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
(Image credit: Emberstorm)

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.

Gamergirlgale headshot

"When I'm sharing games with my community, I stick to that original cozy recipe which made me join the cozy gaming community in the first place […] games that radiate feelings of warmth, comfort, and relaxation, accompanied by charming visuals and low-stress vibes.

"Cozy games and cozy gaming are different—because the former is based on my baseline and the latter is all about the vibes. Yes, there's a whole lot of grey area, and that's what makes it interesting. A game that I find cozy but is still an FPS game is Fallout 4. Its post-apocalyptic world looks amazing and it makes me just want to go on an adventure and explore.

"I think that is what the cozy gaming community stands for: that having that mutual understanding isn't just about agreeing on what cozy gaming is or should be, but it's about coming together as a community, sharing our love for gaming."

MiladyConfetti headshot
Milady Confetti

"Traits that make a game cozy are games that put the player in a relaxed state and do not constantly demand their time like many live service games do. I personally look for chill experiences that provide not only comfort, but some challenge and a bit of humor at times. I applaud cozy game experiences that deal with tough topics such as death or mental health but have an intentional and thoughtful way to deal with these themes that provide a safe environment for the player to enjoy and learn like Season: A Letter to the Future.

"I think competition definitely can be fun, and if there are gamers who find coziness in competition or PvP, who am I to yuck anyone's yum. […] PvP is not at odds for me with coziness, it just may not be the lane I choose as often as others and that is okay! My competitive games are more so Dead by Daylight and Valorant which I would not consider to be cozy games at all.

"One of the most beautiful things about being a cozy gamer is the versatility of our experiences, what is fun/cozy to me does have to be a universal truth in cozy gaming as a whole."

(Image credit: Emberstorm)
Reagan Ifthencreate headshot

"There is no game I would be completely confident recommending as a cozy game. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my audience on TikTok, it’s that everyone has a different definition of cozy. I’ve even had people fight me on Stardew Valley being cozy because of how stressful mining and fishing can be!

"Personally, I feel the most cozy in games with a narrative where I can decorate something, without too much stressful combat (looking at you, roguelikes!). […] I absolutely believe that you can bring a cozy focus to any game, even a post-apocalyptic wasteland like Fallout.

"I’m working on a new cozy game right now, and my absolute must have is being able to pick up and collect junk. I play a bit like a crow, if there’s something shiny, I better be able to grab it and take it home with me, and I want my players to be able to do that too! Being able to pick up random items is my favorite part of any cozy game, from Skyrim to Stardew Valley."

John Kees headshot - game designer and programmer Emberstorm
John Kees

"The coziness of Reka is mostly a result of the places you build and their contrast to the outer world. So when you are sitting by the fire, the wind howling across your roof will remind you of the wet and cold you just left behind.

"As for detracting from the feeling of coziness, it's mostly the pressure to act. When the player becomes aware they should be doing something else or be somewhere different, even the coziest space can become uninviting. […] Our decision not to feature combat or survival mechanics has also been informed by our intention for the mood of the game.

"I do think the cozy label pertaining to games has taken on more of a meaning than just the meaning of the word itself. Sometimes that works against us and we have to actively manage expectations, because cozy can mean something different to different people. Not every 'cozy game' will necessarily make you feel cozy, while a lot of 'non-cozy games' will."

(Image credit: Pounce Light)
Pounce Light headshot
Tomasz Stachowiak

"Games can be cozy even if that wasn't their original design goal. Thinking back, I remember having a carefree time in Age of Empires, which to me was about collecting berries, and lazily exploring the landscape. […] For me, cozy is about enjoying the game at my own pace, and not being nagged about objectives.

"Some of the best cozy moods are rainy and nostalgic—like Coffee Talk or The Longing, which don't even shy away from melancholy and sadness. It won't be for everyone, but that's kind of the point—people will find different stuff cozy.

"Tiny Glade was originally about doodling walls over a terrain—but 'just building' ruins gets old rather quickly. […] It's very much possible to overdose on sugar, so we support a range of moods. Players can choose which scenery to build in, and each has a distinct vibe. For example, the 'Olden' glade is a tad contemplative and somber, for those rainy days when you'd rather build overgrown manors and vampire castles.

"We tend to lean on the feeling of 'oddly satisfying' interactions and ASMR-like qualities. When considering new content, we usually ask 'how much squee is this feature going to cause?' If it triggers cute aggression, it's probably in."

Where does "cozy" go from here?

(Image credit: ConcernedApe)

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.  

Lauren Morton
Associate Editor

Lauren started writing for PC Gamer as a freelancer in 2017 while chasing the Dark Souls fashion police and accepted her role as Associate Editor in 2021, now serving as the self-appointed chief cozy games enjoyer. She originally started her career in game development and is still fascinated by how games tick in the modding and speedrunning scenes. She likes long books, longer RPGs, has strong feelings about farmlife sims, and can't stop playing co-op crafting games.