This year was the worst of times and...no, wait. I’m hearing it was just the worst of times. But games have helped a lot of us through it, especially ones that lean more relaxing than punishing.
In addition to the much-needed respite these titles provide, the idea of “cozy gaming” has become pervasive this year—especially on TikTok. The best part is these games aren’t dumbed down or only for kids. Any hardcore gamer can switch between Dark Souls and Animal Crossing.
So here’s to celebrating the best cozy games of this year.
Listen, it has cozy right in the name. But if that’s still not enough to sell you, imagine this: you’re on a seemingly deserted island that you quickly learn is populated with the spirits of various bears. You play as a Spirit Scout, and it’s your job to help these lost spirits find their way. Each character has their own story, and some are open to your guidance while others are apprehensive.
Cozy Grove encourages players to take things slow and works in real-time. In many ways, it draws comparison to Animal Crossing. Both offer new things to do and collect each day and seasonal changes. But Cozy Grove has a bit more heart to it. It’s much more emotionally resonant than it first appears and features meatier dialogue but without becoming too gritty or dark.
Chicory: A Colorful Tale
It’s coloring book that’s also a coffee shop where people chat about life without judging one another. You can think of Chicory: A Colorful Tale as a breezy RPG adventure where you make friends and unlock secrets about the world around you by doodling with a paint brush. If you don’t come to it with your mind already relaxed, Chicory will quiet it down soon enough with its generous characters and intimate conversations about art, creativity, and flourishing. Imagine Undertale without the nihilism. There’s tension but no stress. The game will even tell you exactly where to go next if you know how to ask.
New Pokémon Snap
What’s more chill and cozy than just sitting around looking at some Pokémon? Yeah, you’re inside an autonomous vehicle. And sure, you’re supposed to take pictures, but no one is stopping you from just kicking back and enjoying the ride. Though there’s a bit of tension at first as you feel the pressure to perform for Professor Mirror and friends, after a few trips through the New Pokémon Snap islands, you realize you can do this all day. Time is meaningless, and the pocket monsters will always be there, waiting for you to take some pictures. Or just wave as you float on by. I see you, Pikachu. I see you.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Yes, I know this game came out in 2020. But the Animal Crossing’s massive 2021 update and subsequent release of its Happy Home Paradise DLC are worth another look. The update alone spurred many players to revisit their forgotten islands and gave still-active veteran players a wake-up.
The update added new items, more NPCs (including a few old player favorites), and new ways to spruce up your home with accent walls and ceiling decor. Happy Home Paradise built on that even more with yet more items, a new currency, gameplay challenges, and interior design details like the ability to shine furniture and add partition walls and counters.
And, yes, New Horizons is still as cozy as ever.
Garden Story is a Zelda-like dungeon crawler in which you solve puzzles and defeat the invasive Rot…as a tiny grape warrior. While the mechanics aren’t the most intuitive, Garden Story makes up for it with nostalgic GBA charm. There’s always something unique to discover in the game’s colorful world, which is filled with quirky fruit and animal characters with unique personalities. Garden Story is an ideal game for anyone looking for a bit of nostalgia but with a creative twist.
Skatebird asks the question: What if you stuck a cute bird on a skateboard? We have all, at one point or another, asked this question. Now, we have our answer. While it might not be the most competent skateboarding game ever made, it’s charming and cozy, with wonderfully adorable birds dealing with problems and asking you to solve them all with, you guessed it folks, a skateboard. Truly, what more can you ask for? (Besides better grinding physics.)
In real life, few things are more stressful than unpacking. But in a video game, unpacking is apparently a huge delight. That’s all you do in Unpacking, an isometric puzzle game from Australian indie studio Witch Beam: open up boxes and empty their contents. Every level plays out during a pivotal move in an unnamed woman’s life. One moment, you might be opening up boxes in a dorm room; the next, you’re taking the step of moving in with a partner. Along the way, you learn about her friends, her family, her interests and hobbies, and her off-center habits. Twee music, cartoonish art, and a preponderance of chicken dolls all further contribute to a game that seems designed for an evening in. Just don’t let yourself get too cozy: In its final act, Unpacking packs a surprising emotional wallop.
You know how Donut County didn’t quite work? Like, the idea of a giant hole swallowing everything was amazing, and the presentation was wonderful, but as a puzzle game, it never delivered on its awesome conceit? Sizeable is the game that does something similar and really gets it right.
It’s all about resizing everything in little diorama-like levels. Buildings, trees, windmills, batteries, mine carts, servings of fries. You do this to find each of the 21 levels’ three monoliths, which must be placed on marked locations (at the correct size) to complete the challenge. Sometimes this is too simple, essentially shaking the very pretty picture until they fall out, but other times it’s with some superb puzzles. One level involves working out how to influence the weather to create a tornado all to turn a windmill, to power a machine, to move a wall.
It looks so gorgeous you’ll want to cuddle your screen. And even when the puzzles are weaker, the whole thing is so endearing, so toy-like, that it’s just a pleasure to be with. It’s only made better when you learn it’s created by a developer called Business Goose Studios, whose emblem is…a penguin.
There’s nothing quite like solving puzzles while kittens purr and mew around you.
Meow Lab is essentially a tile-based puzzle game, in which you rearrange electric circuits to match the numbers of prongs on the sides of adjacent squares. And this works–it’s a solid puzzle idea, well executed, with bright, colorful, super-clear graphics. But the genius is the cats, who honestly serve no coherent purpose other than to prowl about at the bottom of the screen, offering occasional kitteny meows, perhaps having a little wash. Why? Because that just makes stuff better.
Oh, and there are the accompanying room-height jars containing what look like baby Cthulhu, but don’t worry about those. I mean, genuinely, they play no purpose in the game. Then again, nor do the kitties I suppose, but they’re very welcome. It’s so nonchalantly strange, and bless it for that.
Kasi is simply about growing a tree. You begin with some ground, and some sky, and I guess, in some way, it’s a game about connecting the two. Drawing a line from below the soil, up into the air above, you create your first shoot. From this, you can draw new branches and, indeed, new roots. And with water and sunlight you gain the ability to just keep on growing.
This itself would already be a superbly meditative experience, but things are more nuanced. There are special ways to combine shoots and leaves, which will eventually allow you to absorb moonlight, grow flowers, and then fruits. More magical, all your actions create the game’s score–each addition you draw plays a note, developing the ambience while the sun sets, the moon rises, summer turns to fall, animals wander in to nibble your fruit, and weather patterns roll through. The result is magical.
Dorfromantik has all the pleasures of a relaxing night of board gaming without needing the actual board. Or friends, either. It’s not even based on an existing board game, Dorfromantik is its own new thing, and its near-perfect system of placing landscape tiles to build a slice of village countryside was one of the most chill experiences on PC all year. Yeah, there were points and combos available if you want to actually play it as a game, but like Townscaper, even your “worst” Dorfromantik session can still just be an excuse to build something beautiful.