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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Chicory: A Colorful Tale is a Stellar Follow-Up to Wandersong (in a few ways!)

Two and a half years ago, I wrote about Wandersong, a wonderful little 2D platformer by developer Greg Lobanov that wound up being one of my favorite games of 2018.* I’ve been anxiously awaiting to see what he did next since then, and what was next finally arrived this year in the form of Chicory: A Colorful Tale. After nearly three years of anticipation building, I’m glad to say that Chicory more than lives up to the high bar of its predecessor, and it too will definitely stand as one of my favorite games of the year!

*Which is saying something, considering some of the other quality games I played that year, like Iconoclasts and Celeste.

Let’s start with the basics: Chicory is the second of the two Top-Down A-A games that I mentioned a few articles ago. To give a very general story pitch: You play as Pizza*, a janitor and aspiring artist in the world of the Picnic Province. The appearance of the region is normally defined by the local Wielder, who uses a magic paintbrush to color in the world. However, the current Wielder, Chicory, has gone missing right when all of the world’s color has suddenly vanished. With no other obvious solution in sight, Pizza takes up the brush and travels around the land, filling in everything and solving various citizen’s problems that have cropped up from the explosion of monochrome.

*The name is player-inputted, but Pizza is both what I used and the apparent default name; everyone in the game is named after food of some sort. Also, all of the characters are anthropomorphic animals, with Pizza of course being the dog in the title art.

Clearly, there’s a lot more going on there, and I’ll touch on some of that later, but for the spoiler-light section, this will do. Greg Lobanov has once again recruited a great team this time around to help him make the game, one almost twice as big as the Wandersong team. Em Halberstadt returns on Sound Design (which looks like it was a lot of fun). Meanwhile, award-winning composer Lena Raine takes over the music, while Alexis Dean-Jones and Madeline Berger provide the game’s art.

And honestly, this team is so in-sync that it’s amazing. The soundtrack is another future all-time classic from Raine, with each area getting a calm, wandering tune that’s made for just walking around and soaking things in (I’ve been listening to it on walks lately, and it even works outside of the game!), but bouncing into threatening, pumped-up jams when the moment calls for it. Those overworld tunes are perfect for talking in the beautiful world that the art team has drawn up, with plenty of detail that neither gets over-complicated to look at despite everything starting in monochrome, nor looks any worse upon being colored however your heart desires. And all of the sound effects really sell the reality of Picnic, giving the world and your paint in it a sense of physicality.

Of course, it’s not just that the world itself is pretty to look at, it’s also that there’s plenty of things to do around the province. Characters to chat with, sidequests to undertake, goodies to hunt for, puzzles to solve, screens to explore, the works. Never a dull moment, despite the lack of overworld enemies that are usually so ubiquitous in this genre. It’s another nice change of pace, really. And there are so many small touches that really make the world feel more homey. You can decorate the world with the various bits of furniture you collect, and the world’s inhabitants will discuss your decorations or coloring choices. Characters will visit areas other than their hometowns and chat, bringing over their original colors from their home area.*

*This is another nice touch; each area has its own unique color palette you can choose from, so visitors stand out when they bring in their outside color sets. And if you get a gathering of a lot of characters from many areas, things get even more vibrant. And of course, each area’s selection of four colors subtly shapes your impressions of the location.

The central mechanic, the thing driving the moment-to-moment gameplay as you solve puzzles or decorate or whatever else, is the paintbrush. Much like with Wandersong and its singing wheel, Chicory has devised a number of ways you can use this ability to interact with things in the world, keeping the gameplay exciting as you pop between tasks. You get a variety of textures and designs for it, and even a high degree of freedom in how you use it (most surfaces can be covered in paint with the right upgrades, and the game lets you paint whenever, even while other characters are talking or things are happening). So, once again, it's an incredibly fun mechanic to build a game off of.

And on top of that, the game takes your work with the brush seriously, which goes a long way in getting you even more invested in it. Lots of designs can be translated into GIFs for sharing your process. The game remembers everything you draw, and not only keeps your drawings until you remove them, but also displays everything you’ve painted on the world in miniature on your map. Some characters will even comment on your color choices and designs.

Those comments aren’t necessarily highly advanced, but they are a large part of the story Chicory is trying to tell and the feelings it’s trying to instill in players. It is in a lot of ways, like Wandersong, a song about creation and art. Throughout the game, you receive lots of little mentions nudging you in certain directions, like the ones reflecting on your design, or asking about your vision, or arguing about different artistic styles, and all together, these elements really do induce a level of intentionality in how you decorate the world.

I know that in my playthrough, my thoughts on how to color the world changed and evolved over time. You can watch the world fill in in replay (a fun GIF option you get towards the end even literally replays your entire map filling in with color over time, from the very beginning), or see how you drew up an old area when you pass through it again and decide to add to it or rework it or anything else. There are a variety of cool moments this creates, like being able to find when and where you found new brush types by where you started using them a lot, or seeing the effect of different brush abilities on what you colored, but also in just seeing different artistic directions.

Like, in replay, I noticed areas where I was sparser, ones where I went with balanced approaches, shapes over solid colors, specific designs, and so on, many of those coming and going in phases of gameplay. And of course, in some ways, it mirrors Pizza growing into the role of The Wielder, both in getting more knowledge of what abilities are available but also in just moving through different artistic approaches; I know talking to a few other past or prospective wielders in-game about their styles made me a little more conscious and deliberate about what I was doing.

There was a little of that in Wandersong, but the game was a lot more linear, without a ton of returning to old areas to measure your new prowess (which reflects its focus on music; it is a much more temporal art form than drawing, of course). One of the areas where A Colorful Tale compares much more directly, though, is in the rest of the story, particularly the characters. If you want to avoid any story discussion (for Wandersong or Chicory) to keep it a surprise, skip the next section. 

---[mild spoilers]---

Despite both being games about art and creativity, Chicory: A Colorful Tale is much more about art than its predecessor, both as a creative endeavor and a thing people enjoy and respond to. And this isn’t to say that Chicory was necessarily a response or a sequel or a refutation or anything like that; the two can be played independently of each other, they’re both narratively complete with themes that stand on their own even if you don’t realize there are common threads between the two, and so on.

But at the same time, there is something of a dialogue of ideas here. Kiwi the Bard, the protagonist of Wandersong, even has a cameo in the Picnic Province, appearing as a singing bird who wanders the land (complete with a callback to that game’s singing mechanic). And it’s not hard to see the points of comparison between Kiwi and Pizza, either, as adventurous protagonists roaming the land seeking to help the various denizens of the game world with their problems and trying to restore a sort of balance to a precarious world, all while growing as people.

But that also serves to highlight their differences; Kiwi is not the Chosen One of Wandersong’s world, and that’s the whole point. Most other people aren’t taking them seriously. Their quest is as an outsider who officially wasn’t elevated to undertake the big quest to save the world (but who decided to help anyway), and most of the world regards them as just a bard who’s doing music rather than The Hero. And also notably, Kiwi often comes into conflict with Audrey, the official “Chosen One” picked to save the day.

Pizza, for all of their dispositional similarities to Kiwi, is the Chosen One of that world. They wield the singular brush that can handle all of the world’s color-related problems, both big and small. And in that regard, Pizza actually overlaps with Audrey a little more, which is a really interesting decision. If I had any major criticisms of Wandersong, it’s that ultimately, Audrey’s tale trails off rather ambiguously. She plays a major role in the finale, after hints throughout the game that there are some interesting things going on in her side of the story. But she vanishes for the denouement, and is one of the only characters in the game who you can’t talk to in the playable epilogue (although there are open-ended, second-hand allusions to her whereabouts).

I don’t think that those choices take much away from Wandersong, but it does feel like that territory would be ripe for expansion in a follow-up. So let’s take a closer look at that game’s follow-up: protagonist Pizza gets the Brush at the start of the game, a position that people in-universe spend years training for, more or less because they’re the janitor for the current Wielder (the titular Chicory), and were willing to take it up when she no longer felt capable of doing so.

The subsequent feeling of unworthiness in their new role is a recurring element of Pizza’s story, and it was also something that Audrey seemed to be suffering from during Wandersong, aggressively rejecting suggestions that she work with others and getting snippy with those she saw as invading her territory. And while the methods that appointed Pizza and Audrey are very different, I still think it’s a fair comparison; A Colorful Tale is clearly more preoccupied with the idea of the randomness of success and how it’s pressures can affect us, but that concept really applies just as much to “was deemed The Chosen One in a dream” as it does “was in the right place at the right time”.

Of course, the twist ends up being that Chicory, who Pizza looked up to as a genius artist, also felt like she was undeserving of her status, and no matter how long she trained or how good her art looked to Pizza and others, there were always still critics (including, crucially, her own mentor Blackberry) and crippling self-doubt. And of course, the cycle repeats with Pizza putting effort into being the Wielder and winning over a legion of supporters for their effort (as well as the ever-present critics). Most notably among the supporters is an enthusiastic superfan named Peppermint, who travels around admiring your works and gradually becoming a clear analogue to Pizza’s relationship with Chicory at the start of the game. And all the while, the nagging sense that Pizza was appointed by accident remains, constantly bubbling under the surface.

In comparing Audrey’s story, the conclusion to A Colorful Tale becomes especially notable (major spoilers for the end of Chicory and Wandersong in this paragraph). The brush itself winds up being a source of the physical corruptions encroaching on the Picnic Province, powered by the doubts of the artist. In the end, the solution is Pizza and Chicory destroying it together (rather than leaving it to Pizza alone), which allows the heroes to begin growing trees to make brushes for everyone in the region. Thus, they have completely eliminated the singular role of Wielder, which stands in stark contrast with Audrey rejecting any offers of assistance and fighting to prove that she is the sole hero of the world as she believed was foretold.

Really, it feels like this major subthread from the previous game served as a jumping-off point or even the basis for the themes of this game. And I suppose I’ll never be able to prove that it’s a direct continuation, or an intentional response, or anything like that, but at the very least a lot of the same ideas were clearly kicking around for both games, and it just adds to the connection they share as consecutive releases from the developer.

---[end spoilers]---

I could honestly just keep going for a while talking about Chicory: A Colorful Tale, there’s just so much here to talk about and enjoy and relive and reflect on. Even now, at over 2000 words in and weeks of brainstorming and writing and revising, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface on all the big and little stuff here (if you play the game a bit and want to see some of the cool things going on behind the scenes, Greg even made an interesting thread compiling small trivia about it that’s worth checking out!). But a big part of any piece of art is going to be what we personally take from it, so if any of this sounds interesting, I can’t recommend trying the game and seeing what sticks out to you highly enough!

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