For every creative, the act of “making” means something different. For me (and many others, I hope), it’s the source of a deep anxiety—being a creative is my job, my main form of income. I am my own manager and my own agent. All the work I do comes from inside; if I’m not in the right space to create, then nothing will be made. No work will be done. There’s a complex web of people and expectations that coil around every artist, writer, and musician. You have to account for deadlines, health issues, schedule conflicts, and many other extraneous factors that precede the actual act of making something out of nothing. All of this stacks up, and, if you don’t properly manage it, it can easily come crashing down.
That’s exactly what drives the plot of Chicory: A Colorful Tale—burnout. At the game’s start, a dog janitor named after your favorite food (mine was named “Curry”) is happily cleaning the studio of Chicory, the current wielder of The Brush, a tool that brings color to the world. Shortly after, all of the color in the world is sapped away. Curry finds The Brush discarded outside of Chicory’s room, and impulsively takes it for their own because they admire Chicory and want to be more like her. They soon find themself embroiled in the removal of cosmic distortions around the world, which seem to come from Chicory herself.
When we meet Chicory, she’s quite different from how she’s displayed in portraits around the tower. She’s curled up on her bed and has massive bags circling her eyes. She doesn’t seem to care that you’ve taken The Brush, saying she’s done with it and she doesn’t care who becomes The Wielder next. Curry takes that to mean that they are the new wielder. The game then follows their escapade through a quaint food-themed world. Chicory follows a pretty simple and familiar structure—you move from screen-to-screen and solve simple puzzles using the abilities you learn from The Brush. After you complete each area, you get a new ability that will come in handy in the next section, but that also opens up pathways to hidden treasures in the game’s various towns and previous sections. It’s rather Zelda-like in this regard; there’s a lot of backtracking available for those that really want to get into the collectathon, but the path forward is always obvious and you’re always well-equipped to face whatever challenges lie ahead.
The game is perhaps best enjoyed with a keyboard and mouse, where the mouse controls The Brush (which can interact with anything on the screen, fully untethered) and the keyboard controls Curry, who has to physically reach their destination before moving to the next screen. While the game is about art and painting just as much as it is about a forward-moving adventure, the level of investment you put into the art aspect is completely up to the player. I’m not a skilled digital artist by any means, so I often moved at a pretty quick pace, but even I stopped to fill in the coloring book-like screens every once and a while. There’s a therapeutic joy to interacting with the more artistic aspects of the game, but it always stays accessible with what’s expected of you. One interesting sidequest involves Curry restoring classic paintings created by previous wielders at an art academy, which then get placed into a gallery for the player to view. I managed to feel proud about what I made even though I’m not an especially talented artist; the game has a way of encouraging you to stretch your creative spirit, and it’s one of it’s most fulfilling elements.
The art restoration sidequest is one of many that emphasizes the importance of art as a facet of human life. The gallery’s curator notes that art preservation is integral to history, and history is decided by the person who restores art. As a transient and material medium of communication, it eventually fades and must be put back together. Art can never be what it once was, though, and the person putting it back together therefore enacts some of their own style onto art, and by extension, history itself. This really drives home the purpose the wielder serves in Chicory, and the type of burden that’s always on their shoulders. Elsewhere, struggling businesses ask Curry to design logos for t-shirts and signage to attract new clientele. Young trendy kids flock to your design and revitalize spaces that otherwise might end up dying.
It’s honestly a bit overwhelming, the amount of little tasks and favors each minor character you encounter demands of you. Typically, no one is rude about it, and you’re even occasionally rewarded. You slowly gain a gaggle of fans that find meaning and depth in the work you do. But is all of that enough to compensate you for the spiritually draining act you’re forced to do again and again? The wielder is something of a cultural leader but also a commodity. Their power is sought after in parasitic or transactional ways that weather the wielder into an early retirement. Living a life of mostly unpaid labor where most of the payoff only lies in people’s smiling faces (which, occasionally, you may not even receive—people take things for granted, and that’s okay) isn’t a sustainable one to lead. That’s exactly what happens with Chicory herself, and Curry soon finds that being the wielder isn’t such a glamorous job to have. They soon realize just how selfish it is to ask Chicory to continue to be the wielder just because of their own personal adoration of her work.
Chicory is filled with these contemplative moments on the purpose of art and how it relates to the mental and spiritual health of the artist. Curry soon falls into the dangerous pit of comparing themself to other artists—previous wielders, their sister (a talented artist in school for her craft, while Curry is just a novice), and others aspiring to become the wielder someday. There’s a lot of doubt that comes with being “the chosen one” here, and it’s even more salient given the wielder can step down at any time and pass The Brush to whoever they want. It’s enough to make the player question their own biases about art; do they value education and skill over enthusiasm? What is the function of art if it’s grown to only make us unhappy?
The game’s puzzles occasionally grow rather weary, but the light and heartfelt story managed to keep my interest across Chicory’s slightly overlong playtime. Lena Raine’s fabulous soundtrack also must be commented on, which glistens with life but feels airy and sparse as if to mimic the gaps in color you have to fill over the course of the game. Despite being a pretty “wholesome” game, it doesn’t mince words and never presents a simple solution to serious issues. I’m really happy I played Chicory—it’s one I truly needed to play, and I hope a lot of people get something out of it too.
Chicory: A Colorful Tale was developed by Greg Lobanov and published by Finji. Our review is based on the PC version. It is also available for the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5.
Austin Jones is a writer with eclectic media interests. You can chat with him about horror games, electronic music, Joanna Newsom and ‘80s-‘90s anime on Twitter @belfryfire