Cozy games are hard to define. There’s no one aesthetic line that’s threaded throughout the entire genre. There are qualities we’ve come to associate with cozy games, sure — soft colors like in Little Witch in the Woods, farming or life simulation as in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and very little violence, like how Potion Craft is mostly brewing potions. But those qualities aren’t actually requirements; cozy games are more about how they make you feel. You know it when you see it.
And now, the subgenre of cozy games is delving into new territory: the dark cozy game. Cozy game expert Kennedy Rose, who goes by Cozy K online, sees the burgeoning subgenre as a response to an increased interest in coziness in gaming. “[It] allows for the subgenres within cozy games to blossom even more,” she told Polygon. “Yes, we want to unwind with some cozy task management mechanisms, but maybe we also want to uncover a horrifying mystery while we do so.”
It may seem like a cozy dark game complicates the idea of a cozy game: How could a game like Dredge, which delves into psychological horror, be considered a cozy game? But Dredge is much more than the mangled, grotesque fish that players pull up from the depths and the red-rimmed eyes of the fisherman protagonist from his nights without sleep. It’s in the slow, methodical pattern of Dredge’s gameplay and the nature of fishing itself. These qualities fit in between the game’s other themes — the mysteries and horrors of the sea — to different degrees throughout the game. There are monsters to be found — or to find you — and consequences for spending too many nights without sleep. Hallucinations can do actual damage; unknowable sea monsters can tear your ship apart. Almost in spite of itself, Dredge has a warmth to it that pulls it into the cozy genre. It’s the loop of its simple fishing minigame that leads into a cargo hull-sized game of Tetris. It’s the fishmongers and fellow seafarers who buy your fish and fix your ship. These are the elements of community and consistency that keep Dredge from getting too dark.
“Cozy gamers [...] want something that’s entertaining and engaging but not something that brings us to that high-stress, competitive state that some games might,” Rose said. “That may look like an island full of cutesy animals or a dark boat expedition with mutant fish.”
New Zealand-based Dredge developer Black Salt Games didn’t necessarily plan for the game to feel cozy; developer Alex Ritchie told Polygon that uneasiness and curiosity were the two feelings he wanted to carry throughout the game. “If you had asked during development whether I thought Dredge would appeal to [fans of] cozy games, I probably would have said no,” he said. “Now, though, I think you can get that experience from it.”
The repetitive structure of fishing, both in games and in real life, always pulls Dredge back from the edge when it veers too close. It’s also a pastime that developer Joel Mason happens to enjoy. Similarly, Dredge developer Michael Bastiaens added that it’s easy to get pulled out of the game’s quieter moments, but that it’s the “tension and fear,” perhaps, that makes the cozier and more mundane bits feel more impactful.
The dark cozy game genre can be traced back years or decades; Don’t Starve may just be the original example, depending on who you ask. The 2013 survival video game from Canadian studio Klei Entertainment is notoriously hard. Its aesthetic absolutely says cozy with its muted colors and cute cartoon world, but the gameplay is uncompromising; cozy in Don’t Starve is more of a mindset. When you get used to failure — or you use one of Don’t Starve’s creative modes — you can fall into the feeling of coziness. It’s a game that’s definitely more dark and fundamentally hard than cozy, but that doesn’t diminish the warmer aspects of playing it.
Rose emphasized that cozy really is what you make of it. “Some people find farming simulations to be the peak of coziness, while others get stressed out by the fast-moving days and endless to-do lists,” she said. “Really, whatever game makes you feel cozy is a cozy game.”
Developer Infinite Fall’s 2017 game Night in the Woods may have defined a more traditional take on the dark cozy game than the likes of Don’t Starve, however. The setting of Possum Springs and its beloved Maple Street oozes with nostalgia, despite being fictional, offering the kind of comfort that makes the game easy to fall back into even years after you last closed it. But, like Dredge, Night in the Woods has an edge in its themes of mental health struggles, death, and the decay of late-stage capitalism; the contrast of the coziness and darkness makes Night in the Woods into something more as a whole.
In the years since Night in the Woods was released, and even before that, the dark cozy genre began to fully emerge. That’s easily seen with the likes of Cozy Grove, the 2020 mix between Don’t Starve and Animal Crossing: New Horizons; Ori and the Blind Forest, a creepy-cute 2015 platformer from Moon Studios; and, perhaps the most fully realized example of the genre, Strange Horticulture.
Last year’s Strange Horticulture settles the player into a tiny plant shop with a purring cat. Playing as a new shopkeep, you must label and learn about plants, then sell them to the people of Undermere, a dark and rainy town at the edge of a forest. The twist is that Strange Horticulture’s plants, as you may have guessed from the title, are quite strange: Some will lure people to their deaths, and others can be used as incense that screams while it burns. It’s a slow game that moves forward with each new customer and the ring of the counter bell. There’s an element of mystery to Strange Horticulture, a curious pull that’s similar to that of Dredge. The way Strange Horticulture’s cozy and dark elements weave themselves into a nest is both comforting and unnerving — it’s a feeling that feels good to sit inside, with no need to unravel it.
“It makes perfect sense to me that this combination works,” Ritchie, the Dredge developer, told Polygon. “But I’ve never really examined why. I think it boils down to this: You need proper contrast to make any experience meaningful. You can’t make something seem loud if it’s never been quiet, and like in art, ‘complementary’ colors are the ones that contrast the most. A cozy game where you know it’s not always cozy makes the comfortable parts even more meaningful.”