“hello im a detective i solve every mystery” reads the Twitter bio of the Frog Detective, who’s widely known as the second-best detective in the fictional universe of his very own adventure game.
As a whodunnit, The Haunted Island, a Frog Detective Game follows the plucky, amphibious investigator as he gets to the bottom of two cases: the source of the spooky sounds plaguing an island and the truth behind the inexplicable wreckage of a welcoming party for a neighbor. But rather than adopt the hardboiled, neo-noir vibes of detective games like LA Noire, Frog Detective has the titular frog earnestly solving crimes in a wholesome tale filled with nonsequiturs — like building a bomb with pasta, bananas, and an assortment of random items. And together with a zany cast of talking animals, it makes for a whimsical, silly, and cute game.
There has been a boom in popularity for titles like Frog Detective lately; these are often quirky, relaxing, comical, perhaps a tad absurd, and devastatingly adorable. Think of the whimsical adventures in Wattam, the charming bite-sized games by the Sokpop Collective, the relaxing hiking trips in A Short Hike, and the dreamy farm sim of Garden Story. These “uwu games” — personally coined after the emoticon, which denotes an overwhelming sense of joy from experiencing an overload of cuteness — are a stark contrast from traditional notions of video games, which are typically adrenaline-soaked action-fests or majestic, fantasy epics where peril lurks at every corner. Instead, uwu games are filled with anecdotes and happenings that are decidedly less consequential and earth-shattering, as they focus on the charm behind the mundane.
When I asked these developers about their influences, it turned out many are largely inspired by what they see around them, and the goings-on in their daily life. Take, for instance, A Short Hike, which its creator, Adam Robinson-Yu, says was the result of several trips he took last year. He wanted to make a game that invokes the quiet serenity of hiking up mountains and traversing through the wilderness.
“I went on a road trip with some of my friends and we visited Yosemite, we went to Mount Glacier, and stuff like that. The feeling of hiking in the woods… I was really into those trips, and I didn’t realize how much I loved just going to a mountain and hiking up it, and I was thinking how I could try and take that experience and put it in a video game form,” he says. “I don’t think A Short Hike really ended up being what I thought a hiking simulator would be, but that was the inspiration.” In the game, you play as a young bluebird on a vacation, and you’ll be trekking through the mountainous terrain of Hawk Peak Provincial Park to get to the summit. The destination isn’t the point. A Short Hike is all about taking in the tranquility of the trail.
Likewise, Keita Takahashi, the creator behind Katamari Damacy and Wattam, says he mostly gets his ideas for his games through his life. “I usually get ideas from my routine daily — I don’t go on trips often and don’t have many friends,” he explains. “I like my simple life, and I think there are still many unknown ideas or perspectives, even my simple one. I came up with Katamari [Damacy] and Noby Noby [Boy] ideas from my daily life in Japan.”
His games, which are characterized by their eccentricity and silliness, are inspired by Takahashi seeing the absurdity and joy in these routines, often by trying to view them through different lenses. Yet he admits that searching for these moments can be tough. “But it’s hard to find them out because my common sense and bias both interrupt always. I know having common sense is so important for us, but sometimes it can make us blind and hide other perspectives,” he says.
“I think what mostly inspired me was Keita Takahashi’s games,” says game designer Tom van den Boogaart, one-fourth of the Sokpop Collective, over a Skype conversation. He acknowledges Takahashi’s influence in his game design, saying, “And I found out about Noby Noby Boy, which is this great game about [a figure] that stretches across the screen, and it’s really colorful and weird. It also has these procedural animations, and it’s very bubbly... it played a big part in my visual design.”
Sokpop is a collective of four game developers whose short games — which can usually be completed in under an hour or two — are made up of an eclectic mix of genres, from physics-based puzzle games to a text-based massively multiplayer online game. Since 2018, they created more than 50 games through a games-subscription model on Patreon. Although each has their own idiosyncrasies, what ties the games together is how they all have a charm, wonder, and humor that are undeniably Sokpop.
This Sokpop aesthetic is mostly patched together from the collective’s interest in humor, particularly if it’s presented in a simplistic or animated form. That’s why violence is a topic they wouldn’t shy away from, although they admit it isn’t what they are drawn to. “Our games tend to not have violence in [them]. But I don’t think it’s a hard choice for us. I guess we are just drawn to more non-violent things. For me personally, there’s already so many violent games out there, and I don’t feel the need to also make that,” says Aran Koning, another member of the collective. “I think cartoon violence is really funny, it’s funnier than ‘proper’ violence. I’m fine with a game character in my games like, punching another character, that way it’s funny.”
“It’s kind of like indirect humor, you don’t tell jokes. It’s more like, oh, this fish looks really funny if you do this and that,” adds Ruben Naus.
More than just a preference for cuter, gentler games, this aesthetic also serves a more functional purpose for the developers. For Sokpop, applying a simpler visual design rather than the high-fidelity graphics of blockbuster games is a better fit for their unique games subscription model via Patreon. “I also think it was easier for us to make games out of circles and lines, which is easier to make. And [since we’re] making a lot of games at a time, it’s easier to get something finished,” says Boogaart.
“I have some people that help me out but when I’m making games, I’m always limited by what I can actually do,” said Robinson-Yu. As A Short Hike is predominantly a solo effort, he also faced several constraints in terms of resources and skills. ”In A Short Hike, the character for the game was the first character I ever rigged as a 3D model, so I wouldn’t be able to make anything realistic, it’s just out of scale for me,” he shares. “So I think making something that looks cute and cartoony like this, was something that I like to make, but it was also much easier to create assets and create new characters and things for the world through this cute, distant look.”
As a result, making more detailed models would have taken him more time and effort. “There’s a lot of things I can’t make, and it’s trying to find an interesting look for the game and something that I think will be appealing to people, but within the skills set that I actually have.”
Meanwhile, the adorable, oblong look of the Frog Detective was a happy accident for Grace Bruxner, who started working with 3D visuals, eventually sticking with it because her own 3D designs tickled her. “When I got into games, I wanted to make 2D point-and-click adventures, because that was all I had experience playing, and [it’s] relevant to my existing skill set. I started learning 3D and realized I was really quite terrible at it, but didn’t mind at all. It was more freeing to make things in 3D, and because I was bad at it, the things I was making automatically made me laugh,” she says. “Even though I eventually got much better at 3D, making silly things was all I wanted to do, so I never really stopped.”
Although their games have a distinct, childlike quality, many developers revealed they did not create their games with a younger audience in mind, although they’re aware of their games’ child-friendliness. Some mentioned that they have heard of parents playing these games with their kids. For instance, Sokpop’s Naus says that their business model doesn’t quite allow younger children to find their games, so their demographic is mostly an older audience that’s already invested in video games. “I would like to make stuff for kids, but it’s just... you can’t really reach them without [the backing of a] big company, or making it free,” he explains.
“I can’t remember the last time I talked to a child, so I’m not sure what they like, but I definitely make sure the games we make are appropriate for children. I’m not making my games for them, or anyone else really,” says Bruxner, who also shares that she prefers to create games that are based on her own preferences. “Tom [the programmer who worked on Frog Detective] and I make our games for us. We’re very selfish. It’s very nice that other people enjoy the games, but they’re for us first and foremost.”
Instead, it’s accessibility and introducing her games to people who don’t traditionally fall under the umbrella of “hardcore gamers” that she’s most concerned about. “We put a lot of effort into making the game accessible thematically and visually, for people who aren’t interested in games that look...gamey. In the next year, we want to improve our accessibility for players with disabilities, because there are issues that are locking some players out right now.”
Pico, the game designer behind the upcoming farm sim-cum-roleplaying game Garden Story — which features a purple, orbicular fruit as a guardian of a small, thriving village — also shares similar sentiments. Keeping their games accessible for a wider and younger audience has always been a factor they think about frequently. “Stylistically, I don’t try to aim for a younger crowd, but I am constantly thinking about whether or not what I’m making is playable for them. It’s another aspect of accessibility that I don’t think is talked about very often, but I do take it to heart when working on games. Even if something is playable and appropriate for children, there’s a lot of important questions I think you still ask within that space.”
The gradual popularity of uwu games in recent years is changing the conversation around video games and its players. While the genre is still niche, there is a sizable community invested in their smaller, compact stories, which offer more laid-back and introspective experiences. Perhaps there’s a growing sense of fatigue around the heady, visual bombast of more mainstream games and the hypermasculine heroes that dominate them. This is evident in the popularity of the original uwu game — the Animal Crossing series — by Nintendo, the gaming behemoth that’s also behind a rich legacy of impossibly cute games like Pokémon, Earthbound, and Kirby.
“There’s a huge difference when it comes to the farming-genre community as opposed to something like the first-person shooter community. There’s just a huge gap in the way that people enjoy that content. I immensely enjoy whatever slice of the indie-dev community I’m in,” says Pico. “Everyone is incredibly supportive, and I think that’s just the magic of cool people playing non-competitive wholesome games! It creates a really supportive feedback loop that I enjoy so much.”
Through his games, Takahashi also wanted to impart a positive and ultimately uplifting experience to people who play his games. Nothing captures this good-natured joy better than his hopes of making games for an unusual audience. “I was really happy when I watched a YouTube video of a cat playing the Noby Noby Boy iPad version. When I got an opportunity to design a playground in Nottingham in the UK, playing with kids, parents, and dogs was the design concept. So my answer is, my ideal players are ’people, dogs, and cats.’ I’m so sorry for other animals, I will do my best on the next game for you guys.”
Uwu games like Takahashi’s offer players an escape to a universe where people are warm, kind, and wholesome — a place where adorable dogs, cats, and critters of all sorts will gladly grab a drink with you and offer genuine companionship. Their appeal lies in sheer endearment, silliness, and gentle charm, giving many players a respite from the complications of modern life.