There are few things more personal than art. That is, the art produced by an artist. Obviously. Even in its most commercial, populist form — including when it’s a small part of a much larger product — the work of an individual artist is ultimately recognisable, whether from obvious sweeping traits or tiny little consistencies that come to define them. Chicory: A Colorful Tale’s extremely difficult job is to translate that sense of ownership, the pocket creative universe of the artist, into… well… a video game. It’s not the most efficient medium for this kind of individuality, for creating and owning something one-of-a-kind, but Chicory – against all odds – manages to pull it off. Surely, though, it can’t also be a charming adventure game on top of a paean to, and canvas for, creativity? It can! It is!!
You play as a little dog creature who happens to be gainfully employed as the janitor of the elusive Wielder, they who, er, wield a magic paintbrush which you’ll be unsurprised to learn ends up in your own hands. One day, the present Wielder – the titular Chicory – appears to have gone missing and left the Brush behind. More pressingly, indeed, all the colour in the world appears to have vanished. Your player character, Double Sausage and Egg McMuffin (they’re actually named after your favourite food, so this handle will vary), takes up the Brush and sets out into the world of Picnic to get to the bottom of what’s going on.
In practice this is a Zelda-ish top-down sort of thing, but that’s only on the very surface. There’s no focus on combat, here, though boss battles are present. Indeed, these sections reminded us of Nintendo DS titles in the way they had you juggle moving and touching. Yes, brilliantly, Chicory’s Switch incarnation includes (optional) touch controls for painting, which absolutely feel like the way the game was always intended to be played. See, with the entire game being in black and white for narrative reasons, it’s your duty and privilege to colour everything back in.
What this means is you’ll be solving puzzles – almost all environmental, traversal-based stuff entailing the painting of your surroundings. You start off with just a standard, resizable brush and a handful of basic colours with which you can draw life into the world via strokes, taps and holds. Touch controls aren’t mandatory, though – you can also use the right stick, shoulder buttons and triggers to produce your drawings. Sometimes this way is more efficient than the touchscreen, but mostly we found we’d stick with our index finger.
The ability to freely paint all over each “screen” means it’s always very clear where you’ve already been and – consequently – where you need to go next. Even if you somehow get lost, you can simply have Double Sausage and Egg McMuffin call home from a phone booth to receive both hints and direct solutions. It’s all very easygoing stuff, but it really does absolutely ooze charm. And paint.
Everyone you meet in the world is unique and each of their predicaments feed into the central theme of what it really means to be an artist; and not just an artist, but an artist with the weight of expectation behind you and control of the most prominently visible works in the world. This is the genius of Chicory – by making every screen a work of art in itself that you draw, every copy is, ultimately, bespoke. It’s exceptional. When characters judge or chide your character, they’re really talking to you. Ditto when they praise your efforts, especially when you’ve overcome their initial scepticism to do so.
The beautiful Lena Raine soundtrack marries perfectly with Chicory’s thematic clarity and chill atmosphere, though it (and the game itself) aren’t afraid to get a little heavy when they need to – it’s pretty much guaranteed to make any committed artist see themselves in the game on some level, and they might not like what they see. In its own way – and without wanting to lurch into spoiler territory – it’s quite a confrontational little thing, despite being overtly family-friendly throughout.
As an adventure game, Chicory is quite sincerely up there with the very best of the genre. There’s plenty to see and do and a full completion run will probably take you 25-30 hours. The characters and their travails are rich and likeable, the game’s sense of humour is generally inspired, and it’s all very sweet without being sugary-twee and talking down to the player. It’s also an affecting little tearjerker that will definitely strike a chord if you make art, and almost certainly will even if you don’t – so long as you’re capable of pretty basic empathy. Chicory is simple to play but impressively long and complex, with perfect controls, performance and visuals. Throw yourself into painting the world and you’ll be left with a game that’s very much your own and speaks to you directly – a beautiful marriage of mechanics, themes and visuals.