Represented by such well-known titles as Animal Crossing, The Sims, Harvest Moon, and Stardew Valley, a genre of video games known as cozy games has shot to prominence.
Last year saw the strongest showing of a cozy game yet with the release of Animal Crossing: New Horizons. New Horizons was the third best-selling game of 2020, a rank determined without even accounting for digital sales. In fact, New Horizons is the fifteenth best-selling game of all time, outselling games like Skyrim that have had a decade to sell and iterate.
New Horizons is not the only cozy game to enjoy so much success. Spiritfarer was nominated for Best Indie Game at The Game Awards 2020. Stardew Valley has grown in popularity year after year. Cozy games are also attracting attention for their wholesome, friendly communities—aspects that some might regard as antithetical to online gaming.
In light of the increasing popularity of cozy games, let’s consider what makes a cozy game cozy, the origin of the genre, and why these games have become so popular with both fans and developers.
What Are Cozy Games?
In an interview with ABC News, Matt White of cozy-game developer Whitethorn Digital said that to be a cozy game, a game “must be approachable, stress-free, and bite-sized.” That it’s approachable means that anybody can play the game. That it’s stress-free means “that even though you might lose, or it might be challenging, we’re not gonna, like, delete hours of your progress or give you poor rankings. We also say bite-sized. This doesn’t mean the game itself is necessarily short. . . . It means that the game is designed in such a way that you can have a super whole, complete experience in a relatively short sitting.”
The genre is related to the genre of wholesome games, described by Los Angeles Times entertainment reporter Todd Martens as games “in which the joy is uncovering a universe rather than obliterating it, often with ideas on how to be better custodians of our current one.”
According to an analysis of cozy games by the think tank Project Horseshoe, “Coziness itself refers to how strongly a game evokes the fantasy of safety, abundance, and softness.” According to their article:
- Safety pertains to the absence of risk. In cozy games, there’s no high-risk activity or threat of loss.
- Abundance means that players’ basic needs for survival, housing, etc. are being met, allowing them to focus on such “higher-order” needs as relationships and artistic beauty.
- Softness pertains to aesthetic signals that represent abundance and safety and that provide a comforting stimulus. The aesthetic may signal intimacy, calm emotions, and a relaxed tempo.
Thus, in cozy games:
- There is little or no risk of loss, damage, or threats.
- Players have plenty of choice and are never required to engage in certain activities.
- Players can focus on artistic, social, and emotional engagement, and are often encouraged to behave ethically or creatively.
- Players can drop in and out of the game at will, knowing they can have fun in even brief sessions.
- Players of all levels will rarely if ever feel that they aren’t good enough to play. The games provide a welcoming environment.
The genre began its rise between 1996 and 2001. In 1996, a daring RPG called Harvest Moon, a farming simulator, was released. Although it had many of the elements of cozy games, it was possible in this game to kill livestock and chickens, an element of loss that technically excludes it from the genre. In 2000, The Sims was released to critical acclaim. Here again, though, we do not have a pure example of the emerging genre: players could suffer various degrees of loss, with sims possibly being sent to military school or even dying.
Nevertheless, the popularity of these games proved that there was a place in the gaming world for games in which the goal is to make things in a world like our own.
In 2001, Animal Crossing was released. It proved to be an instant hit, catching much of the development world by surprise. It was one of the earliest major titles that satisfied every one of the criteria of a cozy game listed above.
From then on, cozy games only grew in popularity. Harvest Moon saw a new entry in 2003, and Journey was released to huge acclaim in 2012. Around 2016, the genre began to take off. A quick Google search for “best cozy games of all time” will mostly show games published in 2016 or later. The acceleration in interest may in part be attributable to Stardew Valley, a multiplatform release of 2016 that is an archetypal cozy game and that boasts deeper relationship mechanics than Animal Crossing.
Stardew Valley has a passionate fanbase, Animal Crossing is one of the bestselling games of all time, and more and more articles and think tanks are tackling the subject of cozy games. So why are they so popular?
More Developers, More Risks
Between 2005 and 2010, gaming grew into an industry that rivaled Hollywood. Developers were trying bigger, crazier things and creating bigger and more intricate worlds. Bigger projects also meant bigger investments, and companies with a lot of money on the line were less willing to take risks. AAA game developers felt they had to stick to the same old stories and appeal to the same old audiences. They were certainly willing to produce games that were bigger, grander, and more intricate than earlier games; but, with a few exceptions, they were unwilling to risk alienating what they regarded as their core audience.
In those years, the meaning and ideas of the games didn’t change much. Although depth and story were added, the industry was still dominated by a desire for thrills and conflict.
According to Project Horseshoe, “Many older game designs use pop-science motivational paradigms that are biased towards western, individualistic, and masculine perspectives. In many cases, the underlying psychological models were derived by either sampling only young college aged men, animal experiments, or by actively throwing out data from groups that didn’t fit a particular hypothesis. From a business perspective, they fail to robustly describe motivations of women, people from non-western countries, older adults, or people with children.”
In general, the models focused on fight or flight, zero-sum economics, a view of gamers as natural competitors, and the idea that gamers are best motivated by extrinsic motivators.
In the late 2000s, several things started to change. The emerging professionals who had been raised on video games wanted to try their hand at game development, and many of them had new ideas. Meanwhile, tools for developing games were becoming more sophisticated and accessible, which meant that aspiring game developers who didn’t want to join the corporate world of AAA with its stifling restrictions now had other options. They could make games themselves. The larger [indie community][link to my article on indie games] had arrived.
Indie developers are often dedicated and impassioned. They rarely have investors telling them what to do. And thanks to the increasing accessibility and affordability of the new development tools, they could now craft games without the help of large capital investments. Being free to try new and interesting designs, many indie studios began to show that a large number of gamers also wanted a change. Their success encouraged other indie studios to take similar risks. The result was a flourishing of creativity.
Community: A Hidden Audience
Matthew Taylor, the founder of Wholesome Games, explains why there is such an outpouring of wholesome games now: “I genuinely think that the desire for these types of games has always existed.”
He is right. The original Animal Crossing was the seventh best-selling game on the GameCube. Harvest Moon and The Sims were both phenomena. Clearly, there has always been a huge audience for these games. The problem has never been lack of audience; the problem has been the message broadcast by the gaming industry—by way of the kinds the games it has published—that gaming wasn’t for people with certain kinds of preferences. But it’s silly to wonder why there aren’t more fans of a kind of game that is not even being produced.
Cozy games have only recently become influential enough to make substantial contributions to other games throughout the industry—just as elements of the stealth genre were once limited to Metal Gear, Thief, and Splinter Cell, but can now be found everywhere. All that was required to bring out the fan base for wholesome games was taking the risk to make the games. As indie developers began to make the games that they themselves wanted to play and as AAA developers caught onto the trend, the latent fanbase finally had enough games to emerge as a visible fanbase.
Of course, there’s been more to it than that, especially in the last few years. Growing awareness of and disillusionment with the disastrous effects of climate change and political turmoil, and the awareness of young professionals that they’re starting out in a bankrupt and broken system, are very stressful influences. The economic realities of the modern era have left many people in the West without the time to invest in their favorite hobby or without the ability to socialize. When you combine these factors with [the time-consuming nature of many modern games][Link to my article on how games are time consuming], it’s easy to see why the more modest demands of cozy games should suddenly become popular.
Although the rise of cozy games was slow and gradual, we should have expected the breakout into wide popularity. A large audience of gamers was simply waiting for the genre to come into its own. Once aspiring developers finally had the resources to take risks and make the games, this demand could be satisfied.
Cozy games respond to a need. As Project Horseshoe puts it: “Coziness is healing, validating, collaborative, and kind. Coziness is relief and refuge and gentle opportunity. In a harsh, demanding ecosystem of cynically generated needs and unending urgency, coziness creates comfort, and freedom, and a path to a better world.”