These tropes will be familiar to anyone who’s played a particular brand of video game known as cozy games. An exact definition is difficult to nail down since examples of cozy games, which include “Stardew Valley,” “Spiritfarer” and the Animal Crossing series, span several genres. They’re not defined by any one aesthetic. It’s one of those things where you know it when you see it — an ineffable mix of relaxing gameplay, pleasing color palettes and chill music that make you want to cuddle up on the couch with a mug of hot cocoa and forget the world exists for a bit.
“Cat Cafe Manager,” which releases Thursday on PC and Nintendo Switch, is the latest example of a cozy game. It’s a breezy and colorful business simulator where you play as the proprietor of a derelict cat cafe in the sleepy village of Caterwaul Way. Its gameplay is simple and relaxing. You befriend local strays and help them find the perfect forever home, renovate and decorate your cafe, and uncover clues about the town’s mysterious shrine dedicated to an ancient cat god.
You develop a few regular customers along the way. There’s Bonner, a ferryman who tells you tall tales of his seafaring adventures and, later, grumbles about how his husband has been trying to convince Bonner to retire given the elderly sailor’s declining health. Another is Carla-Lalla, the latest in a long line of witches who feels familial pressure to study at a prestigious magic academy and give up on running the town’s pet supply shop, which she built from the ground up. Later, you team up with these regulars against a common enemy: the encroaching footprint of corporate enterprise that threatens the peace of your new home.
Additionally, “Cat Cafe Manager” is the latest example of another convention commonly embraced by cozy games: the reimagining of pastoral fantasy for modern-day audiences. “Pastoral,” in this context, is a literary concept characterized by an idealized, unrealistic depiction of nature and country life devoid of actual labor. It has been embraced by a broad class of literature, art and music as far back as ancient Greece, but peaked in popularity in the 16th and 17th centuries as urban audiences pined for escape to a simpler lifestyle amid growing cityscapes. That demand would be fueled over the following centuries by the Industrial Revolution and the dizzying advancements in technology it would bring.
The pastoral fantasies of Shakespeare’s day and earlier put the contrast between life in the city and life in the country in stark relief. These works portrayed troubled characters fleeing to the countryside for one reason or another, where they would come to life-changing revelations by communing with shepherds and embracing the simple (albeit wildly unrealistic) country life. Put another way, they learn to stop and smell the roses.
These same story beats exist in the pastoral fantasies of today, but with the changing times, the genre had to evolve as well. New themes emerged to reflect the modern-day settings and struggles with which audiences now contend. In the video game world, pastoral tenets most commonly feature in the simulation game genre. By focusing gameplay on modeling real-world activities, these games aren’t constrained by the same need for narrative story arcs or nail-biting action that define the industry’s leading titles. Instead of winning or losing, players are invited to build their experience as they please using the toolset provided. Many so-called cozy games embody that conceit as well, asking players to take joy in simply existing in a world meticulously cultivated to be relaxing.
There are no timers or failure conditions in “Cat Cafe Manager.” You chat with guests and serve them food, play with cats and clean litter boxes, but there are no repercussions if you choose to ignore everything. Your cats can’t die. Your guests’ happiness impacts how many resources you receive after each day’s work. But if their order takes a while — or never arrives at all — they don’t get angry. They’ll still come back the next day.
Even the threat posed by Hawkable, the big business eyeing the shrine’s plot for its next development, doesn’t have any real urgency. I dragged my feet looking for a solution to save the shrine for several weeks, and what do you know, everything still turned out fine. Between the game’s simple point-and-click controls and its soothing soundtrack, interrupted only by the quiet “oohhs” and “aahhs” and “pspspsps” of guests playing with cats, it’s easy to lose yourself in the motions.
With “Cat Cafe Manager” and other games like it, a playbook of reoccurring tropes has emerged: an unexpected and abrupt transition to rural life, fostering relationships with townspeople, becoming a pillar of the community and successfully pushing back against the forces threatening to overturn the status quo.
The increasing use of big business as an antagonist in these games reflects yet another development for pastoral fantasy. Previously, audiences found an escape in Rosalind and Celia’s antics in the Forest of Arden, as in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” or in the beautiful nature imagery conjured in a poem of mourning, as in Percy Shelley’s “Adonais.” Now, banding together with your neighbors against a Walmart or Amazon analogue in a cozy, quiet town is the modern-day fantasy people want to vicariously experience through the media they consume.
One plot point has remained relatively constant, though: inheriting your grandfather’s farm (or some other windfall that makes rural life possible) and leaving the city. That trope, originating with the farming sim series Harvest Moon in its very first entry on the Super Nintendo in 1996, has become the inciting incident for many indie hits in recent years, including “Stardew Valley” and, now, “Cat Cafe Manager.” Each successive title has found new ways to play off age-old formulas and create unique, cozy experiences. Each is a vibe in and of itself, evoking the literary concepts creators have been using for centuries to both soothe and entertain. And we’ll keep playing them, again and again.