Here in the Northern Hemisphere, we’re beginning to wind down from the holiday seasons by curling up beneath warm blankets with a mug of hot chocolate, while the Southern Hemisphere is no doubt basking in the sun on a beach. Naturally, this got us thinking about coziness and the recent conversations the gaming industry has been having about how to capture it and what it can add to a game. Our own Maddi Butler wrote a piece on coziness in the Nancy Drew series, which served as a perfect jumping-off point for this discussion.
What does it mean to be cozy? Should games strive to make us feel that way? Let’s find out!
What constitutes coziness in a game to you?
Madison Butler: When I think of cozy games, I go back to the characteristics I loved in the Nancy Drew series: rich environments, interesting stories, and a sense of intimacy. I think intimacy—which, in this case means a sense of closeness with the main character or narrator—is what takes a game over the cozy threshold for me. Like the Nancy Drew games, all of the games I would categorize as “cozy” are played in first person. I think this is one characteristic that really fosters intimacy with the main character or narrator because you aren’t just playing this person, you effectively are this person.
While “cozy” often refers to a genre of mystery, I think intimacy also invites a feeling of being comfortable with the main character/narrator and environment. The final characteristic that constitutes coziness in a game for me is the amount of action involved. Traditionally, cozy mysteries aren’t particularly action-heavy, so when a game has a slower pace and less action it evokes that comfortable feeling, too.
Zainabb Hull: I think that sense of intimacy is crucial to my experiences of coziness in games. I find it fascinating to think about cozy mystery games, as it’s a connection I’ve never really made before but makes perfect sense. Cozy games for me have been ones that promote the slower pace that Madison mentioned, and nudge the player towards tending to their wellbeing. This could be through games specifically designed to aid self-care through meditation and grounding activities, or games that create a similar sense of restoration by allowing the player to work through the game at their own pace. I’m thinking of games like Journey, Everything, and (depending on how you play it!) The Sims. These games focus on the connection between the player and the game’s characters, environments, and motions. For me, nothing makes me feel more blanketed and comfy than that balance of grounded-ness and freedom.
Melissa Brinks: I don’t think it’s really the “proper” definition, but there are certain games that make me feel cozy just because of their familiarity. Portal is probably the biggest one—there’s absolutely nothing cozy about it on a surface level, but I’ve played it so many times that hearing that intercom crackle and the elevator music version of “Still Alive” beeping out of the radio makes me feel so at home! Not so much at the end of the game, but the beginning, where you’re very neatly guided along and taught the concepts of how the portal gun works. It’s not just familiar because I’ve played it so many times; it’s also intended to be this sort of gentle introduction to a homicidal robot and her deadly neurotoxin.
In a roundabout way, I guess that is cozy. It makes me feel safe and comfortable, not just because I already know all the lines and the most efficient ways to solve the puzzle, but also because the game wants me to feel satisfied that early on. Kinda neat!
Zora Gilbert: Coziness for me is routine, predictability, and (most essentially) a comforting soundtrack. I play games most often as an escape from the decision fatigue of the real world and from the dull roar of my own racing thoughts, so games that have simple (most often 2D or 2D-esque) graphics and very clear, stated goals are the most comforting. I love to sink into a quiet rhythm and just let the patterns of the game and the motifs in the soundtrack melt time away.
What games that you’ve played feel the most cozy?
Madison: Detective Barbie in the Mystery of the Carnival Caper is one of the truest to the traditional cozy mystery genre, but a number of more modern games provide an equally cozy experience.
Beyond the Nancy Drew games, the coziest games I’ve played are Gone Home, Dear Esther, and What Remains of Edith Finch. I would consider each an adaptation of the traditional cozy mystery. In Gone Home, players come home to an unexpectedly empty house and slowly uncover information about where the narrator’s family has gone. Dear Esther’s stormy beach sets the stage for a tragic narrative with an air of mystery, and What Remains of Edith Finch takes players through the Finch house and provides a compelling and thought-provoking narrative of loss, grief, and family history. The mystery at the heart of each game really reinforces the cozy feeling. For me, these games are perfect to play curled up on the couch under a blanket on a rainy day.
Zainabb: Animal Crossing remains one of the coziest games for me. I don’t have the time to spend with it that I did when I first played Wild World, but the real-time pace and limited activities is soothing. Checking in with your neighbours felt like tending to a community, and the bright, cute aesthetics made it a perfect companion to tea on a lazy afternoon.
I find that in-game aesthetics and atmosphere play a big part in whether a game feels cozy for me. Stormy settings and enclosed environments make me feel all warm and fuzzy. Like Madison, Gone Home definitely checked those boxes for me, as well as Night in the Woods with its small-town autumn vibes. And it’s maybe a bit of a weird choice, but for years my absolute coziest game was Heavy Rain, which I’d fire up every time London weather was living up to its stereotype. I wouldn’t say Heavy Rain feels cozy in terms of narrative, but the constant sound of rainfall alongside the very simple controls gave it a special place in my heart.
Melissa: Despite all my crowing above, Portal definitely isn’t the most cozy game I’ve played. I’d say Stardew Valley is more cozy for me, especially because I’ve sworn off going to the mines in my current playthrough. Instead, I just plant things and harvest them. Nothing threatens me, and I get into this extremely soothing state of getting up, watering plants, harvesting plants, tending to animals, making things to sell, and going to sleep.
I’d also second Zainabb’s mention of Night in the Woods. It’s not really a friendly game, given that you do find a severed arm very early on, but as they mentioned, the small-town vibes and autumn leaves are lovely. Any scene with Mae’s parents or Angus and Gregg together also give me that sense of coziness—there’s so much love in each one, even when things aren’t going well, that I can’t help but feel good when I play them.
Zora: I’m very much with Missy here—Stardew Valley and Night in the Woods are both deeply cozy games for me (though it’s trying to optimize my farm that freaks me out, not the mines—I had to make a rule that I would only plant things I liked because I liked them, and I get to go to the mines every day it rains and I don’t have to spend the time watering). Both games operate on a day-to-day sort of rhythm, with just enough variation and engagement that it doesn’t Just Get Boring. In Stardew Valley, I have to think about where I am in the season and who I want to talk to and what the weather is doing; Night in the Woods kept me going because of the growing story and because I really needed to make sure that small family of rats grew up okay.
I also just played Child of Light, which is not on a day-to-day cycle—instead, it’s a very light side-scrolling RPG with a lovely soundtrack. There are light puzzles, light plot, light skill-building, light crafting… very light. Lovely piano.
What features are most likely to disrupt coziness? Is there a way to rethink those features in a way that might not disrupt it?
Madison: I think action and space disrupt coziness. Too big of an environment makes the game feel more open world than you would expect, and I think walking simulators are one way to rethink those features. Dear Esther is a good example—the game covers quite a bit of ground, but because you’re really limited in where you go, you stay focused on the story.
Zainabb: I agree. I think that offering too many options to the player can break up that sense of enclosure and intimacy, not just in terms of environment but also gameplay and narrative. If your character can carry out loads of different actions, or if there are too many narrative paths or choices you can make, it can break that bubble. I think there are ways to mask those options, like context-specific actions, or being able to do lots of different things with one action. It’s not out yet, but Untitled Goose Game looks like it’s going to be a new cozy fave for me! I think that comes from the aesthetic and the humour, but also from the goose’s ability to mess lots of different things up, with lots of different outcomes, but with what seems like a stripped-down, straightforward mechanic.
I think the purpose of the game can also influence how a game navigates too much choice. #SelfCare provides a variety of activities that the player can engage with, but it retains its coziness through its explicit encouragement of self-care. The player is asked to consider how they feel as they start the game, and how they would like to practice self-care. The act of choosing whether to do a breathing exercise or to play with your digital kitty feels grounding rather than overwhelming or overly expansive.
Melissa: I definitely agree with your thoughts on open spaces, but at least for me, coziness is also what I make of a space. I find Breath of the Wild to be extremely cozy when it’s raining and I’m cooking food, for example, or when I’m just absently wandering and looking for pretty spaces to take screenshots. That’s very easily disrupted given that a bokoblin can stumble in at any moment, but there’s something wonderful about those small, quiet, warm moments in such a threatening space!
I’m not sure if that’s technically rethinking or repurposing those features, but I do think it demonstrates a new way to handle mechanics like cooking and hunting. A lot of times, games making hunting very easy to execute and very visceral—I’m thinking of something like Red Dead Redemption‘s skinning mechanic. Or something like Skyrim, where cooking or alchemy are something you do very quickly, without a lot of animation to the process. Breath of the Wild‘s cooking is a little more thoughtful and engaging rather than a means to an end, at least for me!
Zora: I think the biggest disruptor for me is the threat of failure or the chance of Doing The Game Wrong. Breath of the Wild can be cozy for me because the culture around the game is so celebratory of just doing whatever you want in it, but it can also be stressful because sometimes I can’t solve a puzzle and it leaves me feeling like an idiot when the answer was right there, dammit, why couldn’t I see it. That’s also the reason I have my no-optimization rule in Stardew Valley: if I start optimizing, I start comparing myself to people who spend more time on the game and do it much better than I ever could. If I just plant stuff, there’s nobody to compare myself to but me.
On a larger scale, this is the reason I don’t play most RPGs that advertise “good” or “bad” endings anymore—the stress of fucking up my life is so present in the real world, the last thing I want is for it to follow me into video game space when my gaming time is so limited.
Why do you think the topic of coziness is coming up more frequently now?
Zainabb: I think that it’s really easy to feel overwhelmed and disconnected in today’s high-speed digital age. Social media connects us to amazing people doing amazing things but it also (constantly) reminds us of the burning trash fire that we’re all living in. Coziness is a way to reconnect with ourselves and to take some time away from that trash fire, but I think it also offers a calmer, softer way of feeling and making connections. Video games allow us to interact with those connections in real time, whether we’re learning about characters and their stories in a walking sim or mystery, or whether we’re meeting strangers for half an hour in Journey. There’s no trash talk and you can play at your own speed, something that real life rarely offers. Importantly, though, I think that cozy video games also frequently offer a way to explore some of the scary real-world issues that come crashing down around us every time we open up Twitter (or read the news). From grief and loss to queer rights and social isolation, by providing us with a means to form those connections, cozy video games let us examine and explore difficult and painful themes without feeling hopeless or helpless. Marginalised people in 2018 frequently feel like there’s nothing we can do to stop the never-ending crush, but these games remind us that sometimes all we need is another hand to hold.
Melissa: Agreed. Journey is a great example—that game feels so wonderful because you just can’t be rude in it. Even if you wander away from another player, that isn’t necessarily a sign of rudeness; it’s just a thing that can happen.
As to why we’re seeing it so much now, I think that even the biggest action fans among us have started to grow a little fatigued of seeing the same things again and again. I love the Uncharted series, for example, but aside from one thrilling car chase, it’s the Tibetan village scene and the last scene of Uncharted 4 that stand out to me—moments without combat, moments of human connection.
Zora: I know that for me, growing into an adult with the world on fire and almost no free time to spend on pure personal comfort, coziness is becoming more and more important wherever I can sneak it in. I think a lot of people my age—or millenials in general, to tap into a very tired discourse—are having to find their way in a world without a roadmap, and marginalized folks in particular are spending a lot of time online and in the physical public having to reckon with assumptions and lesser-of-two-evils type decisions. Because of that, it’s becoming more and more important to find scraps of escape and safety—and we’re old enough now that we’re also finally able to articulate it and dig into why.
Madison Butler writes about advertising by day and about video games the rest of the time. She can usually be found crying about Final Fantasy and Nier: Automata on Twitter @madisonrbutler.