My favorite place to play video games is curled up in my bed, covers over my feet, my little grey tabby cat purring away in my lap. I can spend hours playing like this, exploring and making no progress but still having the best time.
With the 2020s being...what they are, cozy gaming has taken off dramatically. So what exactly is this genre? And where can you start if you want to get into it? Grab you fuzziest socks and join me as I explain and point out a few of my favorites.
What counts as cozy gaming?
The definition of cozy gaming is fairly broad. Basically, a cozy game is a game you can play that is relaxing, has cute elements to it, and isn't too intensely graphic or technical in its gameplay. Think of this category as games you might play while it's raining and you're drinking a mug of tea curled up on the couch with your favorite blanket and your pets. Different people may find different games fit this niche for them, but cozy games typically fall into the simulation category, which has been popular since the early 2000s with the release of The Sims.
These games are exactly what it says on the tin; they're simulations of realistic events or realistic fantasy. Usually, you play as an everyman character (not a superhero or assassin, but Just Some Guy™) and do simple activities like farming, fishing, shop management, and socializing. Sometimes there's magic or minor combat, but nothing too intense or punishing. Often, the focus is simply to play; many of these games have a sort of "play at your own speed" pacing and gameplay loop rather than having distinct and time-sensitive objectives.
The point of a cozy game is to be just that: cozy. It's designed to help you relax and take a break from the stresses of your world by stepping into the low-stakes world of someone else.
Cozy game recommendations
There are lots and lots of cozy games out there to explore, all with their own appeal and value. Here are some of my favorites to get you started in the genre.
If you've spent any time at all in the cozy gaming space, or even just googled "cozy games," you've heard of Stardew Valley. Created by developer Eric Barone working as Concerned Ape in 2016, this Harvest Moon inspired title is an adorable pixel art mix of farming sim, life sim, dating sim, and adventure game. In it, your character moves away from a soul-sucking office job in a big city to live on the little farm they've inherited from their grandfather, nestled in Stardew Valley, just outside of Pelican Town.
While there are different paths players can take and milestones they can achieve - saving the community center from destruction or funding a hostile corporate takeover, adventuring into deep mines in the mountains and deserts, discovering the secrets of a tropical island - there's no set progression metric or time limit. You can spend in-game years just farming or just exploring or just making friends or just fighting monsters, or you can do a little bit of everything all the time.
Stardew is not only the gold standard for cozy gaming, but it's also a game with a thriving and active online community that you can tap for advice on everything from the best crops to grow during each season to how to trigger specific special events or woo specific characters. It's a cute game full of heart.
Animal Crossing New Horizons
If we're talking about taking games at a slow pace, there's nothing more slow-paced than a real-time responsive game, and the Animal Crossing series from Nintendo certainly knows how to make real time interesting.
This series has a very simple premise: You are a human living amongst anthropomorphic animals, working to build and decorate a community and get to know your neighbors. The games have cute little holiday special events and fun mini-games (my favorite is filling the museum's art collection and trying to catch forgeries from a goofy fox) that make it worth logging into for an hour or so of downtime at the end of your day.
The newest installment in the series, Animal Crossing New Horizons, came out during the pandemic, when we were pretty much all stuck inside with nothing to do but worry. For me personally, ACNH was a godsend; it was something to focus on that was low stakes and comforting, and it let me hang out with my long-distance partner and my friends when I was missing them the most.
Even post-pandemic, it's a nice game to come back to when you just want to sit down and zone out for a little while. Plus, the music is great for putting on when you're working.
Staxel is a cute little indie farming sim from Humble Games that is something of a mix between Minecraft and Stardew Valley. Its blocky aesthetic is cute and colorful, and its NPCs and animals are all friendly and cute, which makes the game really inviting and comfortable to play.
In this goofy little game, you can farm, decorate, do good deeds for villagers, fish, hunt bugs, and explore to your heart's content. It's perfect for those who want something slow-paced, low-stakes, and relaxing to explore. My favorite thing about it is the decorative aspect; the little market in the village always has something cute you can add to your farmhouse or land. Additionally, all the little villagers have their own quirky personalities, from a grumpy barkeep to a standoffish local street sweep and more. They're so fun to talk to and don't quite cross the line into annoying, which is always good.
I haven't played Staxel in a little while and honestly, I kind of miss it!
One of my favorite indie game discoveries of all time is Travellers Rest, a tavern management game from Isolated Games. It's still in early access but has definitely come a long way from where it was when I discovered it.
It's as simple as it sounds: you run a tavern in a fantasy world. You get to build up your business, expanding to become an inn, hiring employees, discovering new recipes for food and drink, and crafting and buying decorations and additional tables until you've got the most profitable, full-service establishment in this part of the country. My favorite thing to do is farm and craft new recipes for items to sell - breads, wines, soups, beers, stews, ales, pies, and more. It's always interesting to see how different ingredients affect the taste and selling price of a recipe that I've made before.
In the newest update, the developers added new NPCs and areas to explore. They've also added to the crafting and farming systems, and plan to incorporate magic in the future, which I'm excited to see. I'm happy to follow the exploits of this game and yell about it from the rooftops whenever I get the chance. I highly encourage you to check it out.
When life is complicated, uncomfortable, frustrating, or just plain unpleasant, it can be a massive source of comfort to sit down and do something that is just for fun. No high expectations, no demanding mechanics, no hard progression line, no timed achievements, just a simple experience you can spend a few hours sinking into and enjoying before the world has to catch up with you again. In a world like ours, I think cozy gaming can play a vital role in keeping us happy and sane.