Ever since film critic Roger Ebert declared that games cannot be considered art in 2010 there have been regular think pieces arguing the opposite. Heartfelt defences of the form stress the emotional and immersive potential of gaming as a medium and the lines between gaming and film are increasingly blurred. The debate still simmers around some circles of the internet, but on the whole hasn’t really affected the average gamer. Are games art? Does it matter?
In the case of Chicory the question seems appropriate given the game’s focus on painting and self-expression as well as its psychological themes. The demo for Chicory was one of the true standouts from last year’s Steam Demo festival and I have been eagerly awaiting its release since then – especially as the teaser ended on a real cliffhanger. I was smitten by the game’s charm, style, and combination of painting and classic Zelda exploration gameplay mechanics.
Chicory immediately grabs your attention with its distinctive aesthetic. Simple yet charming cartoon visuals in striking monochrome are married to an almost flip book approach to animation that reminded me of the cartoons I watched growing up in the UK in the 1980s (Roobarb and Henry’s Cat particularly). The black and white isn’t just for effect, either, as it soon becomes clear that the world of Chicory has been washed of all colour by mysterious forces. Much like the under-appreciated De Blob games, this provides the stage for a fun and thoughtful interrogation of what colour adds to our lives and why it might sometimes feel as if everything is washed away.
Chicory starts things off by getting you to enter your favourite food. It turns out that this becomes your character name, so in my case brave Rumballs set out to put things right. The culinary nomenclature isn’t restricted to your player character, however, as every character is named after some kind of foodstuff. This has no real bearing on the game itself but it is surprising how much your initial reaction to a cartoon character can be affected by whether you like or loathe the food after which they are named. The characters themselves are all anthropomorphised animals in casual wear, giving the world a hipster feel that manages to remain the right side of charming. Writing is similarly pitched with some veiled real-world references but nothing that would make it inappropriate for younger players. Music is also good, with boos fight tunes in particular hitting the right notes.
The backstory to Chicory involves the powers of a magical brush, wielded by a chosen one and handed down with great reverence and ceremony. Until you, that is. You begin as a lowly janitor to the current brush wielder, the titular Chicory, who stumbles upon the brush abandoned in a corridor just after the colour is washed away from your world. Your attempts to reunite the brush with its owner are met with refusal and so you must set out to put things right and bring back the colour to your world. The stage is then set for an epic adventure played out through a familiar old-school 2D Zelda viewpoint in which your use of colour and design will be put to the test. While this obviously falls back on genre clichés about destiny and unexpected heroes, the charm with which it is presented means that it doesn’t feel too predictable.
At first your painting abilities are limited to several colours and simple lines but as you venture through the world you unlock new abilities and designs to use. Everything in the game can be painted with each screen being a literal blank canvas but the key to progress is working out which parts interact with the paint and how their changes can be used to your advantage. Exploration is the real meat of the game and, while not huge, the world is intricate and lovingly crafted. There are lots of collectables and hidden paths that tease you by being visible but not accessible until you unlock the requisite upgrade.
Alongside more diverse colour palettes and template painting styles, your link to the brush grows as the adventure progresses. You gradually learn to swim through the paths of paint that you create, use the streams of paint to jump across gaps and then must use a combination of these powers to access some surprisingly tricky puzzles (at least for some of the optional areas, anyway). For a game that looks so simple at first, there is a wonderful amount of complexity in the level design and the feeling of empowerment as you unlock more powers and shortcuts is fantastic.
Each power upgrade is locked behind a boss fight of sorts. You must venture into dark, foreboding trees that seem to be the source of the darkness sweeping through the land. These battles are actually pretty intense and the accompanying flashes of light and sweeping music make for a huge tonal shift. These encounters really made the game stand out for me but they are surprisingly tricky and there is an option to skip them if they turn out to be too twitchy for your gaming style. This feature is just one of the numerous accessibility options available as well, and Chicory is a great example of how to open your game up to as wide an audience as possible. There is even a toggle for the wet splash sounds of the paint for misophonia sufferers.