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OPINION | REVIEW: Cozy video games arrived just when we needed to hug some bears

by Todd Martens, Los Angeles Times (TNS) | July 19, 2021 at 1:55 a.m.
"The Wild at Heart" is a story-rich action-adventure game about childhood escapism. Rated for Everyone 10-plus, it is developed by Moonlight Kids. (Moonlight Kids)

"Cozy Grove" arrived in the spring as an "Animal Crossing"-inspired video game with a bittersweet tone, characters struggling with unresolved trauma and bite-size missions.

Now, it's become a ritual.

"Cozy Grove" — available for iOS devices, PCs and all major consoles — is full of bears, and they're dead. Many of these spirits struggle with remorse or shame that's carried over into their ghostly state.

These bears worry about ailments. They hate the way they look. They wish the living would stop treating them like ghosts rather than fully capable beings.

They find out everyone was scared to tell them their baked goods were inedible.

Yet as anyone who has ever played "Super Mario Bros." knows, games are metaphors. A treatise on the power of family, the struggle of the 9-to-5, the ability to find surrealism in daily life and a reminder not to give up on true love regardless of the obstacles — that's the "Mario" message, right?

In "Cozy Grove," by helping the dead bears face reality, or sometimes simply the better parts of nostalgia, we heal lost souls. Doing so brings an island paradise to life. A bleak world of driftwood becomes a mystical campground, and we advance through the game essentially by building more mindful bears.

We craft objects, go fishing, hunt for lost items, but the story progresses as we listen, becoming something akin to a therapist for the spirits.

It's thoughtful, a game that, like many released in recent weeks, possesses a healthy conscience. While independent games long ago helped popularize the idea of concocting digital worlds built primarily for exploration, a so-called "wholesome games" movement — led by a social media account and site of the same name — has created a makeshift genre that has brought more visibility to games in which the joy is uncovering a universe rather than obliterating it, often with ideas on how to be better custodians of our current one.

At the very least, "Cozy Grove" and other gentle games such as the coloring-book-like adventure "Chicory: A Colorful Tale" and the run-away-from-home fairy tale "The Wild at Heart" are conversational. Instead of running and shooting, players engage in an interactive dialogue with what's on the screen.

Across its various social media platforms, Wholesome Games has tallied more than 200,000 community members, and a recent online showcase, Wholesome Direct, highlighted more than 75 games (see them all at wholesomegames.com). They were diverse in genre and style, ranging from "Beasts of Maravilla Island," a calming and beautiful celebration of mythical animals, which is available now, to the forthcoming "Lake," a game about a woman who quits her fancy job to be a mail carrier.

"Folks are curious to know 'why now?' with regards to an influx of wholesome games," says Matthew Taylor, independent game developer and founder of Wholesome Games. "As much as I'd love to take the credit, I genuinely think that the desire for these types of games has always existed."

LESS VIOLENCE, MORE STORY

Taylor and others partly attribute the popularity of Wholesome Games' online events to some of the same factors that led to the rise in indie games: the proliferation of university video game development programs, lower costs to develop games and the ubiquitousness of mobile games, which turned many of us into players. Another factor is the pandemic, with old and new players looking for accessible, connective experiences that de-emphasize violence.

"Cozy Grove" is a life-sim video game about camping on an island haunted by the ghosts of depressed animals. Published  in March 2021. (Spry Fox)
"Cozy Grove" is a life-sim video game about camping on an island haunted by the ghosts of depressed animals. Published in March 2021. (Spry Fox)

One more crucial shift is a long overdue acknowledgement that games and their action-focused genre classifications — shooters, platformers, roguelike — have catered to a specific, existing community rather than seeking to more broadly build a new one. Don't worry if you don't know what the above genres mean; as others have noted, they don't tell you much about the game.

"I think these narratives are interesting and partially true," says Taylor when asked why an estimated few hundred thousand tuned into this year's Wholesome Direct. "But they let an industry that's been catering specifically to young white men for almost its entire existence off the hook." A wider audience has "always existed. Now the games are finally catching up."

Unlike film, books or television, game genres have often been defined by what they ask the player to do rather than what they may want the player to feel. "Wholesome," like the words "punk," "hip-hop" or "rom-com," isn't a brand so much as a welcome mat to someone looking for something to play.

HUG A BEAR

For the Seattle-based team behind "Cozy Grove," such terminology, particularly the word "cozy," has become something of a mission statement. "Cozy Grove," for instance, recently added the ability to hug a bear.

"We're hoping to take this to the next level and do a large-scale 'Animal Crossing'-like game that will bring people together and hopefully make them feel less lonely, in addition to feeling cozy," says studio co-founder David Edery. "The absence of loneliness and coziness are very interrelated."

"Cozy Grove," "The Wild at Heart" and "Chicory" are three of my favorite games of 2021, and one thing they all share is accessibility. I play "Cozy Grove" on my iPhone since it's part of the Apple Arcade subscription service, and "The Wild at Heart" and "Chicory" are also games built not just for reflection but for sharing with others.

They're games that, like the best fairy tales, understand that seriousness and a sense of childlike wonder aren't mutually exclusive.

"Once we realized these characters were going to be ghosts and have past trauma, then it became exciting for us to figure out how to tell that in a way that was cozy," Edery says. "It's not a trivial thing. Talking about a character that has survivor's guilt is not a cozy topic, but the friendship you develop, how you help them, how you walk them through what they're feeling, that became cozy."

Twelve-year-old Wake from Willowvale ventures into the deep forest to escape his troubled home life in "The Wild at Heart." Release in May 2021, the action-adventure video game is rated for Everyone 10-plus. (Moonlight Kids)
Twelve-year-old Wake from Willowvale ventures into the deep forest to escape his troubled home life in "The Wild at Heart." Release in May 2021, the action-adventure video game is rated for Everyone 10-plus. (Moonlight Kids)

WILD AT HEART

"The Wild at Heart," available for PCs and Xbox consoles, has generated comparisons to Nintendo's "Pikmin" franchise. Players round up a group of helper characters, in this case forest sprites, and call on them to clear paths, carry items or sometimes battle an evil creature until it helpfully disappears.

The small studio, whose staff is spread primarily throughout the Pacific Northwest, wanted a tone that was part "Where the Wild Things Are," and part those of the animated films of Irish studio Cartoon Saloon ("Wolfwalkers").

The result: melancholic magical realism.

We encounter what could stereotypically be defined as a "crazy cat lady," only this idealized nomadic figure knows the secrets of nature and inspires the imagination of our young protagonist, Wake. The video-game-obsessed kid with a troubled childhood wants to reconnect with his dad, who spends evenings watching old home videos of better days while drinking away his future.

This sounds ... not fun, but that's only because we speak of games in frivolous language. "The Wild at Heart" is, in fact, a cause to rejoice, and I smile at the details in almost every screen, as well as Wake's ability to pretend, his desire to trust and his escape into a hidden world of magic that's in danger of succumbing to the chaos of humanity.

Everything in "The Wild at Heart" feels delicate, from Wake's well-being to the tragic, living fire beings that threaten players' health.

Like a "Pikmin" game, one could talk about "The Wild at Heart" for its puzzles or strategy — how one can trigger music, inspire sprites to build bridges or discover new items to build — but it's really a story about childhood friends learning, through the help of sorcerer-like vagabonds, that past mistakes don't have to define the future. And through the outlandish characters and creatures we meet, we remember that for all the world's troubles, there's whimsy too.

"'Pikmin' games are awesome, but they don't have a lot of story," says Chris Sumsky, co-founder of "The Wild at Heart" developers Moonlight Kids. "So it became a 'what if' scenario. What if you take 'Pikmin,' and you wrap it in an actual deep story that people care about? Then you can bring people into the game from the story."

ART CAN HEAL

On the surface, "Chicory," available for PCs and PlayStation consoles, is an adventure game inspired by "The Legend of Zelda," in that we travel among forest towns and caves on a quest to heal the land. But it's also about believing in the power of art, the surprise or astonishment that comes from an attempt to draw or paint, and the sometimes paralyzing stress of having to live up to others' expectations.

In "Chicory," we don't have a weapon; we have a paintbrush. Color has been stripped from the world, and the town's famous artist, Chicory, has locked herself away in her bedroom, her love of art suddenly vanished. We play as an apprentice, a dog, whose ability to paint hasn't won the favor of the townfolk, but it doesn't take crafting a masterpiece to bring color to the world and use our brush to inspire plant and wildlife interactions.

Many of the animal characters we meet are depressed. One wants to draw with us on a bench, only to then reveal that "something tiny" has sent them into a spiral. Others are unhappy with the look of their living space. Caves can be foreboding, at least until we light them up in a wash of pastels. In "Chicory," we are asked if we make art for personal growth or for the compliments, and we learn that art heals.

The game even has optional drawing lessons, and our canvases populate the land.

"I like to start from a simple, familiar place and let those themes grow organically as a conversation between the characters, and gameplay develops," says "Chicory" creator Greg Lobanov. "I put a lot of emphasis on making sure the characters are reacting honestly to the circumstances the game throws at them."

Especially welcoming is that its difficulty can also be dialed way down, so much so that I skipped any "boss fights," a gatekeeping relic of early game design in which natural progression is suddenly blocked by a cumbersome challenge. But "Chicory" even turns its difficulty settings into a sense of play — an in-game hint line is essentially a call to the player character's parents asking for advice.

IS IT HARD?

How easy or difficult a game should be remains an imprecise science, but I find it's the first question asked by anyone who is curious about games but doesn't regularly play. "There aren't a lot of options for a chill adventure that isn't super hard or overly gamified with stats," says "The Wild at Heart's" Sumsky. "Our art style certainly affords that. I don't think anyone looks at this and expects our game to be ultrahard."

It should be noted that games under the broad wholesome banner aren't necessarily antiviolence, even if they don't use violence. "Overboard!" has become one of my go-to mobile titles for short gaming sessions, and this narrative experience starts with an act of extreme violence: A woman in an unhappy marriage tosses her husband into the ocean. We spend the game simply talking to others on the boat, trying to charm our way out of being caught for murder.

In "Say No! More" we shout the word "no," but it's not a weapon so much as enforcement of professional boundaries as we navigate an insufferable work environment. The game excels because its elongated, exaggerated art style reminds us that the stresses of the daily grind are not always worth the anxiety they cause.

Wholesome — or cozy — is simply a way to convey a feeling.

"It's a nonviolent game, first and foremost," Edery says. "There's an image you can put in front of someone, and it will be cozy. You're indoors. A rainstorm is happening outside. You're holding a warm mug of cocoa. You're there with three or four other people you care about. That's cozy. So can you evoke that sense in one of these games? There are things that are wrong, but you're inside and they're outside. If those wrong things are infringing on you, you have tools to deal with them that are nonviolent."

Violence, it appears, has at long last come to be understood as cliche in the game space.

In the wholesome cozy video game "Chicory: A Colorful Tale," players learn that art heals. (Finji)
(Finji)
In the wholesome cozy video game "Chicory: A Colorful Tale," players learn that art heals. (Finji) (Finji)

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