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The promise of developing an art career is being able to “do what you love” for a living. As much as people warn about the dangers that come when passion becomes conflated with work, there is no true one-size-fits-all solution to figuring out that balance. When you are no longer doing art for yourself, how can you continue to do art for others? Chicory: A Colorful Tale, explores this question and more when you must wield a magical paintbrush to bring back color in a colorless world.
The land of Picnic bears the tradition of honoring someone with the title of “Wielder”, a person with the artistic gusto and expertise to maintain the world’s color via the power of a giant, magical paintbrush. As Picnic faces a crisis suddenly losing its color, the current Wielder, Chicory, finds herself in a self-destructive, defeated state of mind, and retreats away from the outside, becoming a recluse.
You play a dog — bearing some semblance to a very typical and simple stylization of a
labrador retriever — and stumble upon Chicory’s brush. Finding yourself attuned to it pretty naturally, you unexpectedly become the new Wielder. With Chicory missing in action, it is now up to you to stop a looming presence of darkness and corruption threatening Picnic.
Like a coloring book, Chicory is lovingly rendered in a cartoon style with thick, black line art that illustrates the colorless characters and the scenes they live in. The tip of the giant brush you harness is your cursor, spattering pigment at your disposal as you drag it along the map, all while a separate scheme of controls is dedicated to moving your character. Chicory’s co-op mode plays with these two dynamics, not only offering an opportunity to share more company, but to also make the game’s mechanics more accessible.
Although it looks like one, Chicory is more than just a coloring book game — because the key is not about filling in the lines, after all — it is simply a game with coloring mechanics. You are free to draw and color wherever you want, whenever you want! You can be preoccupied trying to figure out the perfect color to paint someone’s house, but the game’s emphasis is less on needing specific colors and being able to fill in the gaps of things with lines and shapes.
An example of one puzzle may require you as a way to light a path through a cavern by drawing one. Another puzzle may need you to remember a certain pattern and emulate it in order to unlock a pathway. There are also a few battles far and in between that you encounter — which mark the bookends of the different parts of the game — and they often just require you to draw or point your brush at the right time and right place.
It is an understatement to say that Chicory is a damn cute game. It is a game that relishes in that cuteness, even when you think it can’t be any more laced with saccharine than it is. As is, the childlike anthropomorphic animals that season the game enhances this appeal. For instance, early on, you are asked what your favorite food is and the word becomes the name of your dog character. Set in a place called Picnic, you realize every character is named after food to align with a very obvious theme.
It is the sort of charming game where you find nothing but puns, eccentricities, and quirks galore to pull from and remark gleefully about. There are numerous moments that take you away from the main story without disrupting it, such as characters pulling you aside to go off on a tangent on their life story or to make a simple drawing request. One particular moment involves your character being given the option to hand over the magical brush to a child to play around with. If you do so, you see the child draw their face on the ground, gleeful at the work they have done and in awe of your skills.
This is further reiterated by the fact that the game has no real items you need to progress in the game. Much of what you can collect are purely for cosmetic reasons, such as different pieces of clothing you can find or trade. Down the line, you will also be able to collect different brush presets, which are different shapes and patterns to change the texture of your brush’s point to produce different effects. Another optional thing you can do is clean and pick up litter throughout various areas with a counter to reference. Chicory also has an in-game camera to pictures or create animated GIFs of your messy masterpieces, also coupled with some filters you can additionally apply to your liking. (The game is also gracious enough to be so modular that you can move dialogue boxes around if they are in the way of something.) These elements don’t have much of an impact on completing the main storyline of the game — it is all just for fun!
In spite of its whimsies, Chicory does not shy away from depicting serious issues. In fact, the game’s entire appeal is that it attempts to unpack sensitive themes in a more approachable way. It is apparent the eponymous character Chicory herself is depressed, and her despair kicks off the crux of the events of the game. Although your character misunderstands her situation initially, they never judge her for it and are more than willing to listen and do the work she unwillingly thrusts upon them knowing it also serves a greater good. Chicory isn’t blamed, and neither is her depression treated as the sole trigger for the dangers approaching Picnic. But without the Wielder, what does it mean for the community’s safety? The entire situation speaks to deeper questions regarding the role between the creator and audience; in this case, the Wielder and the residents of Picnic respectively.
At some point, you also meet other previous Wielders, learning about the harsh realities that come with the job. One of them comments specifically on burnout and is still struggling to recover from it, saddeningly remarking that, “When you become Wielder, you aren’t drawing for yourself anymore.” And although you may meet many who are enthused by your Wielder status, there are other characters who are doubtful of your worthiness to carry the role. One character expresses not only disdain for you, but jealousy borne of their doubts about art school. Chicory not only grapples with mental health and how individuals’ experiences can impact the greater community, but how that is coupled with the creative experience specifically.
Chicory was made by noted individuals who already made their talents known in the indie games scene such as Greg Lobanov (Wandersong), Lena Raine (Celeste), and Em Halberstadt (Untitled Goose Game, Night in the Woods). The team also features newcomers Alexis Dean-Jones and Madeline Berger. From my own perspective as an individual who also creates and partakes in different visual mediums, this game was clearly developed with an authentic love, care, and understanding of the artistic process and the struggles that both sometimes come with it or are inflamed by it. Not only does it tap into what makes art fulfilling, but it is more than willing to admit where it can also be troubling. Art does not have to be a process of suffering if more people come to understand that it is an act of labor that deserves the aftercare and respect just as anything else.
A literal interpretation of Chicory: A Colorful Tale may suggest that anyone can be an artist — which is true! But even though its framework invokes deeper sentiments that may only specifically resonate with artists, at its core, Chicory is a sweet, sentimental game urging you to be simply mindful of the many things we take for granted that serve and run our communities, and particularly the people behind them. No one needs to do the work alone, and may we be beseeched in supporting their canvas so we can paint and make the world beautiful together.