I’m alone in a darkened room before my screen. The game loads up. Purples, reds, hues of orange and pink wash over me, calling me in. Start Game. Yes, please. Take me to my friends, the ones I’ve been missing all day in front of the gray and blue of my work terminal. They greet me with smiles, waves, hugs.
I pause the game. Call out to tell my baby that I love them. Text a friend. Tell her I miss her. I hope she is well. I love her. I return to the game and spend hours interspersing play with interaction. Even daring to hop over to Reddit, check out strangers’ boats, setups, towns, stockpiles of resources, their new hats. I comment. I upvote. I share and participate in a great community.
Cozy management games are more than just fun, more than an escape. They can be lifeboats during difficult times like a pandemic, like hundreds of days of protest, of insurrection, of divide, of death on death on death, of unpacked trauma that’s going to reverberate for years. Down to the game’s mechanics, they offer us a respite from the harshness, from the fight. They allow us to wrap our arms around the imaginary embodiment of our friends, the people we’ve let go throughout our lives, of the people who have let us go throughout our lives, and everyone else we miss, yearn for, and wish to hold one more time.
All while setting friendly reminders to eat, drink, sleep, and give yourself a treat just because. Writer and cozy-management game fan Nia Simone McLeod finds these games to be just the thing she needs to find her place in the world again. “Cozy management games overwhelm me with calmness. Whatever anxieties I felt throughout the day are washed away.” She relates this to the management mechanics in these games: “I’m focused on the simple task that the game places in front of me, whether it’s collecting shells, farming, or talking with my neighbors.”
“Mechanics have meaning, value, and tone,” says Whitney “Strix” Beltrán, narrative director at Hidden Path Entertainment. In addition to being a director for Hidden Path’s upcoming Dungeons and Dragons–inspired game, Strix often highlights what it takes to create a game that connects to the player, bringing about feelings that stretch beyond the game and touch the player so profoundly that the game and playthrough stays with them even after they’ve finished. “What feelings do I want the player to be having at the end of the game? What should linger? In what way do I want them moved or possibly changed from the experience? I put a lot of effort into clarifying what that will look like, shaping it into a vision. It’s important to understand your moment-to-moment gameplay mechanics. Ideally there is a synergistic energy where the mechanics and narrative amplify each other.”
Amplification is that key ingredient that allows a game to become more to the player than a simple escape. It’s what allows games to get into a player’s head, slowly changing them and how they view the world and themselves within it. McLeod has similar feelings: “The little things, like nabbing a rare fish or completing a neighbor’s errand, bring me so much joy. When I play, I’m reminded that I should do the same thing throughout life: celebrate every win.”
For me, the game that made me feel all of the feelings during the past year and currently has been Spiritfarer from Lotus Games. It shipped as a cozy management game about death, and I went into it preparing to get my heart and emotions wrecked. What I didn’t expect was how it changed how I saw the world, interacted with my friends and family, and reflected on myself. I was able to catch up with the game’s creative director, Nicolas Guérin, and art director Jo Gauthier. Separate and together, we discussed cozy management games, how they’re designed, and their impact on the player.
This type of game design leads to specific actions like in Raccoon Lagoon—an exploration Oculus game released by Hidden Path in 2019. You help a group of stranded sailors build a home on an island that quite literally has a broken heart you need to heal. The player can throw a character in the game, causing them to drop unerasable poop on the player’s island. This choice to intentionally do something wrong to a friendly NPC has consequences that aren’t easily dismissed.
Strix explained that for Raccoon Lagoon, Hidden Path used the type of design often experienced in cozy management games: “Like all game design, this relies on psychological understandings of people to execute on building those feelings,” Strix says. “You can’t make people feel warm and fuzzy; you have to let them choose.”
In Spiritfarer, they employ a similar mechanic (sans poop) in the building and spirit-shepherding parts of the game. The player’s main task is to help spirits in the afterlife pass on by allowing them to talk about their lives and regrets, helping them battle the lingering effects of their past trauma, and designing a cozy space just for them. Once the spirit enters the “Everdoor,” they leave the game, but their home remains on the ship, and you, the player, still has to see it. Guérin talks a bit about the mechanic and choice: “Many players said they were like dead weight or a burden, and there’s no function to the houses still being there. But actually, the function is to remind you that this is the physical imprint of their passage through your experience or boat.” The small traces of life keep us grounded in this world, our world.
These types of games also use their aesthetics to craft experiences that engage you while still reminding you of life and what is essential. Care. Love. Friends. The moments we all share. In the management and friend simulation game Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the days align with real time. As your days go by, so do your avatars in the game, the weather and seasons changing along with it. For McLeod , this adds another layer, pulling it into the real world: “I love that the events of Animal Crossing happen in real time. It’s one of the only games I’ve seen like that. It makes me feel nostalgic, like it’s adding an extra tradition to my holidays.”
“Some people call it color psychology,” Gauthier, art director for Spiritfarer, says. The effects of colors on our emotions are powerful. “Aesthetics is a whole branch of the philosophy of art. Aesthetics don’t live in a vacuum. There are values and cultural signifiers attached to aesthetics, and it’s not just ‘pretty thing is pretty’ or ‘ugly thing is ugly.’ Aesthetics are wrapped up in our religious, political, and social lives, which means aesthetics is a powerful tool to deliver meaning,” Strix says.
McLeod brings up another game where colors play a role in creating a sense of immersion: “In Harvest Moon, the colors that stand out are earthy tones—ones that remind me of nature. But I also love the pastel colors. It’s one of the reasons the neighbors stand out,” she says. The color choices of a game don’t just pull from psychology and theory, but life itself. In Spiritfarer, Gauthier took an approach of creating a textured and nostalgic experience similar to Aconite’s HoloVista but different. When describing Spiritfarer’s Everdoor and the water and environment around it, she says: “It’s a very visceral representation of life in a way. Red is very bold; it’s very adventurous, risky, dangerous—it’s passionate also. It’s also immediately met by either a soft yellow or by the billowing trees that are completely white. Those two are meant to soften the blow of the red because they are very soothing. That’s how life tends to be. It’s risk, hardships, but it’s peppered with intermittent softness and kindness throughout.”
All of those factors playing together in a low-stakes setting that intertwines emotional resonance breaks through our walls. Instead of the lessons staying on the screen, they cross over into our world. We understand that to keep something alive, thriving, we must feed it, water it, not just once but repeatedly. The mechanics of the game, paired with the aesthetics, all work together to provide us with a safe and low-stakes place to learn. “It’s in those repetitions. In those things that you actually expect, you conjure up a sense of life,” Guérin says. Elaborating about cozy management games more generally, he sees a reflection of reality: “We spend our time managing little things in our lives.”
In Spiritfarer, one of those care management activities involves you interacting with the nonplayer characters in a pretty significant way, especially when many are feeling touch-deprived from social distancing during the current pandemic. You can hug other characters on your ship, boosting the character’s mood. The mechanic also had another effect on me, personally. While playing through the beautiful landscapes and watching the soft sunsets on the deck, hugging a friend I knew was going through a rough time helped soothe my own ache for my real-life friends. “Spiritfarer is about care,” Guérin says, “The hugs are special in the sense that there was a lack of physical contact in the game. It felt necessary.” But you can’t just hug a character forever, feeding yourself or the player’s character. This mechanic creates more of that real-life sense that connects our lives to the game's objectives, calling forth lessons we can take into our everyday.