Cozy video games are arduous to outline. There’s nobody aesthetic line that’s threaded all through all the style. There are qualities we’ve come to affiliate with cozy video games, certain — tender colours like in Little Witch within the Woods, farming or life simulation as in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and little or no violence, like how Potion Craft is generally brewing potions. However these qualities aren’t really necessities; cozy video games are extra about how they make you are feeling. You understand it once you see it.
And now, the subgenre of cozy video games is delving into new territory: the darkish cozy recreation. Cozy recreation professional Kennedy Rose, who goes by Cozy Ok on-line, sees the burgeoning subgenre as a response to an elevated curiosity in coziness in gaming. “[It] permits for the subgenres inside cozy video games to blossom much more,” she informed Polygon. “Sure, we wish to unwind with some cozy activity administration mechanisms, however perhaps we additionally wish to uncover a horrifying thriller whereas we accomplish that.”
It might appear to be a comfy darkish recreation complicates the concept of a comfy recreation: How may a recreation like Dredge, which delves into psychological horror, be thought of a comfy recreation? However Dredge is way more than the mangled, grotesque fish that gamers pull up from the depths and the red-rimmed eyes of the fisherman protagonist from his nights with out sleep. It’s within the gradual, methodical sample of Dredge’s gameplay and the character of fishing itself. These qualities slot in between the sport’s different themes — the mysteries and horrors of the ocean — to completely different levels all through the sport. There are monsters to be discovered — or to search out you — and penalties for spending too many nights with out sleep. Hallucinations can do precise harm; unknowable sea monsters can tear your ship aside. Virtually despite itself, Dredge has a heat to it that pulls it into the comfortable style. It’s the loop of its easy fishing minigame that leads right into a cargo hull-sized recreation of Tetris. It’s the fishmongers and fellow seafarers who purchase your fish and repair your ship. These are the weather of group and consistency that maintain Dredge from getting too darkish.
“Cozy avid gamers […] need one thing that’s entertaining and fascinating however not one thing that brings us to that high-stress, aggressive state that some video games would possibly,” Rose stated. “That will seem like an island stuffed with cutesy animals or a darkish boat expedition with mutant fish.”
New Zealand-based Dredge developer Black Salt Video games didn’t essentially plan for the sport to really feel cozy; developer Alex Ritchie informed Polygon that uneasiness and curiosity have been the 2 emotions he needed to hold all through the sport. “In the event you had requested throughout improvement whether or not I believed Dredge would attraction to [fans of] cozy video games, I in all probability would have stated no,” he stated. “Now, although, I believe you will get that have from it.”
The repetitive construction of fishing, each in video games and in actual life, all the time pulls Dredge again from the sting when it veers too shut. It’s additionally a pastime that developer Joel Mason occurs to take pleasure in. Equally, Dredge developer Michael Bastiaens added that it’s straightforward to get pulled out of the sport’s quieter moments, however that it’s the “rigidity and worry,” maybe, that makes the cozier and extra mundane bits really feel extra impactful.
The darkish cozy recreation style will be traced again years or many years; Don’t Starve may be the unique instance, relying on who you ask. The 2013 survival online game from Canadian studio Klei Leisure is notoriously arduous. Its aesthetic completely says cozy with its muted colours and cute cartoon world, however the gameplay is uncompromising; cozy in Don’t Starve is extra of a mindset. Once you get used to failure — otherwise you use one in every of Don’t Starve’s artistic modes — you’ll be able to fall into the sensation of coziness. It’s a recreation that’s positively extra darkish and essentially arduous than cozy, however that doesn’t diminish the hotter elements of enjoying it.
Rose emphasised that cozy actually is what you make of it. “Some folks discover farming simulations to be the height of coziness, whereas others get stressed by the fast-moving days and infinite to-do lists,” she stated. “Actually, no matter recreation makes you are feeling cozy is a comfy recreation.”
Developer Infinite Fall’s 2017 recreation Night time within the Woods could have outlined a extra conventional tackle the darkish cozy recreation than the likes of Don’t Starve, nonetheless. The setting of Possum Springs and its beloved Maple Road oozes with nostalgia, regardless of being fictional, providing the sort of consolation that makes the sport straightforward to fall again into even years after you final closed it. However, like Dredge, Night time within the Woods has an edge in its themes of psychological well being struggles, dying, and the decay of late-stage capitalism; the distinction of the coziness and darkness makes Night time within the Woods into one thing extra as an entire.
Within the years since Night time within the Woods was launched, and even earlier than that, the darkish cozy style started to completely emerge. That’s simply seen with the likes of Cozy Grove, the 2020 combine between Don’t Starve and Animal Crossing: New Horizons; Ori and the Blind Forest, a creepy-cute 2015 platformer from Moon Studios; and, maybe essentially the most totally realized instance of the style, Unusual Horticulture.
Final 12 months’s Unusual Horticulture settles the participant right into a tiny plant store with a purring cat. Taking part in as a brand new shopkeep, you should label and study crops, then promote them to the folks of Undermere, a darkish and wet city on the fringe of a forest. The twist is that Unusual Horticulture’s crops, as you will have guessed from the title, are fairly unusual: Some will lure folks to their deaths, and others can be utilized as incense that screams whereas it burns. It’s a gradual recreation that strikes ahead with every new buyer and the ring of the counter bell. There’s a component of thriller to Unusual Horticulture, a curious pull that’s much like that of Dredge. The best way Unusual Horticulture’s cozy and darkish components weave themselves right into a nest is each comforting and unnerving — it’s a sense that feels good to sit down inside, without having to unravel it.
“It makes excellent sense to me that this mixture works,” Ritchie, the Dredge developer, informed Polygon. “However I’ve by no means actually examined why. I believe it boils right down to this: You want correct distinction to make any expertise significant. You possibly can’t make one thing appear loud if it’s by no means been quiet, and like in artwork, ‘complementary’ colours are those that distinction essentially the most. A comfortable recreation the place you recognize it’s not all the time cozy makes the snug components much more significant.”