In Praise Of Soft Chambers - Games That Love You Back


#1

Some time ago, merritt k started a project called “Soft Chambers.” (Archive) This is how she answered the question, “What is Soft Chambers?”:

soft chambers is about tenderizing games
soft chambers is for games as tools for facilitating the giving and receiving of care
soft chambers is against ‘empathy games’
soft chambers is the warm, enveloping space of an alien cave filled with unfamiliar flora
soft chambers is in pursuit of warm, cozy games and disdains the cool
soft chambers is openly valuing the feminine in the face of cultural derision
soft chambers is against the notion that the positive is always more straightforward and less interesting than the negative
soft chambers is building a makeshift little home for itself in the side of a mountain and is content with that
soft chambers is not just about cuteness
soft chambers is exploring its warm, pulsing insides
soft chambers is taking a nap
soft chambers is petting a cat
soft chambers is aware that emotion is not apolitical
soft chambers is about imagining new ways to relate to one another
soft chambers wants to know if you would like a cup of tea or another blanket
soft chambers likes you quite a bit

Unfortunately, you can’t find, to my knowledge, any of the games merritt and her partners on this project made beyond screenshots and gameplay videos. (If anyone knows why, please tell me! I’ve been looking for any of merritt’s work for a while now.) But even without Soft Chambers, there are so many games that can provide a feeling of warmth and love. There was a report from Project Horseshoe that was put out last year. This coziness can come in many different ways, whether it be a soft aesthetic, or by having familiar systems to rest on. (I heard Frank Lantz describe the latter as “like floating like a cork on water.”) A wonderful amount of games are designed to hug you, cuddle you, treat you as a friend, and we can even end up developing our own soft chambers in games that are not designed as such by our own relationships to them.

Waypoint, what are your soft chambers?
What games give you a feeling of warmth and coziness? Do you return to them often? Was its coziness an intentional quality, or did it come from your relationship with it? Is it an aesthetic coziness, or is it a mechanical one, or is it even something else?

Tell me about coziness! I’ve got my blanket ready, and my chamomile tea is just warm enough. Let’s talk about games full of that feeling!


#2

First off, thanks for starting this thread. I think my response will be a bit disjointed (and long, sorry), and I’m going to focus more on the idea of coziness than soft chambers in general (which seems more expansive as an idea), but I’m really curious to see what other people say in response to this.

But yes, so that report and its definition of coziness is fascinating to me because the games I immediately think of as my safe spaces so to say—a lot of them being games that help me through anxious or depressed episodes or even just periods of high stress—are very much not games that fall under its designations. I’ve mentioned a lot of them previously around here, but Half-Life 2, Shovel Knight, Portal, Metroid: Samus Returns, Sonic Mania, Celeste, Into the Breach, the Pokémon series in general, and some others are all games that fulfill those “lower order needs” yet still always generate that type of space for me. I think part of what connects me to games in general is the ability to fail, not just in illusory terms but to actually fail, without (real) consequence, and the resulting ability to master mechanics and systems that I don’t start out being particularly good at. It’s nigh impossible for me to separate games that satisfy those “higher order needs” and those that satisfy the lower, because the games that I find myself wanting to master or that I glean some sense of reflection or connectedness from are games that incorporate the things that that report lists as negating coziness.

(I also think it’s worth pointing out that there is a significant amount of criticism of Maslow’s theories in general floating around in the psych world, which I am not particularly knowledgeable about but have interacted with on a tangential basis. In particular, some relates to its ranking being fairly arbitrary—some higher order needs for instance being needed to satisfy lower-order ones—and basing a definition on them seems a bit fraught.)

To distill that a bit, the article says:

Any sense of impending danger triggers biological responses in the player. Their sympathetic nervous system kicks, adrenaline floods the body, and memory suffers. Often times, cozy spaces are presented as reprieve or refuge from these dangers.

I think… this might be a bit broad? Let me take Celeste, which is definitely a game that has fulfilled needs for mastery, reflection, and connectedness for me, and that did so most effectively in some of its hardest moments. In particular, with a lot of the B and C-sides, the sense of learning that comes from “dying” hundreds of times to a certain obstacle gave me something very much like what it sounds like soft chambers and “cozy” games are meant to do. Maybe my thought is that dying, danger, or hazards in games don’t have to be an inherently unpleasant thing? (And I’m not sure that this contradicts that anyway.)

Although, if I’m going more towards the definition, I think Night in the Woods gives me something like this idea of coziness as well? The comfort of a familiar space and familiar people in particular (having grown up in PA and spent a lot of time in places like Possum Springs), juxtaposed with a character whose problems I can easily identify with made my time in that game feel pretty… comfortable? That game still has a fair amount of danger, and objectives, and obligations for the player to do, but I don’t think I’d feel the way I do about it without those elements.

Anyway, thanks again, that really made me think about the way I interact with games, and I’m looking forward to seeing what other people add to this thread!


#3

What a great thread idea! And thanks for linking to the Project Horseshoe document; that was a fascinating read. A huge summer storm rolled through this afternoon, dropping the temperature ten degrees and casting the city in sooty 4pm twilight in the way that only a dense blanket of rainclouds can, so I’ve been in this thread’s headspace all evening.

One question - any thoughts as to why merritt included the line “soft chambers is against empathy games”? Is ‘empathy games’ a pejorative term now? When I see those words I think about games like Papers, Please or Cart Life, and while those particular two games lean towards the bleak and depressing, that tone doesn’t seem like a component necessary to the idea of a game that helps you see things from someone else’s perspective. I was surprised to see that because I think of ‘empathy games’ as a relationship-forward genre of game design that would totally fit the rest of that espoused ethos.

To actually contribute: I don’t know if I’ve played a game whose overall experience could be called “cozy,” but I think there are cozy found moments in the games I love. For me, a lot of coziness is environmental - being dry in the rain, warm in the cold, well-fed and close to a soft bed in the evening. Hence, coziness tends to not be evoked by planned narrative moments, but to come out of small bits of design in the game’s spaces.

Skyrim is a game I play for coziness. By that, I mean the heart of that game for me, rather than being a wandering bandit-murderer, is building and furnishing a house with a library, apiary, and garden. (By the way, it is CRIMINAL that the hearthstone addition wouldn’t let you build a kitchen and library in the same home. I’m still mad about it). After finishing The Elder Scrolls: This Old House Edition, the game becomes about getting married and sitting around at home cooking, experimenting with potion-brewing, stocking the shelves with odd trinkets from my travels, and reading books I’ve collected from across the realm. I especially love sitting and reading in the library while a huge storm rages outside. I’ve downloaded mods to make the game more cozy - adding more frequent and intense storms to the game (because it’s nice to be warm and dry when it’s miserable outside), and more cooking options (because cooking is rad). This is goofy and kind of embarrassing, but if I’m alone at home, sometimes I’ll even turn on the AC / turn off the heater and let the house get super chilly and play bundled up in a blanket with a cup of hot tea or dark beer.

In a similar vein, while it’s 100% NOT a cozy game, there are some quiet moments in Banner Saga where your beleaguered caravan finds shelter, food, and, warmth from the driving cold and misery closing in on them. Your characters might take time to talk about their lives in the refuge of an abandoned mead hall or a village that hasn’t been overrun, and while maybe even those moments are too desperate to be cozy, that sense of a moment of comfort and safety is there.

Digital: A Love Story absolutely deserves to be in this discussion. I love the stuffiness of the windows 3.1 interface, and the story is very much a relationship-forward, important but non-threatening narrative (for most of the story, anyway). It’s earnestness and tenderness, for me, definitely place it into the cozy camp.

Simtower might not be the most obvious fit - on its face, it’s a capitalistic efficiency-optimizing simulator - but I remember as a cozy experience. Part of that is that how forgiving the game was (honestly just build some offices and it’s difficult to run out of money) and how there was no clearly defined objective or any sense of urgency about building upwards rather than just running a little boutique hotel, watching the families in your condominiums putter about, or building a fun mall with cute different sorts of cafes and shops, a movie theater whose movies you could cycle through to keep audiences coming in, and maybe a nice five-star restaurant. You could see each individual tenant (be that a hotel guest, office worker, condominium owner, or what have you) go about living their daily lives, and for me, that made SimTower a game about caring for people.

Lastly, Anna Anthropy’s Triad deserves credit for being a cozy game. It’s literally a game about figuring out how to help three romantic partners all get a good night’s sleep in the same bed. Also, there is a cat. Hard to get cozier than that.


#4

(Holy crap this went on way longer than I was anticipating someone take my soap box away from me. My appologies in advance for how length this all was OTL)

I’m finding my mind and heart are saying quite a number of different things with this topic. For myself at least, I’ve often found and used games as a place to experience both moments of tranquility as well as emotional intensity within the safety of my own pacing.

By that I mean, I can completely lose myself in it, but I still have an extremely short rip cord to pull myself out relatively quickly (ie. setting down the controller or just quitting the game).

For the purpose of conveying my own personal benefit of playing games, I’m going to try and convey concepts that multiple games manage to fit into to some degree. That way I don’t have to worry about any particular game getting more text than others.

Thoughtful Isolation:
By far a state I like to occupy the most, ones where I feel myself being dropped into a world that allows me to take in what it gives me bit not feel so strongly a direct tug of the collar on what I should be doing. Where a path forward is clear, but the game seems completely fine to allow me to exist, think, and breathe for as long as I need. My earliest experience (and one I recently had the joy to visit once again) would be Shadow of the Colossus. Being brought in by an emotionally dramatic opening showing a world of beauty that makes you feel small, the game very clearly tells you what is at stake and what the terms and conditions are of your task. Once that’s out of the way though, the game is completely content to let you meander about and get lost. It’s a wonderful way to take in the world, to see what it has to offer and maybe just barely piece together some idea of what the rules and history of the land are. If you ever need to find your way back on the trail though, all you need to do is raise your sword to the sky and follow the ray of light it points to. I’d a much similar experience with Breath of the Wild and while that game tends to follow a more typical sense of game progression, it still very much allows that feeling of freedom in just merely existing (at least until a terrifying octo-laser-robo decides to chase after you). You’re presented with the state of the world, but once all that is setup, you’re more or less free to do as you please. Hunt and gather ingredients for cooking, find shrines with puzzles to tantalize the mind, or my personal favourite, open the map and look at the name of a place and thing “huh, I wonder what’s there”. I also find Journey a rather curious participant of this mode, but with the twist of having someone else to experience the world with. It very closely follows the state of the other games, a mountain in the distance you want to go to, but you’re free to meander about aimlessly with each section, but every once in a while you are presented with another person with their own free will. Often times they’re playing the game just to run through, but sometimes you’ll find someone curiously complacent in just existing for a bit. Drawing in the snow and sand by walking, trying to climb to high and out of reach places, jumping and sliding over dunes of sand. The game even has an achievement for sitting down with another player and meditating in quiet tranquility. The passive nature of it is almost infectious, and there’s a freeing sense of relaxing to the sound of wind blowing sand quietly around you. These games are joyful breaks from the hyper stimulating nature of so many games, often filled with the desire for competitive conquest, both solo and with other players. To be able to drop myself into a world an simply enjoy the feeling of being in something that’s living without thrusting progress against you brings a sense of peace and calm that’s become harder and harder to find. And it’s only made better when the game is perfectly content on waiting for me to make the next step.

Harmonious Flow:
While there is a draw to being able to win and succeed, often what brings the most revitalizing feelings for me in games is being able to feel unstoppable. Momentary feelings of perfection where the joy isn’t in doing better than others or even doing your best yet. Instead it’s like finding a trail of light you travel along which just keeps going, and you get lost in the rush and blur of everything else around you. One of my favourite games that allowed me to do this was SSX 3 back in the days of ye olde PS2. While there were races and trick attacks, the most amazing feeling ever in that game was the free ride down from the very top of the mountain all the way to the summit. There were different paths to take, different ways of moving between them, but there was a sense of unmatched joy in just being able to make that trek down, uninterrupted by anyone or the game itself. It only helped further with how the game would modulate background music that was playing based upon what environment you were in or how well you were doing in terms of keeping your speed or doing tricks. This feeling of speed and momentum also carried into a game like Jet Set Radio Future, where you could constantly be in a state of moving forward, even if you were going in circles. Your ability to jump high, grind, and skate along walls with just the right amount of speed that felt like dancing on air. More recent memory of games giving me the same feelings are Rez Infinte’s Area X, where the constant pulse of the music in tandem with the free floating but constant movement (especially when playing the game in VR like holy heck) just feels like a constant wind rushes across your face. In those moments, it’s not the destination or goal that matter. You’re instead given a sense of freedom in movement, where you move too fast and fluid for a static world to even catch hold and slow down, and at least through a video game, feel moments of perfection even if you’re only just pressing buttons.

Failure, Sorrow, and Surmount:

(Spoiler warning ahead: I’ll blur the text where applicable, but it concerns rather story crucial parts of games which, if people don’t want to be spoiled, I won’t force to be shown explicitly.)

This may be one of the more complicated and debatable feelings, but is one that I feel is something only a game can accomplish. Failure and losing is pretty much a given in games, but more often than not it just leads to the end of the game, while often giving players a chance to retry and give another go. But what I find one of the most valuable thing a game can do is present players with situations of experiencing failure and having to endure and continue after those moments. My earliest memory of this was playing Final Fantasy VI (or Final Fantasy III if you’re a real 90s kid). You reach a point in the game where, at any other point of an RPG, would feel like the final climax. A battle to save the world from catastrophe. However regardless of how strong you’ve gotten at that point, you find it impossible to prevent it. Instead to bear witness to a world turned to ruin. Upon regaining control, you find yourself having to face a cold, careless world made dead by terrible power. A similar situation was present in last year’s Nier: Automata, where players are forced to face a situation where any success and sense of progress was almost immediately nullified by a force of chaos bent upon destroying any sense of stability or order. Once all the dust settles, you’re to continue playing, partially to discover the mystery surrounding all of the events, but to also find a sense of purpose and meaning after everything you’ve had to face. The emotional weight put upon you in games like this is at some times overwhelming, and I often found myself physically upset and heartbroken, but in low and hurt moments like these, I found the smaller moments of joy and relief one of the most important and healing moments ever in my time with video games. A curious but still valid example of this can be found in a game like Majora’s Mask where you are instead playing a hero who gets to personally observe the pain and suffering of large cast of characters in a land that’s been given a time limit. But as that hero helps them, even on the smallest level, we start to understand why these people are worth saving. How even though they’ve made mistakes or fallen into sorrow, we still see they have things they consider precious and want to protect, even when they face what seems like doom.

I’m sure there are folk who won’t be able to connect in the same way I do with games like this, but for myself, its one of the most important things for me to have found in games. It allows me to find hope when faced with the dark and it allows me to find joy and comfort in the little things, and that I’m valid to enjoy such things even in the face of a reality that may not be so caring. It validates my sadness and pain, but at the same time encourages me to find a state of mind that allows me peace and allows me to heal.


#5

there was a small game I played a few years ago which was about getting ready to go to work on a rainy morning. it was really nice and soft and i need to find it again. does this ring a bell with anyone?


#6

Knytt is a really fun little platformer by Nifflas. It’s only about 45 minutes, but I revisit it once every few months.

It’s entirely an aesthetic coziness, but the mechanics of gameplay are so simple and forgiving that the core of the game is just exploring this alien landscape your ship has crashed on. Nifflas does a fantastic job with the audio of making every environment feel evocative. Despite the simplicity of the graphics, I can’t help but be drawn in every time I boot it up.


#7

Oh gosh I loved the built-in level of Knytt Stories (the DIY level editor follow up to Knytt) for exactly that atmosphere you describe - I need to go back and play Knytt itself sometime since I never did.

The other game that came to mind when I read this topic is Lieve Oma. It’s about going mushroom hunting with your grandma in a forest and talking with her. It really captures the meandering pace of walking with someone and talking to them, moving between different topics on conversation, and just taking in the peaceful surroundings. You can really feel the mutual care of the grandmother and grandchild and it’s a short, cozy, heartfelt experience.


#8

Animal Phase’s Morning Coffee.


#9

What a great thread! Thank you for starting it.

Stardew Valley always makes me feel safe and comfortable. The highest-stress part --once you’ve mastered fishing. Hint: use the C key instead of clicking the mouse-- are the mine trips, and you don’t have to do them every day.

Even Stardew Valley’s loading screen is comfortable. You hear the familiar music and watch birds flying across the sky. It’s a signal that you’re entering the safe, affectionate world of Stardew.

There are a lot of phone games – and this again is a way that the gaming world is gendered – that are soft. Two obvious examples are Love Nikki, in which you’re trying to assemble the ideal wardrobe, and Merge Dragons (by one of the senior developers on The Sims) in which you’re merging small dragons into bigger dragons so that you can solve merge puzzles and make bigger and prettier dragons. The art is pretty, and it’s just satisfying on a deep level to watch your dragons flying around, sipping from flowers.

If you get into Love Nikki, be sure to use ln.nikkis.info, which tells you the best clothes from your inventory to solve a level.


#10

I was curious about this, too. Going through the archive, I found that she meant this statement not as against games that look to evoke empathy, but the use of the term empathy games. This is a post on the Soft Chambers blog, on January 9th, 2015:

against ‘empathy games’
soft chambers prefers to be for things
so it is with reservation that soft chambers is against ‘empathy games’
soft chambers wishes to clarify that it is against the lingustic categorization of empathy games, rather than any games in particular themselves
what does ‘empathy games’ do?

  • it fixes the relationship between the player and the author
  • it removes the potential for genuine connection or surprise
  • it positions the player as a member of a privileged audience who will experience the difficult conditions of the worse-off author’s life as a demonstration of their tolerance or understanding
  • it presupposes that all works are meant for a majority audience, rather than for an audience of persons like the author
  • it reduces empathic connection to empathy tourism

soft chambers hastens to again point out that the problem usually lies in the framing and not the works themselves
soft chambers values empathy but knows that empathy is not a genre

In other words, merritt meant that she is against framing games as “empathy games” because of some of the resulting causes that classification can cause. (I myself have qualms with some serious game design philosophy, but this isn’t the place for that. :blush:)


#11

Thanks! The concern about games reducing connections to empathy tourism makes sense (reminds me of the VR tours of bombed-out Syrian neighborhoods and flooded districts of Puerto Rico).

I would love to read your thoughts about issues with serious game design some time, even if this thread isn’t the place. I’m (perhaps naively) still hopeful about the idea that games could be used as a vehicle for fostering empathy and beneficial social change…