For as long as I had a GameCube, I don’t think I ever once beat a game.
When my plane first landed on Isle Delfino in Super Mario: Sunshine in 2002, my main priority was finishing the tutorial. It was the one chore needing completion before I was free to wander around the plaza, pretending to buy fruit from island vendors. Similarly, my brother and I would spend countless hours in Kirby Air Ride but never raced one another. Like with dozens of other games, we’d argue over which virtual sky-rise belonged to our color Kirby before treating the game as if it were a life-sim, riding our racers around town, running imaginary errands, and acting out absurdly complex social dramas between our squishy, round characters.
These games were never meant to be played as self-guided, open-world experiences. They provided just enough freedom to encourage a few hours of total immersion before reaching the games’ limits.
While open-world games with low stakes and minimal violence have existed for decades, it wasn’t until more recently that they became a genre all of their own, referred to as “cozy” or “wholesome” games. The mechanics and goals in games like Stardew Valley, Ooblets, and Cozy Grove may vary, but they share a common vibe wholly separate from the cis-male, RGB streamer setup that’s become analogous with gaming culture. They encourage you to take your time in an open-ended world void of competition.
“These players have always existed in the industry”
“These players have always existed in the industry. It just doesn’t normally cater to those folks,” Matthew Taylor, founder of the Wholesome Games brand and online community, told The Verge in an interview Tuesday. “That’s maybe why there are people who are hardcore Animal Crossing fans or hardcore Stardew fans. But now, they all of a sudden realize there are more games in this space that they can enjoy and get more out of.”
It was soon after the pandemic release of Animal Crossing: New Horizons that my social media feeds were suddenly filling up with influencers whose accounts were dedicated to these cozy games. Nintendo sold more than 40 million copies of the game, nearly four times as many as the previous edition. During this time, creators like Cozy K, aka Kennedy, were racking up millions of views on videos of Switch consoles snuggled up next to blankets and candles, veiled with Lightroom presets more commonly seen on lifestyle-branded Instagram grids.
Even as countries opened back up, the cozy or “wholesome” games industry has continued to grow. Google search queries for “cozy games” peaked this November, more than two years after the genre took off online. On PC, Steam identifies games that fall under its own “cozy” rubric, and Netflix recently bought Spry Fox, an indie cozy games developer, this fall.
“Before, cozy games weren’t seen as a viable source of income for these companies. In the past few years, they’ve been like, ‘Shoot, we need to be putting money into this,” Kennedy told The Verge in a December interview. “This space has really been taking off in terms of game development.”
Google search queries for “cozy games” peaked this November
Some cozy games, like the recently released indie title A Little to the Left, are based around pleasantly mundane mechanics, like organizing a bookshelf or junk drawer. They require just enough focus to maintain your attention but can be picked up and put down at a player’s leisure. Like more widely adopted titles like Animal Crossing, players are tasked with menial chores that they aren’t pressured to complete in a specific timeframe. Because of the low stakes, it’s rarely possible for a player to lose.
Outside of the indie scene, major developers have also started to include more cozy elements in their games. Nintendo published two open-world Pokémon games this year, Pokémon Legends: Arceus and Pokémon Scarlet and Violet. The games encourage players to explore the carefully crafted environments and hold cozy picnics with their pokémon friends. The games aren’t nearly as open-ended as other Nintendo titles like Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild but have been welcome additions to a series that’s relied on linear storytelling for decades.
Blizzard’s latest World of Warcraft expansion, Dragonflight, rolled out an entirely new crafting system and includes a handful of cozier questlines compared to past releases. Toward the beginning of Dragonflight’s campaign story, players are forced to sit down next to a dwarf and listen to him relay his charming life story before they’re allowed to continue on in their quest to save Azeroth.
A confluence of factors, from pandemic lockdowns and wildly accurate social media algorithms on platforms like TikTok, likely led to the cozy gaming trend’s sudden virality. But rather than creating the trend, social media made it more accessible, giving it a name and showcasing its popularity to dominant studios.
“Platforms like Twitch and being able to find creators that felt like I could actually hang out in the space and watch them was also really important in making me feel like I could be a part of the gaming space,” Jenny Windom, an indie game producer and Wholesome Games team member, told The Verge.
The World Economic Forum estimates that the gaming industry is expected to be worth more than $320 billion by 2026, with a majority of revenue coming from consumer spending in social and casual gaming. Even Facebook’s parent company, Meta, rebranded itself this year in anticipation of growing consumer reliance on gaming for social interactions and entertainment. But rather than the welcoming and fantastical environments of Stardew Valley or Cozy Grove, Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse features a soulless world of VR office meetings and avatar designs that should have died along with the Xbox 360.
Like the creator economy before it, I can’t help but feel like many metaverse-championing megacorporations have arrived too little too late to a scene that’s predominantly grown due to the love and care of the community that’s built it. Cozy gamers have always existed, but tech giants only started paying attention since they’ve become a market.