Cozy Grove | The magic and making of a unique cosy life sim

cozy grove

Cozy Grove, about an idyllic island populated by bear spirits, was one of 2021’s most unique games. Developer Spry Fox talks to us about making a very different kind of cosy life sim.


There’s a touch of alchemy in cosy gaming. Hidden sorcery that we all strive for in the real world, often with sporadic success. Like the art of turning base metals into gold, cosy gaming makes the mundane magical. The most basic things in a cosy game evoke a fuzzy feeling of contentment that cocoons you like a blanket. Something as simple as feeding animals or watering plants is a kind of hearth magic.

The last three years saw a boom in releases that birthed the cosy genre and a renewed love for ones that pre-dated it. It’s easy to see why: in a world gripped by a global pandemic, people were cut off from the most basic things. Rather than epic battles and pulse-racing action, gamers craved warmth, connection and simplicity. Games like Coffee Talk, Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Stardew Valley helped to deliver that. And many of these titles, particularly the life sims, have a common theme: your own house/island/farm/town that you personalise over time. This virtual sphere is yours to mould and shape into whatever you wish it to be. A personal utopia, you might say.

And why not? As a form of self-care, indulging in the homely whims and wants of the self does tick all of the boxes. But sometimes, at least for myself, a boundless personal utopia can be a little overwhelming; so many options and an ever-changing temperament can make it difficult to envision what and how to create. And once in a while, a game will come along that satisfies in a way you wouldn’t necessarily expect: by making the world not revolve around you.

Released in 2021, Cozy Grove by Spry Fox puts players in the role of a ‘Spirit Scout’, which is like a regular scout but of a more ethereal nature. Sailing to a lone, ever-changing island, you must help the resident ghost bears trapped in limbo and bring joy and colour back to the island. For those who’d had their fill of pixel art and Animal Crossing didn’t quite hit the spot—not to mention being a little unnerving—it was a breath of fresh air. Beautifully charming hand-drawn animation and stellar writing went hand in hand with engrossing yet measured gameplay. Playing in real time and having 30 to 60 minutes of quest content each day also helped make it a daily escape and perfect for busy bees. But all this aside, just from an opening synopsis, there was already a different feel to this ghostly grove adventure.

From the get-go, it’s clear that this island is not yours. You’re not claiming this idyll as your own, nor shaping it to your unique whims. You are very much a visitor here. And your role is not one of a world creator but a helper and nurturer. According to lead writer Jamie Antonisse, this was very much intentional.

“Our idea was that, even when they’re in a delightful space, people like to feel that there’s some purpose to their existence there as well,” he says. “We felt like creating a fantasy of service, as opposed to a fantasy that serves you, might actually feel good to people who, at the time it was being created, were isolated in a pandemic. More connection, feeling like you’re giving something back, would actually create a different sort of warmth and cosiness.”

Credit: Spry Fox.

As each day passes, you scavenge, plant, fish and craft to bring happiness and clarity to a lost soul. Almost everything you do is to inspire each unique bear; your creative choices revolve around this, even occasionally your own attire. In turn, like a carefully tended garden, these seeds of services grow and bear fruit.

These resident bears – and the circumstances that led them to be stranded on this desolate, colourless island – are a mystery at first. Most cannot remember how they passed and fixate on certain aspects of their previous lives, which in turn influences their ghostly appearance. Each day, it’s up to you to try and help them remember what they’ve long forgotten and, sometimes, who they really are. And like most meaningful and monumental changes, this takes time and care. This is where the top-notch writing and real-time gameplay work exceptionally well – which was something else heavily influenced by the pandemic.

Read more: Cosy games | A roundtable discussion

“It definitely doubled us down on this idea of active listening as your way of helping a ghost through their problem,” Antonisse confirms. “Instead of making choices that forced a ghost in direction A or B or just passively listening while a ghost talked, it was important that you have a little bit of a conversational moment where you’re reflecting things back. Setting the spirit scout up as a good listener, not a passive but an active listener, was very key and certainly informed by pandemic style interactions.”

Timing aside, helping someone overcome internal struggles is always a lengthy process. Sometimes great strides are made, sometimes small steps, but both are equally important. Finding a lost photograph or cooking a favourite snack can trigger a powerful memory or encourage a bear to share a personal moment with you. Through the overall light and humorous tone, moments of poignancy and emotional weight hit hard. Fear of failure, taking loved ones for granted, the loss of a partner. Moments like these are not immediately shared, nor necessarily all at once when they are. Maybe tomorrow they will feel ready to tell you a little more, maybe in a few days’ time they will find the courage to reveal all. Little by little, piece by piece, quest by quest, you connect with these bears and help them truly find themselves. This itself is incredibly rewarding.

Credit: Spry Fox.

“One of the things that was wonderful about this mode of storytelling is the bears need to gain the player’s trust as well,” recalls Antonisse. “The player needs to feel that they have gotten enough out of the bear story to care about their tragedy. They’re really glad to be helping these bears resolve their trauma because there’s a reciprocal nature there.”

Later updates and the DLC ‘New Neighbears’ brought many new features to the game such as the hug feature and new bears to connect with. Fan favourite Lillian McQuill, aka Origami Bear, was a bear that epitomised the Cozy Grove experience and was an example of art and writing working hand in hand.

“You’re not supposed to have favourites, but Lillian is really one of my favourites,” Antonisse admits. “She was one I got to create the whole package of. The best thing is when people say ‘This resonated with me’ and ‘I feel seen with this bear’ – I certainly drew on some personal experiences for her, so that is amazing.”

“But these stories weren’t created in a vacuum of writing,” he continues. “The origami aspect of Lillian was absolutely a conversation with the whole art team of ‘Okay, how can we express this? Noemi [Gomez] is the concept artist on many of these bears, and she would come up with surprising angles on stories. And in an early discussion, she hit on this idea of an origami bear and that fed back into the story. So the fact that origami art brought the whole story back around, I think, is a nice summation of the way that game design, writing, art, all these disciplines work together.”

Cozy Grove

Credit: Spry Fox.

Speaking of art design, to say you’re completely without aesthetic creativity would be unfair. As well as customising your own appearance, you can enter your island abode and decorate it after upgrading it to a certain level. You can also keep an array of spectral creatures which will produce a specific type of essence when fed. But the happiness of these creatures is dictated by what kinds of aesthetic items are placed around them; each will have certain likes and dislikes. The less they like, the less essence is produced. Meaning creating those panna cottas for Lee Berry Dennings will take a little longer.

Even these elements of personal creativity feed back into the care and well-being of your ghostly companions. As they rediscover their memories, their joy and clarity are palpable as they manifest as a swathe of colour returning to the island. A vital event as this life-giving colour causes flowers to bloom, trees to bear fruit and animals to wake from their spectral slumber. Subsequently, these rewards aid in creating those key progression items and all come together in one warm, afterlife-affirming cycle.

To also say there is zero sense of achievement would also be grossly inaccurate. As a Spirit ‘Scout’, naturally, there are badges to earn for various island endeavours such as crafting and animal care. Occasionally a visit to Patrice Furbac, the Postal Bear, will yield a gift and encouraging words from your Scoutmaster back home, congratulating you on your good work in Cozy Grove. But a greater personal sense of achievement comes from forming a connection with each unique bear and contributing to their emotional journeys. There is a huge underlying sense of having an impact through the smallest of actions. Many of us can attest to sometimes feeling like we don’t make a difference and what we do is irrelevant. Every so often this may even be at odds with the need for escapism; wanting to help make an impact but feeling overwhelmed. Cozy Grove taps into that beautifully.

Cozy Grove

Credit: Spry Fox.

“I think Cozy Grove is a delightful little daily ritual and a reminder of the value that people can bring to each other with a little bit of openness,” Antonisse summarises. “It does think a good job of showing you in various ways how patience can be rewarded. Patience is hard to come by in a world where we’re all a little bit uncertain about what the future will bring. It’s nice to create a place where a small and very human, humble investment can pay off and show you more.”

It would’ve been easy for Spry Fox to go down the route of a player’s island paradise, welcoming the bears as visitors come residents. But by making you simply a visiting helping hand, they created a wholesome and meaningful experience that has players returning dutifully every day. To see what unusual recipes Allison Fisher wants to try out, to find and know more about rocks with the stoic but knowledgeable Ted Sapsen, to see if Lillian finally summons her strength and feels up for a hug today. Now and then, setting the ‘self’ aside in some way can provide one of the cosiest virtual experiences.

We are but visitors to Cozy Grove. Not heroes, chosen ones or utopian creators. And that, now and then, is perfectly fine.

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