Recently, I’ve found myself losing faith in cute games. This has come as a shock to me. For a while earlier this year, I was seeking out self-described cute games at the expense of pretty much anything else I play. The newest Kirby game occupied hours of my time in March; there’s a new puzzle game about dogs building a railroad that has been draining my phone battery in the last few weeks. But at the same time, I’ve never bounced off so many comfy games as I have in the last two or three months. It feels like for every game that clicks for me, there’s 10 more that are ready to hit me with farming and fishing mechanics, pastel hues, and a muted yet hard-to-grasp crafting system, and I frankly don’t have the stamina (a feeling others who watched a recent farming game-heavy Nintendo Direct seem to share).
At the risk of protesting too much, I really do like cute games. It’s just that I’ve realized I need them to be diluted with some humor or weirdness that lies under the cute, popping out when you least expect it.
Ooblets is a cute game. It’s also very, very weird.
Ooblets is a creature-collecting game set in a European-seeming town that launched into Early Access in 2020, and released in full on Sept. 1, 2022. Launching the same year as two Pokemon entries (and the same day as online multiplayer Pokemon-alike TemTem), Ooblets has been a bit overlooked. But past its bright exterior and so-cute-you-could-scream creatures lies a layer of oddness that makes it stand out from the (usually) more normal life sim crowd.
That weirdness starts with the characters, who are lanky and look like they’re molded out of play-dough. Their facial expressions are simple lines and circles, with pipe-cleaner mouths and furry eyebrows. The ooblets, animal-plant hybrids that you collect and battle with, are more straightforwardly cute, though their methods of reproduction (popping out a seed with a little “toot!”) are equally quirky. People (oobins) speak in garbled nonsense (oobish) and trade money (gummies) for pastoral goods like seeds, furniture, and incredibly expensive espresso. They are also completely filterless, and their responses when you speak to them range from charming (a man who believes he is a space alien) to unhinged (a police officer who writes up ooblets for “mocking him”).
As with many (though not all) games that advertise themselves through their cuteness, the gameplay matches the set dressing. Its aesthetic sensibility of relaxation and cuteness comes through in its mechanics, which are at the same level of engagement as the chores you’d complete in Animal Crossing. With few exceptions, things are very easy to do. Most of your progression through the story involves collection quests that you can complete the long way (growing and collecting items yourself) or the short way (completing daily quests, then using the currency rewards from those to buy shortcuts to the things you want to do). For example, you can plant and grow the seeds to make cloth, or you can complete some dailies and just buy the cloth directly. In a move reminiscent of mobile games, Ooblets lets you focus on different kinds of tasks as much or as little as you want, letting you reach the same goal via different avenues.
Ooblets makes various concessions in its pursuit of ease. Its ooblet dance battles, a card-battle system where you face your ooblets off against another team by performing moves to get to a point value first, are fun but very easy, to the point that collecting extra ooblets can become a bit of a mashy chore. The game could be accused of sticking its fingers into too many gameplay pies, but overall it makes an alright farming simulator, an alright card game, and a pretty good decorating-heavy life sim.
What holds all these genres together is its aesthetic. It’s clear that rather than accidentally making an assemblage that comes off a little odd, Ooblets is intentionally trying to be quirky. Its characters are so suffused with cutesy slang, and then suddenly existential or funny or gross, that the overload of cute and the immediate contrast create not just humor, but a sort of uncanniness that you can’t help but chuckle at, like when the clothing store salesman mentions the secret agents spying on him as an excuse not to talk to you, or the character who seems to be an adult baby demands candy from you ad nauseam. It’s also willing to be more direct about the essential weirdness of raising animals (or in this case plant-imals) to fight for you, and the equal artificiality of the “city person in a small town” premise of life sims since time immemorial. Sure, it’s cute, but it’s also (unironically) a little uncomfortable.
The larger question here is one that applies to other “wholesome” games, as well: if a game is trying to be quirky on purpose, does that automatically disqualify it from being good? This is a question we see all the time outside games, and the commonly received wisdom seems to be “kind of.” Just look at Zooey Deschanel’s career reception, or Portland, Oregon’s unicycling bagpipe guy. Quirkiness stands at the exact blind spot of self-awareness: enough to do something offbeat on purpose, but not enough to understand that the offbeat thing is actually deeply annoying.
The oddness of Ooblets works because it pushes past that threshold and directly, unselfconsciously lets its characters be who they are in all their weird, slang-filled glory. Less “cute stranger with a dark past” and more “if a 2012 Tumblr user were a place,” the citizens of Oob Isle toe the line of being cringe but never quite cross it—or maybe they cross it so egregiously, and with enough self awareness, that all is forgiven. My faith in cute games is restored, at least for now.
Emily Price is a former intern at Paste and a columnist at Unwinnable Magazine. She is also a PhD Candidate in literature at the CUNY Graduate Center. She can be found on Twitter @the_emilyap.