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Designing for Coziness

What do Dark Souls, Harvest Moon, The Witcher 3, and Night in the Woods have in common? This analysis offers a philosophy and tips for achieving cozy aesthetics, mechanics, narratives, and work environments.

Tanya X. Short, Blogger

March 5, 2018

11 Min Read

What follows is a very brief summary of an analysis performed by a group of designers at Project Horseshoe in the fall of 2017, including Jake Forbes, Daniel Cook, Chelsea Howe, Squirrel Eisorloh, Dan Hurd, Anthony Ordon, Joshua Diaz, and Tanya X. Short (the editor of this summary and the one to be blamed for any mistakes, omissions, or misrepresentations). To read the full paper, visit the Project Horseshoe website

Cozy Design

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.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as it relates to coziness

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.

Harvest Moon
Harvest Moon was a popular cozy title that offered a mundane, ritual refuge in pastoral life, with clearly demarcated seasons to signify both economic and community activities.

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

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.

Yoshi's Woolly World
Yoshi's Woolly World makes the entire world feel touchable, soft, and lovingly crafted.

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

Cozy Mechanics

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

  • Fishing

  • Reading

  • Sewing

  • 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.

Halo 2
Halo 2 re-imagined the matchmaking lobby as a virtual sofa. At the time, staying with the same group from match to match was a big innovation. A very cozy move for a decidedly un-cozy game.

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.

Cozy Narrative

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.

Undertale uses warm tones, focused interiors, and the presence of a relaxed guardian character to indicate safety and coziness.

Final Fantasy XV
Final Fantasy XV’s companions are confident in what they bring to the team and look out for each other, and often express affection.

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 does your studio or your team allow for coziness? Emotional safety allows for honest communication and collaboration. Abundance leads to a willingness to experiment without fear of loss. You may also find key personnel are easier to retain when they’ve experienced a place they 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

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, 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.


An Invitation to Cozy Design

The following is an Invitation to radically cozy game-making, which you may send (edited at will) to your colleagues:

Dear designer whom I care for, 

I wish for you that game-making be a refuge from the storm. I take joy from the games you make, and I hope you feel fulfilled when you make them. As a colleague, I want you to feel safe to express your inner self, to take creative risks in your craft. As a friend, I wish that you can escape the ever-present hurry and pressure of our industry and world, into a restful, healthy practice. 

If you feel comfortable, I invite you to make a game that reflects those moments in your life that were meaningful, where you were content and cared for. I invite you to make a game that offers moments for players to reflect and be at ease. You don’t have to show it to me; you don’t have to share it with anyone. But I would like to be a companion in the journey towards cozier games, and I think others would, too, if you would have us. 

It’s difficult and slow and I’m probably asking a lot from you. But if you try and fall short of your expectations, please know that I will still support and celebrate you. I care about you, and your work is but a small part of what makes you wonderful. 

Good luck, if and when you’re ready,
(your name)

Thank you for reading, from Chelsea, Daniel, Jake, Dan, Tanya, Squirrel and Anthony. This was only 5 of 40+ pages worth of valuable design insight! To read the full paper, please visit the Project Horseshoe website.

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