Mechanical coziness in videogames

I got this sudden urge of replaying the first Evil Within a couple of days ago because of a recent playthrough of Resident Evil 5 (that game hasn't aged well, let me tell you), and a couple of hours in I discovered myself feeling a particular type of joy I thought could make for a good conversation here.

Over the shoulder action-horror games have been around for so long and became so common that I've been experiencing a lot of pleasure and enjoyment just because of how familiar and predictable everything feels. The fact that I have played this type of games a dozen times already makes for an experience that basically eliminates all the friction resulting from learning a new control scheme and mechanical quirks. I know what this is, I know how it plays and the only thing I have to do is enjoy it.

Of course, it being a second playthrough also helps (even though I'm constantly being surprised because I remember almost anything of the different situations and challenges, even though I do recall the plot and general vibe of the game). But the thing that I'm noticing the most is how enjoyable the different little moments are. Things like opening a door slowly RE4 style, the careful exploration of environments for resources and secrets or the super vanilla stealth system. Everything design-wise and gameplay related feels docile and safe and gentle in a way I'm finding very comfortable, like reading a book under a blanket on winter.

Of course, aesthetically and tonally it is a horror game and that is not cozy at all, but that aspect along with the fact that I like horror and I know I like this game gives a nice contrast to that enjoyment of the mechanics I have been talking about that is nice and pleasant in itself too, and also brings texture to the whole experience.

Also, the game has gloriously crunchy headshots.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JI38dRx-6v4

What games give you this sitting on a bonfire with hot chocolate feeling? Have you experienced this type of familiarity with any genres or gameplay styles before? Let me read what you think!

I think this is the kind of thing that‘s specific to each person, but there are definitely a solid chunk of people who find comfort in the gameplay loop of the Souls games, the big flagship shooters like Call of Duty, Halo, and Battlefield, and 4X strategy games. Like, when I think of those games, I don’t often think of the games themselves; I think about the people I know that play them, and love and affection they give off for those games and their gameplay. When I think about the way they talk about those games, its like the people in my life who describe shows that they watch over and over and over.

For me personally, there's just something about those 7th/8th gen 3rd person action-adventure games with that bizarre façade of platforming that just strikes well with me. The third person shooting/action in each one is typically fine, but not boundary pushing, and the jumping, climbing, and running around to solve puzzles is just pleasant enough to keep me engaged without pushing me to the point of irritation. I'm thinking Uncharted, The Last of Us, Enslaved, Tomb Raider, etc.....though my FAVORITE one of all of them to hangout in is The Last Guardian - though it doesn't quite fit in as cleanly as the rest. I guess I just vibe hard with the guided platforming and simple puzzles enough to relax after dealing with teenagers all day.

Someday I am going to convince everyone of the greatness of The Last Guardian. I just replayed it on that PS5 in 4Kish 60fps and I tell ya: its one heck of an experience. That game is the definition of coziness to me. Its like Shadow of the Colossus.....if I cared about what was happening. There's just a delightful heaviness to every move you make. Every jump. Every toss. Every time you must rely on Trico to help you navigate the vast ruins around you. It feels like everything needs to be deliberate. There's a delicious tension to each action. I just want to play that game forever. ESPECIALLY the last few hours.

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@flcl4evr#9443 4X strategy games

one of the things I thought of wrt to this topic was those initial phases of a civ game when the situation is simplest and most fluid. I think something about the familiarity of that situation/those mechanics with the foreknowledge of where it will go is a kind of "cozy" experience

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@JoJoestar#9431 Resident Evil 5 (that game hasn’t aged well, let me tell you)

yeah it has some "stuff going on" alright. But one thing I do like about it, and would be my answer to this topic is: it has discrete stages. I enjoy focused segments like those and wish games did that more often. I find the open-world design tendency increasing enervating. It's just the opposite of cozy (or even "manageable") to me to have a huge blob of space and stuff that I could spend hours in without really experiencing much real material.

Other examples: Demons Souls stages, the town->narrative->dungeon->resolution->travel structure of latter-day dragon quests, the "are you sure you're ready to enter the X family headquarters" sections of yakuza games (sort of un-signposted discrete stages)

And hey if you want to give me a big splashy stage clear screen with a big S rank and my blood type and horoscope or whatever, give me all of that you got

I don‘t know exactly what you’d refer as mechanical coziness, but I‘ve been thinking and I feel that this “coziness” you refer to are good details that add coherence into a videogame and offers you relaxation even though the idea wasn’t that, and it can go from very small details (like the door screeching sound in Koudelka as you cross from one room to the next, or riding in games like the Trails of Cold Steel, where riding is secondary but once you have it you take your time to observe the scenery around you). Another example is the machines exploding in 13 Sentinels, but apart from that I can't remember any other things that seemed close to that.

@flcl4evr#9443 Action-adventure platformers make for an interesting contribution. One way to capture that feeling I was trying to describe is finding a subgenre or group of games with some degree of transference of mechanics and overall design framework, and the games you described totally fit there. I also agree with you on The Last Guardian being a great game that has been somewhat mistreated after its release. It seems prior to its launch everyone was extremely excited to play it and then it faded from everyone's memory extremely quickly.

@yeso#9462 You bring a lot a interesting points. RE5 was honestly alright, it's fun for what it is but it's also not very inspired and it rides the slipstream of RE4 too hard, but I do like the discrete structure of challenges you mentioned. Now, I admit I made fun of it while playing with my friend because at times it feels almost a parody of those gymkhana style TV shows like Takeshi's Castle or American Gladiator, with a set of trials in which you have to deal with problems like activate the platform but there are CROCODILES and also people throwing explosives at you. But it's true RE4 established a formula that the following entries captured and tried to explore well.

Souls games and classic RPGs are great examples too. In fact, going deep into the dungeon crawler heritage of the Souls games we could even add first person games like the SMTs that use that format or stuff like Might and Magic, Etrian Odyssey and such. All of those seem to be clearly defined genres that share most of the basic structure and game loop and design quirks in terms of finding secrets or advancing the plot.

Of course Dragon Quest and other classic RPGs are part of a different tradition but with equal firmly rooted structure and it shows even in games that deviate or reinterpret the formula. Yakuza I feel is a great example of a franchise that can provide this feeling of comfort and happy predictability I wanted to discuss just by itself. As a saga, it is so well defined and focused in what it does and does well that it's almost hard not to feel this way with any of its games. Not only because of how sharp and well executed the whole structure and design philosphy behind it is, but also because of it taking place in the same few streets and alleys of a single neighbourhood, which after a few games turns mentally into "home" and brings a lot of comfort and joy just by returning to that virtual place.

@xhekros#9466 Hopefully this post helped to define better what I was trying to talk about but I was trying to get at games that, by virtue of sharing enough aspects of the core gameplay or being in the same tradition, feel like something you already know, and that sense of familiarity translates into a particular sense of enjoyment through recognition. This works, I think, in the sense of a franchise that makes you know what to expect, like Yakuza mentioned above or maybe stuff like Mega Man or Castlevania, but can also be games that either you have spent a lot of time on, like let's say Tetris, which also has thousands of reinterpretations and different releases. Finally, very specific subgenres like over the shoulder action games or the recent metroidvania trend can provide that sense of familiarity and comfort just because of how much they share between themselves design wise, even when playing something in that context for the first time (which wasn't my case but can happen!).

@JoJoestar#9431

I like the topic! I totally get what you mean about this idea of mechanical comfort (though the answer below kind of gets off track from that…). It is funny that something so violent and seemingly discomforting can provide that sensation, but I get it.

This question gets at something interesting regarding sequels and how much we expect (or, deep down, want) them to change things up in a given series. Sometimes the first game in a series will introduce mechanics or plot conceits which ought to be expanded upon or further developed somehow in a sequel--maybe iteration on something that didn't quite work the first time or an interesting recontextualization (sorry, that's super vague). Maybe an example is taking the Giant Creatures set of mechanics from Shadow of the Colossus and refitting them for a game where... you have to work WITH the giant instead of against it.*

That being said, sometimes it's interesting when sequels DON'T change a lot about the series formula; it becomes more interesting to look at how a game so similar to its predecessor can be so different despite its similarities. I'm thinking now of early Final Fantasy games. I would say the FF series is a flavor of "mechanical coziness" I enjoy--for the past couple years I've been playing through more of them just because I enjoy having one on the backburner most of the time. Final Fantasy V wasn't especially interesting to me mechanically or narratively, but to me the pleasure of the experience was playing a game which in many ways is so similar to FFIV and FFVI (general party size, combat, world traversal, the way you engage with the narrative) but which ends up being pretty different in structure, pace, tone, and party management.

I tried playing Final Fantasy X last year but got interrupted by life and haven't properly resumed yet. I might not! I can't spend my whole life playing video game comfort food, but I will inevitably crave it again, I'm sure.

@flcl4evr#9443
*The Last Guardian (or Trico the Giant Man-Eating Eagle, lol) is one of the best games of the generation--I would say the best Team Ico game, at least. It's magnificent. I don't think I would really put it in with the other third-person adventure games you mentioned just because of the way TLG treats space compared to the others, but I get what you mean. It's not like anything in TLG is particularly challenging.

One thing I think that RE5 and TLG have in common is that they are basically honest and unguarded wrt to what the player is going to be doing and why. But maybe gameplay “honesty” and forthrightness is a different conversation. Although I will say as far as this topic goes, I like when a game (or a movie, or a book, or a restaurant for that matter) just gives me the stuff. I don't necessarily mean that it has to be simple, just that it avoids being arch.

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@JoJoestar#9431 I know what this is, I know how it plays and the only thing I have to do is enjoy it

Do you think this is a good thing? Not questioning if having a good time is a positive, but I think there's a retrograde trend in media (and I thing the VG world is particularly guilty) toward these kinds of experiences/expectations. On a recent episode of the official insert credit-endorsed geopolitics podcast radio war nerd, the middle-aged non-gamer burnout lit professor host was discussing videogames with a developer guest, and he made the probably overgenerous but interesting comparison of game dev in 2020 to early English renaissance literary writing and how open the possibility horizons are wrt to the form/medium. 2020 English language literary writing being petrified over centuries.

I wonder when coziness is good and when it's retrograde. I think for example contemporary ubisoft design has this really negative quality of disseminating the bland gruel games and through the rapid pace of their releases and heavy marketing are also enforcing these rock bottom expectations on the audience. But I liked the evil within too - I think the people making those games have enough wit to go clear of being ubisoftian-narcotic (probably too extreme a negative example)

@captain#9526 With horror, horror adjacent and games with a hostile attitude towards the player in general there is, I think, a degree of control and apropiation over the experience that factors into the equation. It's not only comfort through familiarity but also satisfaction derived from the fact that, once you already have learned the rules of those games, they become inhabitable, you have carved a measure of space in them and that brings a sense of fulfilment and gratification that combines with the familiarity aspect.

Sequels are something interesting to talk about in this regard and I think that conflict between the old and the new is something almost every developer must have experienced. In the case of FF there are two of the "conditions" being satisfied, they all belong to the same genre and therefore share a lot of mechanical conceits and trappings, but they are also part of a franchise with a focused vision, art direction, style, etc. that makes it easy to be recongnized both aesthetically but also mechanically, making those games feel cozy and comfortable. Speaking of insert credit, since we are here, I believe Tim feels this way too, specially with FFIV which I think he has said is his favourite Final Fantasy and maybe his favourite game ever?

@yeso#9529 It is absolutely NOT a good thing when we abandon the territory of subjectivity and what feels good to each of us, and I totally agree that when this sense of predictability turns into a prerogative or a requirement, when games start making those choices to appeal to "target audiences" and "markets" what you get is basically, and as you suggested, Call of Duties and Ubisoft sandboxes. It's media conservatism and conservatism is never good. Those games try to commercially exploit this feeling and willingly avoid taking risks in order to do that. So, to answer your question, I think the coziness is only valuable when it appears spontaniously, and is worth discussing precisely in that context.

Something I didn't share up to this point and now I realize is relevant to the whole conversation is that I really didn't enjoy The Last Guardian on my first playthrough. The awkward controls, weird camera and Trico's unpredictability made for a miserable time the first time I completed that game. But just as I finished it something didn't sit well with how I was feeling and immediately started a second playthrough which was, as far as I am concerned, "the true experience". Just by virtue of already knowing the controls and being familiarized with all its weird quirks and conceits I had a much better time because I adapted myself and my playstyle to fit within the margins the game established for me. While on my first playthrough I didn't manage to find my footing with the game, on the second one everything clicked and the memories and feelings I have towards The Last Guardian are all positive, but the interesting thing is that I was only able to feel that way AFTER developing that relationship with it, that is, after building that familiarity that allowed the coziness to happen.

when I have time I'm going to annoy everyone with half-understood wolfgang iser quotes

over the last few days, for me the various mechanics that make up the farming system in Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is ultimate coziness. this game has got a lot of visible seams but Edelweiss really did something good with the idea of a minutely detailed single-crop farming system. i'm gonna talk about this without spoiling anything: learning any details about how to grow the rice is a major spoiler in this game. if you start hearing anyone talk about rice farming trivia, tune out.

the cozy part of it for me is how you learn the farming systems. there's minimal direction and tutorializing, almost none, and you just have no choice but to go for it and try to grow some rice without any guidance. just some very minor but clear hints in the npc dialogue, that's it. and at first it's pretty easy to grow a decent small crop on just your intuition. this really impressed me, it felt great! my third crop, though, turned out pretty badly! i thought that was cool, because on my significantly larger third crop i introduced other variables that i now know could negatively affect rice yield. and i learned a lot about what to do for the next crop with those new variables, because if done right i could grow truly magnificent rice.

i don't know, i've never had an opinion about in-game tutorials in general other than when i occasionally have to sit through a boring one. but this game has made tutorialization very cozy and clever. it's deeply integrated with the try-cause-effect feedback loop we all use to judge circumstances and make decisions. and it does this without being obvious about hiding secret gatekept knowledge or items from you. this game fits into my brain so well. it fits in there all nice and cozy-like.

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@jums#9587 farming system

yes the original harvest moon is one of the coziest games I've played. Something about the farming loop and being attuned to weather/season and indoor v outdoor. I'm probably taking the concept of game coziness too literally though

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@JoJoestar#9551 I really didn’t enjoy The Last Guardian on my first playthrough

this is what made me think of Iser and the "reader response" school of literary theory (sorry for ebing an asshole) and his concept of expectations and gaps in a reading experience. The concept as I understand it is that a reader brings certain expectations and intuitions to a text, and the text either satisfies those expectations, or provokes surprises or "gaps" as I think Iser called them. And bridging those gaps the text is configured as a collaboration b/t audience and author. He argued that it was that surprising works were the most meaningful and effective for the reader. By "surprise" he doesn't just mean like plot twists, just having to disengage autopilot so to speak in order to navigate the material. Not necessarily like ulysses difficult or immense either, although this could be the case depending on the reader.

He also had a term for fiction that presents minimal gaps for the reader and lacks more challenging surprises: "culinary fiction." Again, not really a bad thing to be more readily satisfied with a book/film/game. But the discussion of these game experiences capcom/tango survival horror and the paradoxical experience of finding violent horror games "cozy" vs the ambivalent but ultimately positive experience with the last guardian. Possibly worth noting that TLG is an austere game in terms of design and how it presents both mechanics and narrative as something the player has to intuit and conceptualize. Lots of unknowns and un-exposited "gaps" in TLG/ico/SoTC

Maybe the Iser framework has some application on the discussion here. There has been some writing on hypertext and IF from a reader-response crit perspective I'll have to look for it. Seems useful given how malleable the "text" and player/reader experience of games are compared to other media.

Kinda surprised it hasn‘t been said but there is something universally satisfying about Mario 64’s movement and that triple jump

It being recreated in side view games like New Super Mario Bros. Mario maker and Night in the woods really deifies it tho

Me tho? I've always been more privy to the long jump, slightly recreated in the Jak games and expanded on with cappy in Odyssey

I like when you can jump very far horizontally!

To me a cozy mechanic is one where I can appreciate the whole of it at a glance. So the top-down shooter is one that feels cozy to me, I know what to expect, any subversions of the mechanic will be instantly appreciable because there are just so few elements to it. So a comfort game to me is something like Last Alert or Bloody Wolf on the turbo grafx, because I look at one screen and 100% understand every piece of it, and it just becomes about moving through the space and doing the things that are asked of me.

@exodus#9764 someone I know studied interface design in art school but doesn‘t work in the field because he says it’s “full of psychopaths that get paid teaching kids how to gamble” so I respect his opinion. he told me a good starting point for a simple interface that‘s easy to get into is showing you every action you have available with nonverbal documentation right on the dang thing. i think one of the best examples of it is this: imagine your field of vision has the top half of an arcade cabinet. you see the display and the joystick panel. on the screen is a belt scrolling STG’s attract sequence. i don't know about how other people imagine this but i know exactly what to do and how to get comfortable within several seconds of encountering this.

When I was demoing Gunsport at the Tokyo Game Show, a group of Arc System Works folks came by to play it, and the guy I talked to most was a “mechanics designer.” He said the game was good, and I asked if he thought it would translate to arcades, and he said if I wanted to do that I needed to work on my “100 yen experience” - that is to say, can you, by the end of dropping in and playing through one 100 yen coin's worth of game:

  1. understand what the fun of the game is
  2. gain some ability to play competently
  3. see the path to improvement that spurs you on to that second 100 yen.

I frankly did not make a great 100 yen experience with Gunsport (though we did improve it A LOT), but it's made me think more about that kind of thing going forward, and it feels kind of relevant here. It's basically what needs to happen after that attract mode draws you in.

I‘ve been meaning to reply to this but I’ve been super busy! I promise I will when I find the time!

I wrote a super long reply yesterday, then went to make dinner, forgot to post it and turned off the PC :clown_face:

Ah well, here we go again.

@jums#9587

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Sakuna

Sakuna seems like a good case of a game with enough longevity and complexity to allow for the development of that familiarity that turns into coziness. Games with fixed cycles and elaborate processes associated can accomodate very easily and allow the player to feel comfortable within them. What interests me the most about what you said is the fact that it's the process itself what brings you comfort, it would seem like not knowing the rules or the correct ways to apply them should or could be something that interferes with the player, thus obstructing comfort, but it turns out to be the opposite in this case, by what you said. I really need to try it!

@yeso#9653

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Iser and literary theory

I haven't read Iser but what you described reminded me of Umberto Eco's Mass Superhuman (I don't know if this is the correct english title, in spanish it's translated as "El Superhombre de masas"). It seems comfort is something we actively look for as human beings, both inside and outside of fiction, and that's probably the reason why people liked serialized novels and soap operas, or superhero fiction nowadays. According to Eco, people don't really like new stories all that much, most people favor permutations or rearrangements of stories they already know, and that fits with the description of the culinary fiction you mentioned. But this is a complex discussion because I could argue the gaps are relative to the experience and cultural background of each person. Maybe for a child or someone who hasn't seen a lot of movies Marvel films are super interesting or groundbreaking...

What interested me in the context of this conversation was asking which games feel like culinary to people around here without actually being necessarily designed or conceived that way, particularly by virtue of their mechanics or interactions, or the way they are designed. That's why I thought Evil Within was an interesting choice, it being a horror game with a openly hostile attitude towards the player, but also very complicit with its audience in the way it presents its inspirations or how openly silly it is at times with jumpscares and such, in a way that feels very self conscious and fun.

Maybe I should clarify that the reason why I didn't enjoy that first playthrough of The Last Guardian wasn't really because of its narrative or mechanical design, but because the controls felt really uncomfortable and unresponsive, specially the camera. I had a much better experience the second time because I was willing to do some extra effort to adapt to those (in my opinion) shortcomings and that allowed for a much better time with the game. It was because I appreciated the "gaps" and surprises, you being very vulnerable and requiring help from an uncontrollable partner that I felt like putting the extra effort, I would say.

@Just_Walli#9659 Long jumps in 3D Mario are awesome! That's a great choice.

@exodus#9764

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Top-down shooters

Seems by what has been discussed so far that genres with a high degree of mechanical "transference" between games are the best equipped to end up becoming comfortable and cozy. Top-down shooters are an interesting choice because in a lot of cases, they not only share the overall design framework, but also aesthetic, feel and art design too. It's a genre in which I can easily imagine being reminded of some other game while playing something because similar enemy patterns or two bosses having some similitude, and that goes miles towards making that genre feel that way. Add some nostalgia or fondness for it all into the mix and the magic is done!

You didn't mention those but I can see stuff like beat 'em ups or light gun games as genres that could be mentioned by someone else for similar reasons.

Also that last exchange about mechanical clarity and cleanness in the presentation is interesting because it establishes the point that games that are understood easily allow for a more immediate comfortable experience (which is, to be honest, not a super groundbreaking idea and almost a universal truth in game design at this point). I wonder if simplicity is a factor too, arcade games seem to tap into that, but doesn't feel like a strict necessity.

Would you imagine that a game with similar mechanics and feel to the evil within, but a radically different tone/aesthetic would feel “cozy?” I wonder how baldly mechanical the cozy feel is vs that integrated into plot/theme/genre whatever.

The example that comes to mind would be a game like harmful park being an exemplar of its mechanical genre but at odds with I would think the main aesthetic current (sci fi space ships, gross bio aliens etc).

@yeso#9938 I‘m sure it’s a mix of everything, but what made me start the thread and actively think about this was how comfortable and good felt to perform all those routines and actions I associate with over the shoulder action games. Looting environments, managing resources, opening doors slowly etc. At the very least, since the mechanical is one of the things that makes videogames unique vs other art forms, it felt interesting to tackle that angle.

It's not a great example but I can see myself feeling cozy with something like Ultra Despair Girls which is also an over the shoulder action game........ if it was good.

Fighting games fit the bill on this for me. Capcom fighters from SF2 onward and the Tekken series are games I come back to for their coziness. I can load up any Tekken title and fire off a few moves/combos with Law and have a good time. There are also enough differences between say SF3 and SF4 to make each game unique as well.