-size scenes that give us that warm, fuzzy feeling? “I think small dioramas are so appealing because you can make little stories just through art,” Tinydiorama says. Presenting ideas at this scale, they say, activates the viewer’s imagination in a new way. What else could exist in this world? Surely nothing that’s not completely lovely. These places and ideas, so tiny and self-contained - often frozen in time - feel safe, somehow. It’s a mindful feeling that Tinydiorama intentionally creates: “I like the player to just focus on the art and notice all the small details that they'd probably miss if they were playing around with interactive elements.”
Hold them close#
There’s a similar theme to Yah_Deh, llCaptain_Morgan and Elca_Gaming's virtual plush toy shop, Deh Plushies, although visitors are given a little more freedom here. You’re able to wander the store at will, zoom in to get a closer look at the stuffed animals, T-shirts and trinkets on display - even play in VR. This is a chill-out space that is cosy, calming and rewarding to explore. “Cosy spaces are places that feel comfortable, so I try to make spaces that I'd like to be in,” Yah_Deh tells us, explaining that warm lighting is a key part of making a space that feels inviting. “For me personally, I play games as an escape from hectic everyday life. I think unwinding with a comfy, cosy game is really relaxing after a long day - and something a lot of people look for.”
Almost every plush toy design in the shop (which is frequently updated and added to) is the result of a suggestion from Yah_Deh’s Twitch stream viewers - from ‘Foodimals’ such as Waffle Cat, Sushi Dragon and Avocadodo, to giant pandas and squishy dragons. “I'm an animal lover, and find it fun to sculpt animals,” Yah_Deh tells us. “My sculpts tend to not be incredibly realistic, so they feel more like plushie toys. It's satisfying to be able to create something that wouldn't [otherwise] have existed, and to have them all in one place.” Indeed, no-one could deny that Pancake Shark is adorable - but this space being a living monument to a group of friends’ silly puns and crackpot ideas is, for us, the real origin of its feel-good vibe.
Can 'cosy' be challenging?#
Interestingly enough, Dreams creators do often introduce a little edge to their ‘wholesome’ works. One such example is Yah_Deh’s Pet The Pet, made with the help of RbdJellyfish, PIXELTUNER_92 and ghostfruit64. At first glance, all seems wholesome enough: you shake the controller, using the gyroscope to virtually pat the head of a gorgeous hand-drawn husky. But there’s a catch: stop petting the dog, and the scene begins to change. The skies slowly become stormier, and the puppy’s eyes grow larger and larger as it whines for attention.
We’re tickled by what seems to be an attempt at emotional blackmail - until Yah_Deh reveals the true inspiration behind the game, their pet husky Kenzie. “She was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer in January 2021,” we’re told. “I don't know how long I have left with her, and I wanted to have a way to still give her pets even after she passes. That's why there's a bit of darkness to the game.” (Happily, Kenzie is still doing well over a year on, having just celebrated her 11th birthday.) It’s a heart-achingly lovely bit of interactive storytelling. Keep petting the pet, and you can keep the dark clouds at bay. Now, Yah_Deh’s made a world where the sun will always shine on Kenzie, as long as she is loved.
It’s a great reminder that ‘wholesomeness’ is not necessarily a neat and tidy concept. As Yah_Deh puts it, “Even a game that isn't considered wholesome can have wholesome moments.” Venwave, creator of some of the most optimistic and uplifting games in Dreams, agrees. “I think wholesome can be very subjective, but to me wholesomeness is doing one's best to celebrate and respect all creatures - or in game terms, every aspect of the game's design,” they tell us. “There might be a conception that wholesomeness means that nothing goes wrong and negativity is absent. In my opinion, catharsis is a form of wholesomeness. There's something profound about taking a negative feeling and transforming it, healing it into something positive again.”
It's got character#
For venwave, wholesome is often messy. Their wobbly, sketch art style purposefully leans into the joyous looseness of the ‘default Dreams’ look. “I never had any intention of making games before Dreams, but have always loved art, like traditional cel animation,” venwave says. “In the same way that noticing a paint stroke in an animated movie can be exciting, like peeking behind the scenes, I find this very true in Dreams!” They’re complimentary about the engine’s ability to help speed along expression: “Flecks add detail to anything you do, much like a brush style in Photoshop. Since it's built in, it saves hours that might have to be spent on texturing! It’s one of the many ways Dreams makes expressing oneself super easy.”
Dreams’ “painterly style” has a hand in encouraging the personal touch, venwave says: “Every single creation has a feel of being made by hand. Like getting a handwritten card, lots of Dreams creations come straight from the heart.” That glimpse at the human influence behind a creation can help us feel closer to the person who made it, and venwave is very intentional about fostering that connection. “I hope by leaving loose flecks and scribbly lines that others can feel encouraged and inspired by their own wiggles, and not be dismayed by them,” they say.
Their 3D platformer, Drag Flower 2 The Exit, is the poster child for this concept. You play as a small, singing seed that, over the course of the game, grows and changes. So, too, does the soundtrack. While the titular ‘Exit’ is the goal, the kaleidoscopic and playful open world actively encourages you to stray from the beaten path. You can climb trees and find secrets - many of which are tributes to venwave’s friends. “As I was [making the game], I had to encourage myself a lot, and consciously accept every choice along the way,” venwave says. “There was a sense of zen growing that reminded me of the feelings I had while playing thatgamecompany's Journey, so I adopted a few sensibilities from that game: a focus on cinematic feel, the music mimicking your adventure, and every single moment feeling like a reward - not just the end.”
Venwave’s games want you to accept and appreciate things exactly as they are, in the here and now: flowers, friends, flecks. “Things don't always have to be detailed and ornate in order to be hugely significant and impactful,” they say. “Celebrating the small things that are often seen as mundane often helps me with my mental health.”
Home is where the heart is#
Housewave, a cartoon mansion filled with hidden collectibles and goofy minigames, continues this theme, harking back to simpler childhood days on the internet for many of us. It was inspired by the Reader Rabbit PC games venwave played as a kid: “A house seemed like a nice, cosy environment to explore things point-and-click style, and everything stemmed from that,” they tell us. “Houses to me represent comfort and safety, and I find comfort in letting my weirder ideas come to life. So this house has lots of strange oddities like a singing whale in the front pond, a spiritual extension of what was going on in Drag Flower 2, only a little bit more refined.” So... is weird wholesome, too? "Yes, I do think weird can be wholesome! There's probably an argument to made for 'weird for the sake of weird' versus 'weird as a byproduct of honesty', but I think they're both great! My philosophy is to try and be friendly with my thoughts. Metaphorically speaking, looking my ideas in the face, taking their hand and saying 'Hey, you're a great thought, let's give you a place in this thing we're making!'".
Venwave would take breaks from creating Housewave by playing games such as Sky: Children of the Light and Animal Crossing. “[They’re] both games that happen to incorporate time into their mechanics,” venwave says. “Certain things happen on certain days and for certain amounts of time - what you see one day might change the next! I loved the concept of things being the same but different when you came back to a game, and Housewave was perfect for this. A house can be renovated and rearranged over time, seasons change and holidays happen. It's a great format for games, I think.”
And, perhaps, a great opportunity for wholesomeness. While this space is undeniably nostalgic, as in Drag Flower 2 The Exit, the passage of time and the changes that occur are something to be celebrated. “There's even a Tree next to the house that players can make their own rooms for, so my appreciation for people doesn't have to be limited to my interpretations of them,” venwave says. “Dreams allows scenes to be made remixable, so I'm very happy to give others the ability to contribute to one of my spaces."
Are there things about the way Dreams and its tools work that makes it good for creating these kinds of wholesome experiences? “It's difficult to describe, but Dreams has the approachability of a sticker book with the expressive capability of Photoshop or Unity or any other major visual engine,” they say. The fact that “everyone's learning the tools in tandem” and is willing to help out on projects helps flatten the learning curve for would-be creators: “Because there's a healthy sense of collaboration in Dreams, nobody bats an eyelash if someone had help from a friend to make something in their scene work - in fact, it's celebrated!”
Would these cosy creators call Dreams itself a wholesome game, then? “Definitely!” say both Tinydiorama and Yah_Deh, pointing to not just the creation tools, but the huge amount of wholesome, cosy games available to play in Dreams. Venwave’s on board with this analysis, too. “A deep respect for creativity permeates Dreams and its communities,” they say. “We're all learning the tools together and helping each other out. In the process, fun things start to happen - like you might play a genre of game you wouldn't normally like, and find you really loved it.
“There's a fun detective aspect to Dreams, too,” they continue. “If you do a few of the tutorials and familiarise yourself with some of the tools, whenever you play a Dream you might recognise a technique the creator used. It’s like peeking behind the scenes at a theme park or movie set. That might even inspire you to try that technique out yourself when creating, or to do it in your own way! This cycle of creative give and take is really wholesome to witness, and be part of.”
Want to discover even more wholesome, cosy games made in Dreams, as seen in the above picture gallery? Check out our curated Wholesome Games collection by using the buttons below!
(Requires that you own Dreams)
The Dreams User Guide is a work-in-progress. Keep an eye out for updates as we add more learning resources and articles over time.