Designing for Coziness
Tanya X. Short, our captain and designer, talks coziness in games!
Last year I attended a game design retreat, and together, a bunch of us game designers (including Jake Forbes, Daniel Cook, Chelsea Howe, Squirrel Eiserloh, Dan Hurd, Anthony Ordon, Joshua Diaz, and me) came up with some guidelines for how to make games feel cozier, whether it’s places or mechanics or even our own work spaces.
I’m sharing them with you here because people often comment to me that they feel like Kitfox games have a warmth to them, and I think part of this is why. We tweak and adjust certain elements to have a certain emotional effect — so that homes feel homey, and friends feel friendly. So if you’re curious about game design, or just want to look under the hood, maybe you’ll find this interesting!
For the full report we wrote at the retreat, you can read it here.
Popular games such as Animal Crossing or Stardew Valley offer coziness as a core gameplay value proposition to players, while the more stressful core gameplay of Dark Souls or The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild may provide breaks of coziness in select spaces and times to deepen and salve an otherwise stressful player experience with respite between adventures.
Coziness refers to how a game evokes the fantasy of safety, abundance, and softness:
- Safety: risk and danger (physical, emotional, social) are minimized.
- Abundance: lower-level needs are met and nothing is lacking or pressing.
- Softness: stimuli are gentle and comforting, reducing stress.
Each of these aspects of coziness reinforce each other, such that a game (or section of a game) centering safety, abundance, and softness will often also encourage intimacy of space and emotion, with a slower pace, implying authenticity, sincerity, and humanity.
Aspects which may negate coziness include extrinsic rewards, dangers or threats, responsibility, distractions, intense stimulus, vast distances, non-consensual social situations, confinement, deception, and opulence. These same negating elements can be used to enhance coziness if they are safely outside the player’s defined cozy space (spatial, emotional, etc) by providing contrast and juxtaposition. For example, cold rain against a window emphasizes the warmth of a reading nook without threatening to disrupt it. If that same cold rain was blowing through a broken window, the scene would no longer be cozy.
Many things which might be considered cozy (such as cuteness, romance, wealth, childhood, or even the home) are often cozy-adjacent upon further inspection. When creating cozy games, inspect every aspect for potential risk-taking, stress, responsibility, stimulus, and feelings of inadequacy or fear.
As you approach cozy design, remember that coziness is an adjective; coziness is an aesthetic goal, a flavor that can be applied to any type of game. Some mechanics are emotionally more in tune with coziness, but any game can be made more cozy. This also means that there is no single defining genre that is “coziness”.
In this analysis, we discovered patterns of coziness throughout games, including aesthetics, mechanics, narratives, and dynamics. Finally, we found patterns in our own work habits and approaches that allowed coziness during the process of game development.
Cozy aesthetics are audio/visual sensory cues that are often familiar to the player that evoke images or memories of safety, softness, and contentedness. They commonly contrast a shared refuge from a less pleasant external environment, and can be applied as a moment to reset or reframe the player’s mindset.
Common cozy aesthetic patterns include:
- Abundances of plenty and generousness, including plenty of food, drink, joy, and warmth, especially in spaces like taverns, kitchens, cafes, and bedrooms.
- Smooth transitions and gradients can add gentleness to cozy areas, though clear thresholds may also preserve the comfort of a distinctly cozy area, such as coming in from a snowstorm into a log cabin, or ducking into a cave behind a waterfall.
- Protection and support signalled, such by as a relaxed guardian animal or character, communicates to the player that they are free to pursue their higher-order needs.
- Focus and elimination of interruptions or pressures can create a familiar, comfortable, intimate space.
- Mundanity and familiarity will always be cozier than something alien or exotic, as its safety and abundance is clearer.
- Refuge & Escape: if there is an “outside”, this place is a clear shelter
- Human-centric: rooms and objects are scaled for human comfort and belonging
- Welcome: the player is explicitly welcomed and given freedom and safety to express themselves however they wish, without responsibility or pressure to perform
- Ritual: repeated, meaningful actions create familiarity and contentedness
- Seasons: the familiarity and ritual history of seasons is often correlated with community and abundance, particularly in autumn and winter.
Cozy visuals may include warmer, low-contrast colors and lighting, natural and familiar building materials, enclosed intimate spaces, and occasional windows into the external, non-cozy space taken refuge from.
Cozy audio would ideally always be diagetic, allowing the player to connect concretely and intimately with the sources of the sound (whether a character or object). Ambient or human-created music and audial reminders of safety, abundance, and reinforce comfort.
Cozy locations and items are centered on leisure, practicality, ritual, history, and familiarity. Cozy content allows for privacy and creative expression, so that players can be companionable or in solitude as preferred. As familiarity and physical comfort are core to coziness, domestic places and objects or hobby/crafts can be cozy. Examples given of cozy locations include:
- “3rd spaces” separate from work or home such as bars, cafes, libraries, cabins, and gardens
- Transition spaces without danger or obligation, such as trains, car backseats, or slow-moving spacecrafts
- Places supporting low-intensity companionship, with calm pets or passive people-watching
Coziness is opt-in, depending on player agency, requires intrinsic satisfaction from the activity, not satisfaction contributing to some other purpose, such as progression, status, power, etc. Extrinsic rewards may undermine the coziness and make the activity/mechanic feel compulsory or optimal.
Furthermore, a mechanic will be engaged with in a cozy manner only if it is safe, known, and relaxing — it will not stress the player with undue costs, difficulty, or danger. This tends to create tasks that can become rituals or hobbies, such as:
- Tidying or organization
- Searching for or collecting beautiful items
- Brewing and drinking tea or coffee
Warning: unfortunately, it is easy for cozy mechanics to devolve as players acclimate to the systems and seek to min/max them. Cozy mechanics may even be weaponized by cruel designers, such that the intimacy and vulnerability of a cozy moment is identified as a weak point to monetize. To preserve coziness even in a monetized environment, the best practice is to service existing player needs and avoid introducing artificial scarcity or anxiety-inducing social comparison.
Cozy interactions online can be difficult, as the internet is arguably inherently dehumanizing. Tips for cozy social mechanics include:
- Reduce the number of strangers, which inherently signify risk and lack of trust
- Promote persistent identities to encourage pro-social behaviour
- Deepen communication channels to allow additional signals of sincerity and meaning
- Promote social norms of trust and successful reciprocation loops
- Comfortable spaces with politeness and consent
- Capability for forgiveness and repair when interpersonal mistakes are made
- Codes of conduct help players agree to ideals of behaviour
- Feedback systems immediately targeting a behaviour can help players reform
- Gameplay scenarios can reinforce desired norms (such as generosity), even without a strong extrinsic reward
- Escalating layers of opt-in social interactions, allowing players to gradually expose themselves to risk of unpleasantness and threat
- Allow players to linger in rooms or areas after its purpose has been completed
- Design for group activities that encourage proximity without high-intensity distraction, such as fishing, gathering, or crafting
- Allow for personal sourcing, creation, and/or delivery of gifts
- Create non-threatening ways for players to ask each other for feedback or give apologies.
In a game’s narrative, coziness may manifest as low-pressure, low-intensity, an ensemble cast, non-violence, intimacy, practicality, and episodic encounters. The most cozy moments within a narrative are often respites that involve a place called home, safety before or within a storm/conflict, or as denouement post-climax. This is a common grounding moment in classic adventures, in which adventurers bond with food and drink over a campfire, before or after a big battle.
Cozy narratives and themes center around homes and family, or practicality, such as homecoming in Night in the Woods, or the pastoral escape of Stardew Valley.
Cozy characters are often nurturers, providing affection, shelter, food, companionship, and acceptance, or simply reassuring the player that they are loved. Note that these labors should be non-transactional; in this fantasy, characters help each other because it is nice and gifts expect no reciprocation, without obligation or neediness.
Gestures of trust, like sharing a secret or inviting the player into a private space, helps the player feel welcome and appreciated. Characters who can be recipients of the player’s generosity, kindness, and nurturing, without punishment or expectation, such as low-maintenance pets, can be exceedingly cozy. These characters provide a potentially appealing target for the natural “tend and befriend” response.
Perhaps surprisingly, curmudgeons and pariahs have their place in a cozy game as an opportunity for player empathy, and adds authenticity to a community that might otherwise seem fake or oppressive. From cranky villagers in Animal Crossing to Oscar the Grouch, grumpy characters can be charming as opt-in engagements and reminders that life goes on in a community independent of the player.
Cozy Game Development
How can game studios allow for coziness? Emotional safety allows for honest communication and collaboration. Abundance leads to a willingness to experiment without fear of loss. We may also find key personnel are easier to retain when we’ve experienced a place we are able to feel safe and cozy.
The ideally cozy workspace would have:
- Opportunities to escape and change environments
- Food and coffee provided
- Familiarity and trust in colleagues
- Natural materials and lighting
- Access to the music or audio of choice
- Flexible hours or working from home support
- Refuge from external forces, pressures, or threats
- Separation of the role of manager and mentor, to allow for trusted confidantes
- Opportunities for work cliques to mingle and spend repeated time together
- Clear, gentle, considerate, and timely feedback when opted in
No matter what industry you work in, don’t go overboard trying to make everything cozy! You cannot force intimacy, and cozy spaces or times may be used as an escape from difficult topics or unpleasant interactions, leading to awkward conformity.
In most employment scenarios, including in games, the power differential guarantees that all parties cannot engage in true coziness — one person has the ability to severely affect the career of the other, and therefore, trust should not be expected or used to manipulate.
Let’s Cozy Up!
So what do you think? Do you have any favorite cozy moments from games, whether it’s the bonfire from Dark Souls or the home in Undertale? Did we forget any elements of coziness that you find important? What are your favorite cozy games?
Feel free to tweet @kitfoxgames or comment below!