I remember the moment that I realized how subjective art was growing up. My art teacher as a teen decided what I could create wasn't good enough, and as a straight-A student, I remember seeing all those F grades for art as such a personal failure. But when I gave my art homework to my mum to do for me - one of my few acts of teenage rebellion - the teacher would applaud her beautiful still life drawings of flowers and jug collections and show them to the class. It was as those memories came hurtling to the forefront of my mind that I initially bounced off the Chicory: A Colorful Tale demo - a game about your skills with a magical paintbrush seemed like opening up an old wound.
On paper Chicory: A Colorful Tale ticked so many of my boxes: dog protagonist, sweet art style, unique gameplay mechanics, and a soundtrack so beautiful it could draw a tear to your eye. And yet its artistic focus made me wince. However, seeing the buzz around the game at launch made me reconsider - was I missing something about this game? And thankfully, I gave it another shot, because Chicory: A Colorful Tale is one of the most heartwarming, wonderful games I've ever played.
Our hero is named after your favorite food - a seemingly random question you're asked at the start of the game. So for me, our little canine hero is Chocolate, and they're a janitor to the great Wielder, the one bestowed with the magic paintbrush capable of bringing color to the world. But as Chocolate tries to sweet a room, the world turns as monochrome as a fresh children's coloring book just waiting to be filled in. The titular Chicory, the current Wielder, has tossed aside the brush, and Chocolate jumps at the chance to return the brush to her - however, inadvertently manages to become the Wielder themselves.
Thus, a lot of the gameplay is around using the brush to paint the world to bring things back to life. The interactive coloring book that is the world of Picnic is filled with citizens that may request you to do such things as bring color back to their cafe, design a new t-shirt logo, or simply help them reunite with a lost friend or child. Doing all of this builds your bond with the brush, giving you and it more power to unleash color. You'll unlock things like glow-in-the-dark neon paint for passing through caves, and later the ability to swim through your paint Splatoon-style to climb mountains and cross rivers or oceans. It's like a gentle Metroidvania, without any of the death, each new ability layering on top of the last with delightful expansion and exploration progression.
Brush with fame
But it also builds your confidence. Slapping color on Picnic and its inhabitants is easy, and it lacks the kind of precision or dexterity that someone who is actually experienced with digital art will no doubt be used to. My heart sank at the invitation for Chocolate to attend an art class alongside their sister and a selection of other students all desperate to grab that brush right off me. I tried my best to recreate the scene provided with the crude brushstrokes a wave of my mouse could produce and held my breath as the critique came in. Readers, they LOVED it. The citizens of Picnic don't care if your portraits or creations aren't Louvre worthy, they recognize that what you create is uniquely you - and it was one of the best feelings a game has given me in quite some time.
As the story rolls on, Chocolate themselves goes through the same patches of self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy that I experienced even contemplating starting the game. There's a narrative around trying to be perfect, and the anxiety that comes with trying to reach that, which constantly grounds both the expectations of your own artistic ability and actually what's possible to create in the game. This, along with their relationship with Chicory, all makes for a wonderfully deep narrative, that takes turns and twists you may not expect. The characters you'll meet are quirky and memorable, from the bug queen to the nervous otter who you end up befriending. There are even smaller mysteries to solve beyond the whole black and white world issue, including investigating a break-in, which involves an amazing surprise cameo.
The way the paint works with the landscape is also lovely too, with areas you'll discover later relying on specific paint placement to move through. Dab some pink on a plant and it'll fling you across the screen, remove paint from another and it'll wither and shrink away. There aren't any tutorials, so there's a playfulness in discovering what does what, and if you get really stuck on where to go next, you can find a phone box and call your parents for advice. Your mum will natter away about what to do next, while your dad's little paw will slowly slide across the screen attempting to grab the phone for an (optional) more detailed blow-by-blow on what you need to do. Adorable, and practical.
You wouldn't know it to look at it, but there are also great boss battles to dive into, which brilliantly divert from the cutesy aesthetics of the rest of the game. And by divert, I mean my horror-loving partner walked in the room mid-boss fight and asked me if I was still playing Chicory… But that's just indicative of just how surprising Chicory: A Colorful Tale can be. Underneath the cute and the coloring in, there's a real heart to this game's narrative and characters.
For a game that I almost avoided because of its art focus, Chicory: A Colorful Tale is much more than a glorified coloring book. Chicory's tale is clever, sweet, and occasionally heartbreaking - especially at the point when the game's credits started to roll, leading with naming me the Lead Artist on the game. Take that school art teacher.
Chicory: A Colorful Tale is out now on PC, PS4 and PS5.