Whether it be “Stardew Valley,” “Animal Crossing” or “The Sims,” these give you an escape into a low-stakes fantasy within a meticulously constructed facade of the real world. Working as a farmer, cafe manager, writer or what have you is hard, and while the idea is romanticized, the work itself isn’t. Unless you play it in a cozy life sim game, which invites you to leave the responsibility of life for the comfort of unreality.
“A lot of games present a simplified version of reality to help isolate a certain feeling or experience — I suppose you could say most art does this — but cozy life sims are one of my favorite examples of it,” said Matthew Taylor from Wholesome Games, a community based around cataloguing and recommending cozy games. When deciding what games to showcase, Wholesome Games looks at how a game makes you feel, instead of its mechanics.
“For me, the most important uniting factor [among these games] is that they generally allow you to go at your own pace,” Taylor said. “Whereas more linear games might usher you to the next level or open-world games beckon you with new quests or points of interest, life sims typically give you the tools to play and then let you follow your own instincts.”
A simulation game is generally designed to simulate real-world activities in ways that are fun and compelling to play, often with more freedom and fewer risks than their real-world counterparts. While simulation and cozy games sometimes overlap, there is a distinction between the two. A cozy game often has low stakes and nonviolent gameplay, cultivating a sense of relaxation at its core. You can often spot a cozy game by its aesthetics — soft, pastel tones and soothing music that, while repetitive, somehow never gets old. Simulation games often aim to replicate aspects of our world; there are goat simulators, mechanic simulators, farming simulators and laundry simulators, to name just a few. Where cozy and simulated games meet is nestled in the middle ground of repetition and relaxation.
Cozy life simulation games are designed to keep you working on repetitive tasks in a way that feels rewarding but not challenging. In life, many of our daily tasks are compulsory — something we do to pay bills, maintain our health, etc. — but in games, it’s all voluntary. Every time you complete one task or a day in a cozy life sim, you feel accomplished in a way real life just can’t compete with.
Wren Brier, game designer of “Unpacking,” a cozy life simulation game based around packing up your character’s life from one home to the next, spoke to the difficulties of balancing compelling gameplay with simulation: “It really is a tough balance! Especially in ‘Unpacking,’ where we wanted to keep player frustration to a minimum since we consider it a ‘Zen’ game. It’s a puzzle, but it has many solutions. We also allow players to turn off the puzzle element of the game in case they just want to enjoy the experience of organizing items in a space however they like.”
The inspiration for cozy life simulation games often comes from wanting to provide players with the perfect escape and replication of life. Paul Jessup, the writer and game designer behind “Bad Writer,” which follows a writer as she tries to pitch and sell her stories, said a huge part of what led him to design the cozy writing life sim was to create a supportive space for writers:
“One of my main goals was to have the game feel supportive of artists, and to let them know that rejection is just part of the whole experience. I wanted to show people that it’s okay, just keep going and you’ll make it eventually.”
A core aspect of game design, whether for cozy life sims or arcade shooters, is about getting players in the right head space to spend hours inside of a simulated unlife, performing virtually the same tasks repeatedly. And while you’re there, the world around you is beautifully sketched to ease your woes.
So how do game designers craft a beautiful world to lull you in?
Brier offered this on her art decisions around “Unpacking”: “We wanted the game to have wide appeal and be uplifting, so the bright colors helped with that. Keeping the palette fairly consistent between levels also helped with allowing items to travel from location to location without them feeling out of place.”
For Jessup, the color palette and aesthetics were pure gut instinct. “I naturally gravitate toward softer tones when it comes to creating pixel art, especially ones that are very pastel looking and colorful,” he said.
“I wanted [the character’s home] to feel like a place you could just relax and be comfortable in, the perfect sort of space for writing,” Jessup said. “This was one reason why the whole house is the same map. I wanted the space to feel very real, and not change maps when you went up and down floors or went into the kitchen or the bedroom. I think that cozy nature needed to be reflected in a simple map, a simple house and simple gameplay.”
While Jessup is pulling inspiration from his own life as a writer, Eric Barone, designer and creator of “Stardew Valley,” used another cozy management life simulation game as inspiration, the original “Harvest Moon.” “Harvest Moon,” like “Stardew Valley,” “Bad Writer” and countless other titles uses earth tones on pixel art as a way of creating a soft, natural look to the game while keeping it firmly outside of the realm of reality with its boxy art style. Other series like The Sims use reality as a canvas, using realistic imitations of your favorite house plants, candles, posters and the other riffraff that pepper your world to reconstruct a more relaxing one.
While cozy life sims are based around giving you the ability to control aspects of a character and world to create a sense that there isn’t anything out of order that you can’t fix, that doesn’t mean these worlds are perfect. As in life, the control you exert often has consequences. In “The Sims,” your sims can catch fire by cooking or hanging around a fireplace. If you spend all day lounging in front of the TV in “Bad Writer,” you end up draining your happiness and wasting a whole day.
But there is no sense of loss. While you may lose the game, there’s always another invitation back into the world.
What makes these games fun and comforting when most of the gameplay is centered around labor and tasks? They answer a desire to be able to control a specific aspect of life, in a way that has no real consequences past the screen. Within cozy management life simulation games, the labors of life become an escape and meditation. Where the mechanics of cozy games meet the aesthetic lulls you into a state of relaxation while managing large swaths of tasks, crops, relationships, interests and aspirations.
It’s life with soft edges, played on repeat.
“Like every game that emulates a real-life activity, we tried to take out the tedious parts and emphasize the parts that are enjoyable,” said Brier of “Unpacking.” “Lifting heavy objects only takes a click, clothes automatically fold themselves and empty boxes disappear with a satisfying pop.”
Cozy game designers zero in on this repetitive but sometimes soul-nurturing reality of our lives and amplify it, adding upbeat or mellow music and soft noticeable tones to worm their way into your heart. Their games make the tiny mundane moments in our lives matter more than they do, because they should: the colors we choose to wear, the choices we make about our environments and the repetitive actions we do to keep our lives in the green.
Aigner Loren Wilson is a writer of both nonfiction and literary speculative fiction and a senior fiction editor for Strange Horizons. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Monstrous Futures, Wired, the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and many more. When not gaming, she’s reading or hiking. To check out her writing, follow her website or Twitter @ALWlikeahowl.