“Chicory: A Colorful Tale” is a new indie game coming out on June 10 to PC in the Steam games store and on PlayStation 4 and 5. It’s a puzzle adventure game where you play as a dog who learns to paint with a magic brush. The game features tons of painting, customizing, and explores themes of artistry and mental health. I played on PC with mouse and keyboard, but also briefly tried it on PlayStation 5, where the game makes sloshing paint noises via the controller and changes the controller’s colors to match the current palette being used.
The game is developed by Greg Lobanov and a small team, and published by Finji, which previously published indie hit “Night in the Woods” and developed “Overland,” a turn-based survival game available on the Apple Arcade game subscription service. It already has a small but loyal fan base: “Chicory” raised $84,327 from over 2,000 backers on Kickstarter.
Chicory, the rabbit the game is named after, is a master paintbrush wielder, responsible for painting the world. She struggles with mental health concerns and needs to take time away from painting. That’s where the main character, a dog janitor, comes in. The player is prompted to name the main character after their favorite food. I chose Pizza, which turned out to be the default name, anyway. Pizza, who usually tidies up Chicory’s fancy tower, decides to take on painting the world once it’s lost all color.
“I’ve never played a game where you can draw anywhere anytime and that is the main thing you do in the game,” Lobanov, the game’s director, said about his inspiration for the game. “Usually it’s a side thing.”
Lobanov said that his small team could relate to the game’s themes around mental health and around who gets to be an artist, since they are all creative types. It’s pretty meta, he said, to make “a game about making things and then talking about that.”
The game allows players to paint each map however they’d like. Each town gets its own palette and players paint in large or small brushstrokes that sound deliciously wet. The character writing is whimsical and fun. One villager, Pea, comments that she prefers to paint as large as possible, while another, Ginger, says she prefers to slowly go over all the details. Pea retorts that’s a terrible way to paint.
Pea is often right. For the sake of time, I found myself scribbling through each map hastily, then coming back to color in more details on repeat visits. The game also comes with various brushstrokes, allowing you to decorate each map with poop-shaped paint, or flowers, etc., and each comes with its own sound effect. You can even take your brush to the skies and seas, and color outside the box when you’re visiting an enclosed home or store.
“The aspect of the story that resonates with me the most is how anyone can be creative,” said Em Halberstadt, sound designer for the game. “I always hear people saying, ‘Oh, I’m not creative,’ and it seems like we have this idea of a creative person built up in our heads and it’s this unobtainable thing. What I take from the game is that it’s for anyone, there’s no bar that you have to hit to be creative.”
The variety of brushstrokes and colors helps as you travel across multiple lands and puzzles, faced with what feels like pages of an endless coloring book. Halfway through my game, I found myself tired of coloring, but the completionist in me could not leave the world black-and-white. I was thrilled to discover I could also hold down my mouse to fill in large swaths of the map in one go. As the player helps Pizza defeat bosses and solve puzzles, the dog’s painting powers also grow, including being able to swim through paint and jump. Those additional ways to get around livens up what would otherwise be a tremendous amount of drawing with no breaks.
As I walked through towns like Luncheon, Potluck and Dinners, I felt myself settle into a peaceful routine of talking to townspeople and painting them random colors while they jabbered on. Then I’d hit a new puzzle and get stuck for some time before everything clicked in place. Then the game would plunge into electronic music and epic Microsoft Paint-like battles with an evil boss that lurks within the world.
“For ‘Chicory,’ I really wanted to express a huge contrast in the soundtrack between the natural world to be painted, and the seemingly uncontrollable darkness that’s draining its color,” said Lena Raine, the game’s composer. “It’s almost like the distortion of the natural, so you’ll notice that I use a lot of synths and also acoustic instruments run through guitar pedals and amps and all sorts of literal distortion to create a sound that’s an amplified and chaotic version of reality. It was a challenge to balance such a widely varied sound, but one that I hope makes the experience that much richer for people playing through the story, and then sticking around to fill in as much of the world as they want.”
To add to the excitement stirred up by the soundtrack, “Chicory” asks its players to take several art classes. At various points in the game, I had to recreate classical paintings of cats, and hear my fellow students give sharp-tongued critiques or shower me with praise. “Chicory” has a total of 20 classes players can take, although most are optional, and they help fill the world with art pieces after canvases were wiped clean from lack of color.
Where the game really shines is when you get to make custom art that is incorporated in the game in fun ways. For instance, Pizza is asked to draw a custom T-shirt. I, of course, drew a pizza shirt. Later on in the game, you’ll see villagers wearing the shirt you designed. This gets more impressive later on, when you’re able to design a custom hat. The hat I made included plenty of holes and was floppy. Somehow it was still rendered well, and looked just like any other hat you can walk around and pick up in the game.
There are quality-of-life features throughout “Chicory” that also add to the pleasant experience. When you’re painting and a character starts talking, you can move the speech bubble to color around them. The game was also tested by people affected by colorblindness to ensure it could be played without needing to see specific shades of colors, said Lobanov.
Every errand in “Chicory” adds to an irresistible hodgepodge; there are loads of charming little optional errands that make the game fun. The world is littered with trash, cool clothes and small cats (“lost kids”) hidden inside trees and bushes. When you collect trash, you can recycle it into beautiful objects for decorating your home and more.
Getting stuck on a puzzle isn’t a problem — you can just call your parents via an in-game phone booth and ask for help. Mom gives gentle affirmations while Dad goes into the nitty-gritty about exactly what you should do. I was delighted that I could actually color Pizza’s parents while they’re on the phone, and later, when Pizza was finally able to visit home, the parents stayed those colors. I found this so charming that sometimes I would call Mom and Dad even though I didn’t need a puzzle hint.
“I really wanted to do a game where the main character had a close relationship with their family, because in most games that are ever done, it’s always a lot of characters going off on an adventure and it always feels like the family just doesn’t fit into that story,” said Lobanov. “It fits perfectly because of course, who else would tell you what to do when you’re stuck than your parents? And it was a fun way to add flavor to a thing that also made the game better.”
Playing “Chicory” feels like a kind act of self-care in a brutal time. It reminds players to slow down, enjoy the finer things in life, take care of the community, but also, just do you.