For a Game About Imperfections, Chicory: A Colorful Tale Is Practically Perfect

I almost let my current game of the year pass me by. I'm so glad I didn't.

I’m going to spend the next several hundred words trying to illustrate what makes Chicory: A Colorful Tale so wonderful that it’s become one of my all-time favorite games. It’s an inherently doomed task. There’s no big picture or smaller study I can create that will do it justice. This is a game about art in every way. It’s about drawing art as a gameplay mechanic, yes, but also about how we define art, what it means to constantly put art on public display, and why we’re compelled to create and subsequently measure our value through our creations. It’s about how art can deeply move you. Chicory is all these things and so much more. 

In Chicory, you are a puppy janitor who perpetually admires Chicory, the latest “wielder” of the Brush. Chicory is everything you dream of being: a superstar artist who inspires the world and its inhabitants with her colors and craft. But one day, the world’s colors suddenly vanish and Chicory is nowhere to be found. You find the Brush and decide to take it upon yourself to restore the world’s color in her absence. 

Instead of cleaning messes, you spend the rest of Chicory creating them. You splatter maroon paint here, a verdant green shade there. You can blind the screen with a bright yellow, or submerge it in a dark purple. Every screen is a canvas primed for your personal messes. You paint them, see them in the relentlessly charming people around you, and embody them. Maybe, through gracing the outside world with your messes, you’ll better understand the messes within you and Chicory. They are beautiful and disturbing; colorful and empty; chaotic and sad — and everything in between in ways you’ll learn over the course of the story.

And who can blame them for being messes? Like pieces of art, we are all works in progress who live in a world that makes us feel like we’ve never progressed enough. We have to be better. Smarter. Stronger. We’re never enough, and we won’t ever be enough until that final deadline hits and we’re done. Never truly finished, but done. While I see parts of myself in both Chicory and the protagonist, Chicory is an uncomfortable mirror; a personification of all my worries and fears displayed on the screen. Chicory lets you change the size, colors, and styles of your brush. It even lets you zoom in and out so that you can more carefully fill things in. But it feels intentional that you’re never quite able to paint things perfectly. Chicory is about how we don’t have to be perfect for anyone to care about us or find beauty within us.

In between its frequent clever social commentary and moments of silliness, it centers on the parts of creating art that we so desperately try to cover up. On the deep and long-stretching roots of impostor syndrome, jealousy, inferiority complexes, and mental illness. Its narrative tackles everything it sets out to do flawlessly, wielding an earnestness reminiscent of stories like Night in the Woods and Undertale. It’s more lighthearted than either one but possesses the same fearlessness in showing a messy world full of imperfect but lovable people.

These people come in the form of all sorts of animals that you’ll get to know across many locations, from lively beaches to the creepy underground. Some are adorable and hilarious, while others are mysterious and maybe even a bit weird. Yet, each one is special. While they are rarely voiced, they are written spectacularly. Font, writing style, and tone are brilliantly used for characterization at all times. I met a ridiculous amount of characters, but I can clearly recall how often Pickle — whose dialogue is written like the way my friends and I shitpost on Twitter — made me giggle. How Peppermint never stopped thinking my art was the best thing they’d ever seen even when I drew something cursed. How Hummus made me cry after I built a garden for someone he loves who can no longer see it. If I walked you through the world of Chicory right now, I wouldn’t go long without identifying a character that genuinely touched my heart.

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Maddeningly, this game succeeds just as magnificently in all other areas. You spend most of your time in the field doing a plethora of puzzles. It takes clear inspiration from Legend of Zelda, making ingenious use of all its mechanics and encouraging you to get creative. You’ll hop between flowers and trees, use explosive balls to destroy rocks, and paint to open doors. It has a seemingly effortless way of making you feel like the least smart person in the world and then making you feel like an expert when you find a solution. It’s often challenging but never obtuse or frustrating. It always gives you the tools to feel confident in looking for a way out if you get stuck. 

Among my favorite features are the phone booths scattered across the map, which let you call home. Your endearing mom will answer first, giving you a hint for what to do next. But if you need the extra help, your dad’s arm will comically stretch and twitch across the screen as he begs your mom to pass the phone to him. If you speak with him, he guides you in the clearest of terms. We’re talking about “go two screens to the right, then up” material. This manages to not be out of place because this world is so wacky and strange and kind. Accessibility options — from increasing health to skipping fights — are plentiful. 

Throughout its 15 to 20 hours, Chicory embodies the feeling of being challenged by a piece of art and knowing you will come out better for it. Like a good teacher, it pushes you to think for yourself but isn’t afraid to guide you. I can’t say it invites you to make mistakes simply because it doesn’t like to punish your curiosity. It will rarely, if ever, tell you that you can’t do a thing — and you’ll be surprised by just how often it lets you do something you didn’t think was possible. 

Regardless of how much you like it, Chicory is guaranteed to always surprise you. It takes unreserved joy in subverting your expectations. One moment, you’re trekking up a mountain. Next, you’re doing a musical rhythm mini-game. Before going on a multi-layered investigation to find out who stole from a local hotel, you can take classes at the art academy. You may have the burden of restoring the world’s color on your shoulders, but it feels natural to take some time to throw a party on a rooftop or design a menu item that people can eat at the cafe. I can seldom believe this team made a game that is so good, and then put a bunch of other games within it that are just as good. And these games don’t exist solely to convince you to stick around a little longer. They’re a way of connecting with the colorful people around you and exploring your creativity.

For a game filled with surprises, the one unsurprising thing about Chicory is its phenomenal soundtrack, orchestrated by BAFTA-nominated composer Lena Raine. It’s hard to pick when the music is at its best. It’s explosive and unsettling during the game’s surprisingly intense boss battles. It injects a bounce in your step as you’re walking across Luncheon, fills you with determination as you climb mountains, and tugs at your heartstrings during vulnerable moments. Every single song is immaculate. Chicory’s soundtrack embodies how this game can be anything while having its own irreplaceable identity.

Every work of art has shortcomings — some way its creators could have improved upon it. It’s ironic then, that despite centering on imperfections, I can’t find one in Chicory. Normally, I appreciate the creative freedom of writing reviews without attributing an arbitrary score to them. But, for the first time in my writing career, I feel frustrated by its absence. If I could rate my reviews, Chicory would have a perfect score. 

Something I learned early in life is that, when you really love something, you’re going to struggle to talk about why. Think about the person you love most: Why do you love them? It’s impossible to say. You’ll come up with one reason, then recall something else you adore just as much. Then another thing. And the list will go on. Soon, you’ll realize it’s hard to find a stopping point. Maybe you never had a precise starting point to begin with. The reasons just rose to the surface, blended together, and are ultimately impossible to neatly untangle. And that’s how I feel about Chicory. My job as a critic is to take an experience or idea and convey it clearly. I’ve struggled to do my job here, and I sense that’ll keep being the case whenever I talk about Chicory in the future. 

The feelings that art like Chicory: A Colorful Tale evokes within me aren’t tangible. My love for it has no proper starting point. It also has no endpoint. I want the game to remain that way, too, so I’ve purposely left a few areas untouched. I want it to keep being a work in progress, just like me. On the canvas representing my love for this game, I have no clue how many more brush strokes I will add and what colors or forms will take shape. I just know the picture I’ve painted is one that I’ll always carry with me.

Chicory: A Colorful Tale is available on Playstation 5, Playstation 4, and PC.