Every morning for the past few days, I've opened my iPad and spent 20 minutes or so with Cozy Grove, a chill game about helping cute ghosts find peace, so they can finally stop being ghosts. It's only 20 minutes because after those 20 minutes, the game tells me it's okay to turn it off and come back tomorrow. I've done all I need to do, and now it's fine to go.
Set on an island, and with many tasks involving the tracking down of items like shells and fish, Cozy Grove has serious Animal Crossing vibes. It lacks the intense focus on creativity and customization that defines a lot of the conversation around Animal Crossing, making one of its big hooks these bite-sized chunks of story doled out to players over the course of weeks and months, instead of the marathon sessions most games happily indulge in.
Cozy Grove's daily loop goes like this. If you're playing through Apple Arcade on an iPhone or iPad—it's coming to every other platform around on April 8, including PCs—it sends a push notification in the morning letting you know there's new stuff to explore. Once you jump in, there are a handful of characters to speak with, who typically grant basic collection tasks, like finding X number of branches or Y number of fish. Completing these tasks grants new items to customize the look of your tent/camp area, new revelations about each ghost's past (which fills a heart meter, tracking progress), and a spirit log to toss into your central fire.
As you complete tasks and toss more logs into the fire, your island gets bigger. Repeat.
I've tried, over and over, to get into Animal Crossing, only to find myself dismayed at the busywork, and equally uninterested in customizing a house. And that's fine, because that's what Animal Crossing is, and I've come to accept it's not for me. All good. And yet, time and time again, I find myself drawn to the Animal Crossing's chill vibes and wishing them into another context. It's why A Short Hike, which evokes Animal Crossing's aesthetic but tells a great story with some terrific exploration mechanics, was one of my favorite games in 2019.
Thus, Cozy Grove's pitch of...
- being Animal Crossing-adjacent
- having a dedicated narrative
- not asking much of my time
...really sounded up my alley. And so far, the few hours I've put have confirmed that. I don't know how satisfying the payoffs will be for the various storylines I'm plucking at during the time I'm spending in Cozy Grove and rewatching the Snyderverse, but simply having the game acknowledge my progress and acknowledge it's okay to move on to something else is satisfying. Especially so in the age of COVID-19, when time feels like a blur and the notion of feeling progress is often elusive.
"I'd say that it’s less about 'placing limits on the player' so much as 'pacing the narrative content so that we deliver an enjoyable episodic experience over months of time,'" said David Edery, co-founder and studio head of Cozy Grove developer Spry Fox, in an interview.
Edery compared the approach to Netflix and Disney+. When Netflix releases a show, it drops all the episodes at one, helping define the notion of "binge watching." When Disney released WandaVision this year, it dominated the online discourse every week, from it's premiere to it's finale, because it released one episode per week, aka the old model of TV.
"I prefer media that isn't designed to devour every hour I could possibly give it in a single sitting," said Edery, who acknowledged there's nothing wrong with bingeable games or stories. "I enjoy the anticipation of what's to come and I appreciate being able to plan to enjoy upcoming sessions with my daughter as one of our regular things we do together."
Cozy Grove isn't alone in this, of course. Animal Crossing also communicates to players when they've exhausted a task, and some resources are only available to collect once per day. When Cozy Grove is suggesting it's okay to log off, it's also not forcing the issue; you can still walk around and collect items to sell or contribute to an in-game museum. (In this case, it's a museum that...exists within the mind palace of a ghost penguin. Of course.)
The extracurricular activities that players engage with is beyond Spry Fox's control, but when it comes to staggering storytelling, Edery said the developer wants to emphasize a feeling "you've accomplished something today and have something to look forward to tomorrow."
"Design is to a large degree about meeting players where they’re at," he said. "How do we make deep, rich games for all types of people, including busy people? It’s an interesting problem."
It's one of the reasons I praised Sony's "activities" features for the PlayStation 5 last fall, which give players a rough idea of how long it will take to finish a quest. In games where a mission can take anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour, it's nice when a game is able to communicate that information to the player and see where a game fits into their lives.
"As I've gotten older and taken on more responsibilities," he said, "I've found that I really enjoy games that fit into my daily routine. Sometimes I want a game I can play for a break after work, or for 30 minutes with my daughter, and feel like I had a good, complete experience. Ideally something with high quality art and characters I care about. I like games that become daily rituals that I look forward to."
For now, Cozy Grove has become one of my daily rituals.