I thought I knew cute just fine. That was until I rolled up at this year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, where it’d become practically weaponized.
Above: Beglitched screenshot courtesy of Hexacutable.
The cutest thing that had ever happened in my life up until about a week ago was the time I went to a micro pig farm. Micro pigs are these tiny little oinklets, the size of small dogs (though they eventually grow to be the size of large dogs) and there were, at the time of visiting, one-day-old piglets. Imagine the tiniest thing you can think of, and then halve it. That's a one-day-old micro piglet. It was so adorable I cried a little bit, after I was done shoving knee-high children out of the way to get to the pigpen.
But that was before I went to GDC 2017, where cuteness reigned supreme. There may not have been any unbearably small farm animals, but instead it had cute games, events, parties, and talks. If GDC 2017 were a physical object, it would be a big, soft beanbag made out of (imitation, of course) chinchilla fur.
The week began with a talk by Jenny Jiao Hsia, a developer who's worked on Stellar Smooch and Beglitched, called "Put a Face on It: The Aesthetics of Cute".
In the talk, Jenny discussed how cuteness is a radical, underappreciated and underestimated tool for telling stories and engaging with your players. You may have heard of "kawaii", the Japanese term for cuteness, but perhaps not its invention as a cute way of writing started by Japanese schoolgirls in the 1970s and '80s. Though the writing was banned in schools for being illegible, it started taking over adverts, commercial products and, eventually, the internet. Despite its origin as something subversive, a way for kids to put their own identity on language, it is now intensely popular.
Games, Jenny said, work in a similar way. Cuteness is unthreatening, it's welcoming, it's a method of expression that comes from parts of the community that are bored with Generic Beardy Gun Boy and his band of beige man-friends. It connects us by inviting us in, and though it's been undermined by the sexist assumption that anything vaguely feminine is automatically "lesser", this means that cuteness can challenge those assumptions by being far more powerful than anyone expects.
Jenny showed some of the games she made in this vein, including one about dieting, in which a cute, cartoonish face dances away on a snake-like neck from "healthy" foods and chases around "unhealthy" foods. It's adorable, but it's also semi-autobiographical (semi- because Jenny doesn't have a snake-like neck), based on her experiences with extreme dieting, low body confidence and eating disorders. By telling such a serious story in such a sweet way, Jenny invites the player to let down their guard, to become involved on an emotional level without having a billion Extremely Intense Things thrown at them from the very beginning.
Jenny isn't the only one making these games, either. On the showfloor, and particularly at the indie-focused hotspots like Double Fine's Day of the Devs booth and the Indie Megabooth, cuteness is once again the aesthetic of the year. In fact, the week before GDC marked the release of Night in the Woods, a game that tells the story of aimlessness, an unwanted homecoming and the tedium of a small American town populated by people who aspire to nothing greater than what they already have.
Hometown blues is something most people can relate to—that feeling of having failed life, of taking steps backward, being stifled and suffocated by the lack of change. But by telling the story through artist Scott Benson's big-eyed, anthropomorphized animals, Night in the Woods becomes an accessible way to tell a difficult story.
There's something about seeing a cat talk about malaise and ennui and all the other fancy French words for intense, life-shriveling boredom that's infinitely more compelling than just another flesh-sack being sad. We've seen humans being sad; that's every TV show and romantic drama available to us—and it loses its appeal after a while. That's why shows like BoJack Horseman took everyone by surprise. Its cartoon aesthetic implies something softer than what it really is, allowing for the writers to create something subversively, surprisingly deep when we expect some shallow moral about remembering to brush our teeth.
Cuteness represents so many things that have been undermined and undervalued for so long: femininity, childishness, being ourselves.
Over at Day of the Devs, showcasing a curated selection of the best of the best of upcoming indie games, cuteness as a uniting theme ran through everything like a caramel ribbon through a tub of Ben & Jerry's.
There was Mineko's Night Market, a sweet, good, pure game about cats and food, made by a team of cuties that spent a lot of time at GDC handing out adorable stickers and hand-felted fanart to other developers (side note: it's incredibly cute to see very, very talented creators being fans of other very, very talented creators' work). Mineko's Night Market is a game that isn't afraid to revel in its own sweetness, with its stumpy little kittens, its crayon-like style and its soft, pastel palette. The personalities of the two-person team behind the game shine through in every bit of dialogue and silly visual joke, and it's such a wonder to see people being unashamed of loving cute things.
In a similar vein, there was also Ooblets. If you thought Pokémon was cute, then prepare to throw your stuffed Pikachus in the bin, because Ooblets is about to take the crown for Best Most Cute Thing Where Monsters Fight. It's a combination of Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing, two games that pioneered cuteness in games. They weren't afraid to give players a relaxed set of boundaries, to prioritize friendship and slow, heartwarming interactions. Ooblets takes all that and runs with it, with monsters (well, let's call them Ooblets) that range from the jellyfish-like Gloopy Long Legs to the Pantsabear, a bear wearing pants.
So often with games, everything feels like it has to be serious and po-faced, that every character has to have a backstory where their mother died in a horrible fire and their father drinks to forget. Not with Ooblets. Pantsabear is a bear wearing pants.
These games are no lesser for leaning into cuteness and silliness. If anything, they are an antidote to how awful things can be in the real world. Sometimes when responsibility and stress and worry get too much, it's comforting to regress into a world where bears wear pants and cats can be ridden like horses. Regression and childlike wonder are often considered to be stupid and worthless, likewise girliness—but why should they be? Cuteness represents childishness and girliness, and neither of those are bad things. Why should we force everyone to act like an adult all the time? Why should girly things be considered worthless? Why should we listen to the boring men in suits about what is or isn't good?
Cuteness is a force for greatness. Cuteness represents so many things that have been undermined and undervalued for so long: femininity, childishness, being ourselves. Making things and enjoying things that are cute feels refreshing and honest in a world where everything else is gritty and hard. Most importantly, though, cuteness and kindness are actually radical behaviors and aesthetics. They go against the grain, they challenge our thoughts on what is or isn't "normal", and fight against toxic masculinity by welcoming all into a place that's soft and sweet.