Cozy Grove, like Animal Crossing, takes place in real time. Each day, many of the spirits you meet will have tasks for you to complete, which may include familiar activities like fishing, digging, foraging, decorating an outdoor space, or hunting for lost items. New tasks are available each day, and returning regularly will gradually unlock more spirits and more of their stories, as well as new activities and spaces around the island.
“I would say the big unifying theme is we want to make the world a better place,” says Spry Fox CCO Dan Cook in an interview with IGN. “We’re always trying to bring joy to people’s hearts and somehow add something positive to the world, as opposed to something dark and negative.”
Spry Fox has been around for 11 years and worked on a number of different games in different genres. Many of these games, including AlphaBear and Triple Town, include the same large, square-ish bears that now feature as Cozy Grove’s roaming spirits.
In the same interview, CEO David Edery says when he and Cook started Spry Fox, they were obsessed with inventing new things all the time. But over time, invention became less important, while making the world a better place became more important. Hence Cozy Grove, which Edery very candidly admits takes a lot of inspiration from Animal Crossing — both what the team loved about it, and what they don’t. Spry Fox wasn’t trying to be a copycat, he says, but it did want to iterate on the formula.
For instance, Edery says he was inspired by one of the few actual storylines in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, where the player gradually gets tailor Sable to open up to them about her life and feelings.
“One of the things that I personally wish I could have had more from Animal Crossing was a meaningful story,” Edery says. “Most of the characters in Animal Crossing are largely throwaway, you don’t really get that deep into their backgrounds…And the story itself is sort of this weird capitalist fantasy that never totally worked super well for me personally. So what if — instead of this odd, threadbare narrative — what if we had lots of characters, and each one of them had a deep issue that you were helping them dig into?”
To that end, Cozy Grove’s numerous ghostly residents have backstories ranging from the lighthearted to tragic, and many (though not all) of them are inspired by real stories of people the development team knows. They included these realistic stories for authenticity; games, Edery and Cook say, can and should talk about serious human issues, even when they have a cozy or family-friendly exterior.
They also explicitly tried to be inclusive and diverse throughout. One example is Cozy Grove’s character customization options — which include plenty of skin tone and hair options as well as clothing obtainable later on, all unattached to gender expression.
And then there’s the diverse array of ghostly bears on the island. In one example, Edery says that he originally wanted to include at least one spirit in a wheelchair, feeling that a game with a cast this large ought to include at least one disabled character. He wrote a backstory and shared it with the team, but the team challenged him, asking if he had spoken to any disabled folks. He hadn’t. So Edery went back and spoke with multiple people who shared the character’s disability, including several disability advocates.
“As a result, we completely rewrote the backstory for that character to reflect what is actually their lived experiences,” he says. “Everyone told me, ‘Look, one of the most frustrating things about being in a wheelchair is that people automatically assume that you need lots of help and that you can’t do anything for yourself. And it’s incredibly frustrating. And if you’re going to give this character any long term life issue that they struggled with, make it that.’ So that’s actually her story. And it’s not tragic. She has a great life. Her story is she finds a wonderful partner, she lives on the beach. Everything is great. So I wouldn’t call it a tragic story, but it’s definitely a thing that frustrated her.”
Another example of an Animal Crossing staple the Cozy Grove team wanted to deviate from is its capitalist leanings, specifically surrounding the character of Tom Nook. Though he’s gotten kinder about it over the years, players still end up inevitably indebted to the entrepreneurial raccoon in every Animal Crossing game. Edery and Cook didn’t want anything like that in Cozy Grove.
“It’s always been an odd choice to me that in Animal Crossing, there’s this guy who is clearly this capitalist stereotype,” Edery says. “He’s like, ‘We’re gonna build the economy, the island, and you’re gonna keep getting more and more debt.’ Eventually you have this massive debt that’s gonna take a while to pay off. And that’s not something I personally choose to put out into the world. I don’t really want to encourage people in any way implicitly, or explicitly, to get themselves in massive amounts of debt…It always struck me as a little weird.
Cook adds, “We had to ask, what’s the emotional core? Is it building up this capitalist vacation land? Or is it something else? And for us, it was, how do we help each other? Your character’s this Spirit Scout, and the other characters are ghosts. And you’re helping the ghosts out, helping them resolve issues and in the process, you end up building up the island. It’s more about being kind and tending to the needs of others as opposed to like, ‘I’m going to make myself a giant home right now.'”
With Cozy Grove, Edery and Cook say they were fascinated by the idea of a game that doesn’t take over your life. They say they aimed to make Cozy Grove more of a “comforting presence” instead of a demanding activity, one where you can hop in, see what’s going on, do an activity or two, then close the game for the day. Though it does have a few ending points of sorts where players can easily say they finished the game and call it done if they’re looking for an out, it can also go on infinitely, with seasons, fish, weather, and nature changing appropriately alongside the realtime clock.
“Yeah, maybe lifetime someone will choose to play for 100 hours and that’s wonderful, but not all at once right now. It shouldn’t ever take over your life. This is maybe a weird analogy, but I think about TV shows that I’ve fallen in love with, that I’ve watched over literally years, and how nice that was to be able to look forward to every Thursday, I’m gonna watch the show. For years I did that. And then when it ended, it was… a major moment in my life. As opposed to me now, sitting and downloading something and binging them over two weeks. I still enjoy that. I don’t enjoy it nearly as much, honestly. And oftentimes games, either intentionally or unintentionally, offer me the opportunity to [binge].
“It’s kind of nice to be working on a game where it’s explicitly the opposite of that. Here’s a chance to settle into a comfortable thing that you’ll look back on with fondness when it’s done.”
Cozy Grove is planned for release on the Nintendo Switch, Steam, Epic Games Store, PS4, and Xbox One this spring.
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.