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Even 'cozy' gaming's biggest fans can't decide on its definition, but they aren't worried: 'There's a whole lot of grey area, and that's what makes it interesting'

 Reka - A young witch in a twilight woods pets a deer.
Reka - A young witch in a twilight woods pets a deer.

We've undeniably arrived in a boom era for cute, casual, creative games. The numerous descendants of Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing are joined by pastel puzzlers, chill city builders, and adorable adventures. Now that their fans have started seeking out more than farm life sims, they've become known collectively as cozy games to dozens of content creators, their hundreds of thousands of cozy gaming followers, and developers working on the next crop of cozy games.

Except nobody can agree on what "cozy" means.

It's been a point of discussion on social media for months as creators deploy the label but dance around the task of defining it. On both TikTok and YouTube, recommendation videos and "upcoming cozy games" lists dominate the space, but cozy isn't as tidy a genre as "platformer" or even the more contentious "roguelike," where most people can agree on a list of game mechanics that the label implies.

Cozy is a vibe. There's a loose consensus that farm sims typically are cozy, but what about crafting games? And though Cult of the Lamb is cute, does the roguelike design disqualify it?

Though every creator knows that Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing remain the gold standard, no one has been willing to draw the borders around 'cozy,' even as they know they owe their followers some sense of consistency in the way the word is applied. So I asked several cozy content creators and developers of hotly anticipated upcoming cozy games to tell me what cozy means. To them, at least.

Reka - a witch in a nighttime woods walks towards a cottage with chicken legs
Reka - a witch in a nighttime woods walks towards a cottage with chicken legs
A small stone castle in a snowy glade
A small stone castle in a snowy glade

Where does "cozy" go from here?

Stardew Valley multiplayer
Stardew Valley multiplayer

The words "relaxing" and "comforting" come up a lot, as does the act of building and collecting. Meanwhile gore and PvP are mostly seen as antithetical to coziness. The one thing they unanimously agree on is that nobody gets to define what's "cozy" for someone else. Several of them reference Bethesda RPGs like Fallout 4 and Skyrim as opportunities for cozy playthroughs while also mentioning that Stardew Valley's combat and fishing are actually a bit stressful for some people.

The one thing they unanimously agree on is that nobody gets to define what's "cozy" for someone else.

Assuming that "cozy" is mutually exclusive with experiencing stress or anxiousness is another common theme, and seems to be where the belief that cozy is entirely subjective is derived from. If someone is completely put off by money management, who am I to tell them that they should feel relaxed while playing Stardew Valley? But excising the potential for negative emotions feels like a dead end goal.

The community at large seems to instinctively know that a platonic ideal of "cozy" for all people is unattainable, and that knowledge is causing some paralysis in defining it. I'd like to submit the phrase "comfort game" as a phrase that centers your own personal experience—because even a game like Dark Souls can be a comforting routine to someone well acquainted with it—while moving forward with the attempt to corral the word "cozy."

We can agree that cozy games typically involve some mix of creating, cultivating, and cooperating at a pace directed more by the player than by the game. Cozy games are not anti-conflict, but they are pro-tranquility. Although the most popular cozy games stick to a narrow script—vibrant colors, pleasant NPCs, and wholesome goals—"cozy horror" hits like Dredge continue to stretch the definition. In practice, calling a game cozy is always the beginning of a conversation, never the end.