Extra Punctuation Transcript
In an industry as competitive as big money games, the search is always on for the next big thing. And I feel like we’re primed for a next big thing right about now. I’m prepared to say the Dark Souls era is winding down. I, for one, am certainly bored of that kind of thing. I tried Thymesia last week and it mainly just made me depressed. I’m ready for the industry to latch onto a new electrifying sea change in popular game design, now all we need is for one to come along.
I’m occasionally asked what I think the next big thing’s going to be and I’ve usually resorted to my standard evasive asshole response that if anyone could predict the next big thing we’d all be rich. But you know what, what’s the point in spending most of your professional life being a games journalist and assembling reams of useless knowledge about gaming if you can’t use that to make an educated guess now and then. So let’s think about it. There’s one fairly surefire method to deduce what’s about to be big in triple-A games, and that’s to look at what’s currently big in indie games. Triple-A can always rely on the indie sphere when it needs a few good ideas to steal.
And if there’s one thing that has struck me as getting more and more prevalent in indie games lately, it’s what I’m choosing to call “cozy games.” Games with low narrative stakes, gameplay usually leaning more on completionism and task management than on reflex skill challenge, a gentler, understated tone and a general air of niceness and friendship. Often with a pleasing cartoonish art style that wouldn’t look out of place in some inexpensively made Cartoon Network series. To cite some examples, I recently played Bear and Breakfast which I would just about call the perfect storm of cozy game tropes, and I’d also include Powerwash Simulator, Unpacking, Dinkum, My Time At Portia, Spiritfarer, Haven, Stardew Valley to go back a bit.
I could also cite several games that borrow elements of the cozy game while not fitting the full profile. Hardspace Shipbreaker has cozy tidying up gameplay but a slightly intense setting and plot themes. Citizen Sleeper has cozy character art and understated tone but again a grittier setting. The Witness, which we were all recently reminded of by the slightly late to the party parody game The Looker, has a cozy air but more mentally challenging puzzle-based core gameplay. And then there’s Stray.
Stray is something from the triple-A adjacent realms that seems to have hit a nerve because it’s a game about playing an adorable kitty witty. And I know what you’re gonna say. Oh that’s hardly a cozy game, Yahtz, it’s a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk adventure full of thrills and spills and daring escapes and shit. Yes, but here’s the thing, viewer: when they talk about it, people aren’t calling it the cyberpunk action adventure game or the thrills and spills game. They’re calling it the cat game. The game with the cat in it. It’s not the setting or the slightly insipid “hunt the next contextual button prompt” gameplay that’s made it stand out. It’s the fact that you play an adorable cat and people want to watch themselves curl up and have a little shleepy.
Not that cozy games are a new phenomenon. Minecraft’s definitely got cozy qualities and that’s been a big thing for yonks. Harvest Moon and The Sims would be good old school examples, Little Computer People if you like your schools to be as old as possible. But I definitely think we’re in the midst of a significant wave of the buggers in the world of indie games, and they seem to have arguably shed their image of being games for casuals, babies, girls and girl babies.
It’s fairly easy to theorise on what might be driving the rise of cozy games. I don’t think it would be controversial to say we live in somewhat troubled times. A lot of people are pessimistic for the future and stricken by a sense of being powerless to do anything about it. And if you’ll forgive a little speculative amateur psychology, I think when people dealing with such feelings turn to video games to alleviate them, they’re looking for one of two things. One, power fantasy, which they’ll find no end of, that’s probably why boomer shooters have also become popular, thinking about it, or two, escapism. They want to escape from unsettling reality with something that will assure them that everything’s fine and it’ll all turn out OK. Stop flinching at news headlines and come and water some fucking flowers.
So that would be my advice for triple-A games looking to know where the wind’s blowing: we may well be entering the age of the cozy game. But this information is completely fucking useless to you, isn’t it. Because triple-A is incapable of cozy. And it’s their own stupid fault. They’re the ones who’ve set the systems for triple-A development up this way. Who insist that their games must have spectacle, action, top of the range graphics and hundred million dollar budgets with flashy trailers to hypnotise all the dumbos in the audience. All of which is more or less antithetical to the cozy game aesthetic. Hundred million dollar games are incapable of being understated and chill. Five hundred people being worked to death in crunch time are in no position to make a stress relieving game. What would you even spend all that money on if not flashy action sequences? Making hyperrealistic wisps of steam come off the mugs of hot cocoa? That’s not going to convince anyone to buy a Geforce RTX 3080.
If cozy understated games are the next big thing and the triple-A studios can’t get in on it because they’ve gotten too big and only know how to make samey combat arenas, I would find that absolutely fucking delicious. It’d be like watching an obnoxious fat person struggling to get out of a beanbag chair while his dog steals his meatball sandwich. But beware, indie sphere, the rich cunts will find a way in sooner or later. It’s already starting. Disney have a game coming out soon called Disney Dreamlight Valley that’s basically a cozy life sim game with a bunch of copyrighted characters in it. It seems like it would be of interest to absolutely no one except those terrifying people you hear about who still want to go to Disneyland by themselves past the age of fourteen, but it’s a sign that the corporate vultures are circling. Better get your pixel art unicorn fly fishing game out sooner rather than later.
You know what this all makes me think of? The way video games are portrayed in movies and TV shows. For the longest time, whenever someone was playing a game in a movie they’d always be playing with the controller up to their face and with the TV making 8-bit bip and boop sound effects. Even way into the modern era of gaming. Then video games exploded in popularity and movies start wanting to be down with the cool kids and now these days if someone games in a movie it’s usually something like Gears of War. I just like to picture some executive bursting into the youth club with their new movie going “Finally we’re depicting games the way they really are!” And all the kids turn around and they’re all playing pony stroking simulators or whatever. I just like picturing that scenario. And then I like picturing the executive taking his hat off and stamping on it and making frustrated noises like Dick Dastardly.