In this Critical Distance roundup, we look at games that evoke simple pleasures and warmth.
Yoshi's Woolly World image courtesy Nintendo
The beginning of 2018 has introduced a novel theme to games criticism—coziness. Maybe it's partly because other design fields have recently been indulging in the Danish notion of hygge, a simple, homely warmth and pleasure taken in the simple things in life. But the notion of cozy games also seems like a natural extension to aesthetic themes that have been increasingly important in the age of walking simulators and labor games—small, simple games about enjoying being in one place and doing a humble task.
- Coziness in Games: An Exploration of Safety, Softness, and Satisfied Needs | Project Horseshoe The most important example of this new discourse comes out of Project Horseshoe, a team of designers who have been working together exploring coziness in game design. The report that they created aims to highlight design strategies and define emotional and aesthetic outcomes for players.
- Slouching toward relevant video games | GamesIndustry.biz
One of the dynamics highlighted by the Project Horseshoe group was "tend and befriend": an alternative to fight-or-flight, and a key part of Brie Code's call to action to game designers last year.
- Hygge in Video Games | Satchbag's Goods
In February, Satchell Drakes highlighted some visual design techniques that create a sense of simplicity and coziness in some of his favorite games, such as Yoshi's Wooly World, Animal Crossing, and Firewatch. He digs into the complexities of simplicity, arguing that not everything that is simple is minimalist.
- On Minimalism and Breakout | vextro
Regardless of what you call it, it's clear that simplicity has a major role to play in creating cozy experiences. In this piece from last last year, Leeroy Lewin uses cozy images of his grandparents' house to make the aesthetic case for low-fi games.
- Animal Crossing Helps Me Cope On A Day Like Today
There has been no shortage of writing about the sense of comfort people get from games like Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley. Here I want to highlight two pieces by Gita Jackson on the topic. First, in this piece from 2016, she redirects the notion of escapism into a wider, humanist idea of aesthetics and values, which is key to the visions of coziness and hygge described above.
- Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp: The Kotaku Review
More recently, Gita Jackson looked at Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, arguing that it has microtransacted its way out of the pleasant, peaceful illusion that Animal Crossing once delighted in. The Project Horseshoe report echoed this point, arguing that Pocket Camp's notifications disturb its coziness.
- 'Quadrilateral Cowboy' Points to a Different Kind of Intimacy in Games - Waypoint
The Project Horseshoe report proposes a view of coziness as being about higher-order needs, such as connecting with others. Reflecting the pursuit of that need, here at Waypoint last year Bruno Dias discussed the use of space and silence in establishing friendships with non-player characters.
- Radiator Blog: The joy of learning how to freeze to death
Another point raised by Project Horseshoe is that cozy games don't expect the player to struggle to get basic needs met such as hunger or shelter. An interesting point of contrast is offered by this recent piece of writing, in which Robert Yang describes a new use of environmental cues in a game that tasks you within maintaining the player-character's health in harsh conditions. Is The Long Dark an anti-cozy game?
- I Love Astroneer For Its Optimism
I think it's possible that survival games can be cozy, because they give people a sense of connectedness with a natural environment, as well as a sense of mastery—another one of those higher-order needs that Project Horseshoe associate with coziness. In this post, Nathan Grayson describes feeling increasingly confident in a world that nevertheless constantly threatens to suffocate you. The feelings he describes sound to me like they could be related to coziness.
Coziness could well turn out to be one of the most significant game design trends of recent years. It combines the desire for escapism with the mission to make games that appeal to audiences that aren't interested in high-octane action. To me, coziness feels good, but I also love the notion that cozy games could offer us new ways to pursue those higher-order needs that drive us toward the arts—mastery, self-reflection, and connectedness.