What’s your favorite food? That’s the first thing Chicory: A Colorful Tale asks you. Naturally, I wrote popcorn. I didn’t know this was secretly the game’s name entry screen, but I couldn’t have been more delighted. So it was that Popcorn was born: the proper noun, the adventurous dog, the janitor for just a second, the artist by chance.
Chicory has to be the most genuine game I’ve ever played. It’s a Zelda-like1 with the writing of an EarthBound or UNDERTALE, minus the surreality and with sincerity to spare. Its story asks a question that I haven’t seen tackled in any game before: as an artist, what do you do with self doubt? (Can’t imagine why I’d like this one.)
You—Popcorn, in my case; perhaps Pizza in yours—are the latest of what’s known in this world as Wielders: individuals who have the ability not only to paint masterpieces, but the world itself. To that end, the overwold is initially presented in black and white until you paint it red, blue, grey, pink, or like a kind of magenta all over. Painting is the central mechanic, and besides a few boss encounters, you spend the entirety of the game solving puzzles at your own pace. Paint this plant and it shrinks. Paint these cave walls and they glow so that you can see. Etc., etc. Mechanically, it’s fun in a low-key sort of way. But what really charms about the game, besides the incredible soundtrack, is its cast of characters.
In Dinner, the world of Chicory, everyone seems to be going through something. Each character you meet is working through some kind of mental health thing and is more than willing to chat about it. It’s like Twitter, but without the discourse. Your main quest is to learn to believe in yourself as an artist, defeating bosses along the way that seemed to me like stand-ins for classic artistic anxieties such as:
- Anxiety of influence!
- Fear of the blank page—er, canvas, ha ha!
- The ever-present eye of the audience!
- And the granddaddy of them all: depression!
So that’s the hero’s journey, which in and of itself was very moving. As something of an artist type myself, and especially as one going through what might be called ~a creative slump~, Chicory was a refreshing take on the realities of what it’s like not only to make something, but to continuously reengage in the creative process in the context of a life with its own demands and stressors. In short: it’s hard! And weird! And Chicory doesn’t shy away from that. Without spoiling much, the game does a good job of avoiding easy answers to its questions, instead choosing to throw at you a variety of characters who have found their own particular way of dealing.
One of my favorites was Macaroon, a brawny squirrel in flannel who you meet early in the game. His favorite thing to say is “Oy!,” which he promptly says when you encounter him for the first time, requesting, or really demanding, that you paint his house in “tough colors.” At first I was like lol k dude sure, but then once I’d painted his house in a way that seemed vaguely tough, given the limited palette I had access to at the time, he lost his marbles. He absolutely loved it and told me just how much he did. My feelings toward him warmed a little at that point, given the sheer exuberance of his response, but then I quickly forgot about him as the game moved past his little house and his little dialogue.
Until later, that is, when you’re passing by his house again and he’s got the icon above his head that says he has new dialogue for you. So I approached him. Why not, you know? He’s chatting along with you, tough this, oy that, when suddenly he stops himself and tells you know he isn’t being real. Rather than summarize his dialogue, you should just watch it. It isn’t really a spoiler, per se, but if you really don’t want to know Macaroon’s deal, then maybe skip it. Anyway, here’s what he says.
So, yeah. I was touched by a squirrel’s choice to trust me like this. To share something he clearly had been turning over in his mind for quite some time. It felt really real and raw, and kind of inexplicable and out of nowhere. It felt like life.
Chicory is littered with moments like this.2 There’s a character who is frustrated by the meritocracy of art school and how hard it is to break out as an emerging artist. There’s an anxious, literally quivering gecko who takes a long time to trust you. There’s a couple of weirdos who debate the merits of capitalism and socialism at a bus stop. There’s also “An Adult,” who is very clearly three kids stacked in a trench coat, doing their very best to imagine what it is that adults say to each other at Chicory’s version of the DMV.
I could go on, but even in just talking about this game, I’m already pushing the length of a typical Backlog. Suffice to say, I loved my time with Chicory. More than anything, it felt like an honest and unvarnished interrogation of what it is to make art as an anxious person, something that hits close to home for me. Alongside this, it tackles jealousy, friendship, artistic inspiration, and everything else I’ve already mentioned. It has something to say about living a life you’re proud of and making things that are extensions of yourself, and it does all of that without hitting you over the head with morality or melodrama. It’s super chill and super deep at the same time. I love it so much.
Let me leave you with this: there’s a character in this game who advocates for a healthy work/life balance, especially if your work is something you’re passionate about. When you meet him, he’s on vacation, but he talks with you about his regular routine. In his day to day life, he takes off Saturdays to do nothing but relax. It’s arbitrary, he opines, but what isn’t? The important thing is to make sure to carve out time for yourself. Because you are the thing that needs sustaining, not the work. The work will always be here.
Reader, I nearly wept at the healthy boundaries of a cartoon frog.
Chicory: A Colorful Tale looks like an adult coloring book. Its thirteen or so hours are rife with genuine writing and characters that stay with you. It’s adorable and will make you cry. Make time for Chicory, because you are the thing that needs sustaining.