While many games generally have something at least somewhat meaningful to say about the world we live in (advertently or no), I often find myself a bit disconnected from the monumental settings so many protagonists are dropped into. Plenty of amazing games tell impactful stories about love, loss, hope, revenge, and so forth, but it's rare for something to dig at me in the small, deeply personal way that Chicory: A Colorful Tale has. And it's perhaps even rarer for that personal impact to be accompanied by the kind of fun, concise, self-aware, and encouraging little adventure that indie developer Greg Lobanov and his colleagues present.
Chicory is best-described as a top-down Zelda-like adventure sans combat where the entire game is a giant coloring book. It follows a protagonist that you name after your favorite food who is the janitor and number-one fan of Chicory, the sole "wielder" of a magical brush used to color in the otherwise black-and-white world. But Chicory vanishes, and all the world's color goes with her. The protagonist, stumbling upon her brush, takes it up themself and begins filling the world's color back in. It's fun and games initially, but things quickly take a turn as you discover a growing darkness troubling your friends and neighbors which seemingly has ties to Chicory, and the brush itself.
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Your adventure takes you across a world full of charming, food-named locales (towns of Luncheon and Brekkie, the Appie Foothills, Supper Woods, etc), progressing by solving puzzles connected to coloring in the black-and-white world. At the start, you'll only have basic draw/erase functions and four different colors pre-selected by the area you’re in. But over time you'll get access to more tools via collectible "brush styles," most of which are stamps (like stars or hearts) or patterns (dots, stripes) that will enhance your otherwise straightforward line drawing. The most important of these, a fill tool, is mercifully available early on. The rest of the brush styles are scattered around the world, serving as one of a handful of optional collectible challenges alongside a robust closet of hidden clothing options to find, decorative items you can set up anywhere, and a sidequest involving lost cat children.
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Pleasant as the world is to uncover, the paint tool of Chicory is more the core of its gameplay than its exploration is. The world reacts to your paint, with puzzles requiring you to color thoughtfully to overcome obstacles, complete sidequests, and access hidden areas. Plants might grow into crossable platforms with paint applied, or shrink when erased so as not to block your path. Geysers of paint will shoot you across the map, color-filled mushrooms can be used as springboards, and bubbles filled with paint will explode, breaking flimsy rocks standing in your way. As you progress, you'll gain more powers, like the ability to paint flowing water and swim in it, climb paint-covered walls, or light up dark caves with glow-in-the-dark paint.
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What this ultimately results in is a very clever new layer to what would otherwise be pleasant but familiar top-down adventure puzzle-solving. Your paint is persistent; you'll always know where you've been and what you did there based on the splatters you left behind, making Chicory's world stressless and inviting to explore and fill in. It's worth revisiting areas, too, as in typical top-down adventure fashion you'll have powers later on that will unlock more hidden areas you couldn't access before, each containing treasures or little subplots that add further color and personality to Chicory's cast. What's more, characters will frequently ask you to paint or decorate things for them: houses, donuts, logos, furniture, and so forth. Some will have specific color requests, but for the most part they just want the thing done however you like it, and will react with delight to your work whether you're an auteur or amateur.
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This is emblematic of all of Chicory: it is not a stressful or fast-paced game (apart from a few brief boss encounters). It's a thoughtful game that wants you to walk along with it at a pace that feels pleasant, with puzzles that require consideration but never strain, sidequests in measured but not overwhelming amounts, and plenty of fun things to discover or stumble upon that never feel mandatory or guilt-inducing if you miss them. It recognizes that its audience, me included, may think they are objectively god-awful at art. But then it offers the tools and encouragement to try anyway, and goes farther to challenge those self-effacing beliefs by rejoicing in thoughtful effort without judgment. Chicory does this in large ways through story scenes, but also in small ways, like having its funny and adorable NPCs pop up unexpectedly in areas you've been through before to admire the art you did there.
An Interactive Coloring Book
Whatever your skill level, Chicory is full of optional content inviting you to play around with its many built-in art tools. An art academy subplot lets you take art classes and attempt to recreate different pieces of art, with your recreations later posted and admired by NPCs around the world. If you're feeling limited by the four-color restriction per area, an NPC will eventually give you a brush style that lets you customize your colors with full freedom. You can also design your own brush style and clothing items. There's a built-in GIF-maker that lets you capture your painting process. And while you can paint any area however you like, there are multiple places set up in specific ways to invite explicit creativity, like a huge blank building you're asked to tag, or a mountain viewpoint where NPCs request you color a sky for them to admire. Oh, and because color is utterly unnecessary for anything other than fun aesthetic, Chicory is fully accessible to colorblind players.
Furthermore, rarely do I encounter games that have so expertly grasped the precise amount of everything they need to have. All of Chicory, from its length (10 to 20 hours, depending on how much you paint and explore) to its quantity of sidequests and collectibles to the length and difficulty of its puzzles to the amount of dialogue and discovery is just right. Chicory never overstays its welcome, concludes all its moments in a satisfactory way, and offers more for those who wish it without guilting or pressuring you into pushing past natural stopping points. It is impressive in its exactness.
All this alone would make for a very good game. It's difficult for me to explain why Chicory affected me so personally without getting into spoiler territory, but I think it's critical to highlight the story and character-centered reasons why it is elevated beyond being just a well-made Zelda-like with a clever paint tool. Chicory tells an earnest story about people who create things, and the ways in which being a creator impacts them. Though it's specifically about visual art, anyone who "makes" — whether that's artists of any school, or those like myself who fall more into the territory of "craft" rather than art — could easily find that something personal resonates with them here.
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Chicory is about characters who are intrinsically wedded to their work, and who also have their work constantly on public display, subject to the critique of absolutely everyone in the world at all times. Most of its citizens are kind and encouraging of your efforts, recognizing that you're in a tricky and unexpected situation. But that doesn't stop many of them from pointing out the flaws of past wielders, or even expressing nervous doubt in your own abilities as the implications of your job for everyone else get scarier. And as Chicory herself points out – and the story illustrates more pointedly later – while the pressure others put on you to do your job well is stressful on its own, it can be nothing compared to the pressure people put on themselves. Especially when they are following in the footsteps of someone they deeply admire.
There's a lot of close-to-home reflection in Chicory on imposter syndrome, the relationship between mentors and mentees, how mental health struggles particularly impact creators, and how we are all so often our own worst critics. But there are also supporting characters with brief, sharp at times, but always kind commentary on topics like grief, workaholism, and the struggles of reckoning with sexuality and identity. It is at all times sensitive and empathetic, but doesn't sugar-coat or present a cheesy solution that magically erases the problems of all its protagonists, even in its conclusion.
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And critically, its story is beautifully suited to its gameplay, with its paint mechanics both subtly and overtly highlighting its themes at every moment. For instance, Chicory has "boss battles" of a sort, where the painted darkness the protagonist faces not only takes the explicit forms of those it represents, but also more subtly reflects their actual art styles. In another example, the world remembers not just the paint you throw on the environment, but your more deliberate creations as well, resulting in emotional callbacks to your past work when you visit characters you've seen before and are clued into what your art has meant to them. Chicory is at all times illustrating exactly what it is fundamentally about in a way that I feel few games manage to fully express without veering into the far excesses of either lengthy cutscenes or gameplay challenges that kill story momentum and feeling.
For all these reasons, on top of which I'll add Lena Raine's absolutely incredible soundtrack, I can enthusiastically recommend Chicory whether you consider yourself a "maker" or not. Chicory constantly asks its audience for understanding and empathy toward those whose work they consume. I've had a lot of complex feelings lately related to seeing those I admire most in my profession as human beings with flaws as well as virtues, and Chicory helped me process those while encouraging me to give them grace. But Chicory also wants me to give that same grace to myself. It was a reminder (without resorting to the overdone self-care language those with this flavor of anxiety have heard a hundred times before) that I am not defined by my work despite my constant insistence on treating myself as though I am. I can and should be kinder to myself. I needed to hear that.
This article was originally published by IGN.COM