‘Cat Cafe Manager’ and other cozy games bask in pastoral themes
These tropes will be familiar to anyone who has played a particular brand of video game known as Cozy Games. An exact definition is hard to pin down because examples of cozy games, which include “Stardew Valley,” “Spiritfarer,” and the Animal Crossing series, span multiple genres. They are not defined by any 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 relaxing music that makes you want to curl up on the couch with a cup of hot chocolate. and forget that the world exists for a bit.
Can you pet the dog? In many games, and in this article, you can.
“Cat Cafe Manager,” which releases on PC and Nintendo Switch on Thursday, is the latest example of a comfortable game. It’s an airy and colorful business simulator where you play as the owner of an abandoned cat cafe in the sleepy village of Caterwaul Way. Its gameplay is simple and relaxing. You befriend local wanderers and help them find the perfect forever home, renovate and decorate your cafe, and uncover clues to the town’s mysterious shrine to an ancient cat god.
You develop a few repeat customers along the way. There’s Bonner, a smuggler who tells you tall tales of his maritime adventures and later complains about how her husband tried to convince Bonner to retire given the old sailor’s declining health. Another is Carla-Lalla, the latest in a long line of witches who feels family pressure to study at a prestigious magic academy and give up running the town’s pet supply store, which she built. from zero. Later, you team up with these regulars against a common enemy: the encroaching corporate imprint 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 reinvention of pastoral fantasy for modern audiences. “Pastoral”, in this context, is a literary concept characterized by an idealized and unrealistic portrayal of nature and country life devoid of actual work. It was embraced by a broad class of literature, art, and music as early as ancient Greece, but peaked in popularity in the 16th and 17th centuries as urban audiences yearned to escape to a more simple amid growing cityscapes. This demand would be fueled over the following centuries by the industrial revolution and the dizzying technological advances it would bring.
Pastoral fantasies of Shakespeare’s time and earlier emphasized the contrast between city life and country life. These works depicted 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 hugely unrealistic) country life. In other words, they learn to stop and smell the roses.
These same story beats exist in today’s pastoral fantasies, but as times have changed, the genre has also had to evolve. New themes have emerged to reflect the modern contexts and struggles that audiences now face. In the gaming world, pastoral principles are most often found in the simulation game genre. By focusing gameplay on modeling real-world activities, these games aren’t limited by the same need for story arcs or biting action that define major industry titles. Instead of winning or losing, players are encouraged to build their experience as they see fit using the set of tools provided. Many supposedly comfortable games also embody this conceit, asking players to delight in simply existing in a world meticulously cultivated to be relaxing.
Why do we enjoy games that make us work? Competence, control, fairness, evasion.
There is no timer or failure condition 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 it all. Your cats cannot die. The happiness of your guests has an impact on the number of resources you receive after each working day. But if their order takes a long time – or never arrives at all – they don’t get mad. They will still come back the next day.
Even the threat posed by Hawkable, the big business overseeing the Sanctuary’s plot for its next development, has no real urgency. I dragged my feet looking for a solution to save the sanctuary for several weeks, and what do you know, everything went well anyway. Between the game’s simple point-and-click controls and its soothing soundtrack, interrupted only by the “oohhs” and “aahhs” and “pspspsps” of guests playing with cats, it’s easy to get lost in the motions.
With “Cat Cafe Manager” and other similar games, a gamebook of recurring tropes emerged: an unexpected and abrupt transition to rural life, fostering relationships with city dwellers, becoming a mainstay in the community, and successfully fending off forces threatening to overturn the status quo.
The increasing use of big business as an antagonist in these games reflects another evolution of pastoral fantasy. Previously, audiences found escape in the antics of Rosalind and Celia in the Forest of Arden, as in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” or in the beautiful images of nature conjured up in a poem of mourning, as in ” Adonais” by Percy Shelley. Now, banding together with your neighbors against a Walmart or Amazon analogue in a comfortable, quiet town is the modern fantasy people want to live out vicariously through the media they consume.
One plot point, however, has remained relatively constant: inheriting your grandfather’s farm (or some other boon that makes rural life possible) and leaving town. This trope, which originated in the farming simulation series Harvest Moon in its very first Super Nintendo entry in 1996, has become the triggering 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 with age-old formulas and create unique and comfortable experiences. Each is a mood unto itself, evoking the literary concepts creators have used for centuries to soothe and entertain. And we will continue to play them again and again.