The gentle hiss of rainfall washes from computer speakers, as the Spirit Scout Motto unfolds on the screen: “All those who are lost deserve kindness.” Then: the ASMR patter of little feet across watercolor sand as my avatar, who I’ve equipped with a deft flick of emo hair, makes quick work of setting up camp and getting into a snarky exchange with the campfire. Flamey cheerfully says that this island, Cozy Grove, is haunted with scores of spirits nursing deep psychic wounds that only I can heal. On that note, I’m released onto the isle to rifle through leaf piles and collect shells to my tiny heart’s content.
Cozy Grove, released by local indie studio Spry Fox in March of this year, invites the player to inhabit the role of a “Spirit Scout,” a baby schema avatar that trots around exploring an island haunted by affable ghosts. Along with a dramatic rise in gaming as a whole, 2020 also witnessed the ascension of a genre of games which counts Nintendo’s Animal Crossing and Spiritfarer in its ranks, and from which Spry Fox’s newest release takes its name: cozy.
For Spry Fox CEO David Edery, the most important component of cozy games is “a lack of aggression and a lack of violence.” They also jettison the difficulty and the stress and the competitive, linear premise. A cozy game ought to make you feel “warm and safe,” he says, with play that might include anything from picnicking in the park to sheltering inside from the rain with a hot cup of tea. They’re the sorts of meaningful diversions that ease you through a sodden Seattle winter, or a smoke-stained late summer.
Cozy games balmed the anxiety, isolation, and feelings of instability induced by the pandemic. The social aspect of Animal Crossing has allowed for people to sustain and build bonds, and even interact directly with celebrities they admire, all while remaining six feet (or continents) apart.
But cozy games aren’t all about fluffy escapism. Cozy Grove and Spiritfarer portray death thoughtfully, with compassionate humor. In Spiritfarer, which Nintendo’s website calls “a cozy management game about dying,” you play as a twee ferrymaster to the dead. In Cozy Grove, you soothe and befriend spirits, who require your help coming to terms with their lives and deaths. In both, ultra-adorable artwork and forgiving gameplay let us transform that specter into something altogether less frightening but no less present—a particularly salient endeavor amid a pandemic.
Since the 1970s, we’ve heard plenty about video games rotting children’s brains and spawning a generation of socially inept, joystick-wielding brutes. They’ve been implicated in school shootings, and debate persists among researchers about the link between gaming and aggressive youth behavior. Nevertheless, our cultural attitudes toward video games are shifting enormously, with titles like Cozy Grove demonstrating that the play need be neither violent nor competitive, nor the purview of an insular subculture, to find success.
What cozy games share—aside from their cute animation, multiplayer options, and soothing gameplay—is broad appeal and accessibility. Chrissy Teigen is on Animal Crossing. AOC’s getting out the vote on Among Us. Video games aren’t subculture anymore; they’re just culture.
Edery speculates that current demographic trends, which include a drop-off in gaming around age fifty, will change as younger generations age: “I would be shocked if, fifty years from now, we were still talking about gaming…as primarily a young person’s thing.” He imagines games will occupy an even larger place in people’s social lives, providing a critical source of connection for isolated populations, such as people living in assisted care facilities or those who are chronically ill. Even as public life tentatively re-materializes on the heels of vaccine rollouts, the cozy games that got us through lockdown will endure—still endearing, still profound.