Chicory: A Colorful Tale review
What do the following items have in common: A pan flute, a conductor’s baton, a collection of carved masks, a sceptre, a harp, a hat, an hourglass, and an ocarina. One answer, of course, is that this tactile collection of objects bestrews The Legend of Zelda games. Another is that, though each is wrought from earthly material (metal, glass, wood, cloth, clay), it speaks to something ungraspable (identity, time, music, wind, weather). Aside from the hat, that is, which simply speaks. In order words, this clutch of trinkets, each in its own small way, describes the forging of a legend. What do we get, after all, when the earthly is turned on its head—when it is blown, plucked, and waved into the ungraspable, but nonetheless passed on?
To this assemblage of bric-a-brac, Chicory: A Colorful Tale, a top-down adventure, makes a humble addition: a paintbrush. My initial response was one of surprise; had Zelda never let us wield so obvious and so creative a tool? Oddly, the answer is no. True, Link did once appear as a portrait—flattened into pigment without a fleck of complaint, peeling along walls and slipping into cracks like paper. But the tradition that governs his adventures was not troubled by a single spatter of irreverence or deconstruction. Hideki Kamiya beheld the sweep of Nintendo’s epic saga and came up with Ōkami, a Zelda game in all but name. You played as a sun goddess, taking the form of a wolf whose pelt was as pale as the moon, and whose tail was a brush, to be whipped against the canvas of a craven world. Kamiya’s art, however, was homage—the honouring of a celebrated ritual; in Chicory, the myths get messy.
Our hero is an anthropomorphic dog, whose name you decide by answering the question “What is your favourite food?” Thus, my mutt was christened “Pizza.” (I quickly regretted the decision, to be honest, and longed for something less cheesy, like “Cassoulet,” but it wasn’t to be.) The Chicory of the title happens not only to be a rabbit but a “wielder,” bestowed with a magic paintbrush, who bristles against her title and the responsibility it confers. Her job is to fill the land with colour, and when Pizza, a janitor in her employ, is busy sweeping one day, a series of echoing crashes shakes the building and drains the world into drab black-and-white. “I don’t care who the wielder is!” Chicory says, in a moment of rage. Not for Pizza this crusty attitude, who takes up the brush and gets to work.
Chicory: A Colorful Tale is out on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5, and it’s tough to imagine it on another platform. With a squeeze of the left trigger, your paint starts to run; then, by snaking your thumb or forefinger across the trackpad, you impel ribbons of colour across every surface. (The PS5 version is preferable, if you have the choice, given not only the gurgling resistance in the trigger—evoking the rumble of a paint roller—but the trapezoidal real estate of the touchpad.) You can change line thickness and hue; you can suck the colour back into the brush; and you can zoom in, narrowing your focus, to stipple the nooks with detail. The mechanics and controls, while intuitive, draw gleeful attention to themselves. Not since the Nintendo 64 have I felt as though a controller were not interested in dissolving comfortably into the background, that it wants to be wrangled, and ridden into battle. Here the toyish potential of Sony’s hardware is coaxed out, and the PS5 controller, like Chicory’s brush, isn’t merely used: it’s wielded.
The setting—a Hyrulian jumble of towns, forests, and dungeons; jogged into modernity with coffee shops and bus stops—is there not just to be explored but to be streaked, splotched, and otherwise daubed with paint: a marker of your progress as well as an act of Pollockian restoration. There is no combat, outside of boss encounters, which have you evading dark-red beams while blotching a giant crimson eye into blinking submission. Your progress sees Pizza topped with fresh powers. Some, I have to say, are more exciting than others. One ability, borrowed from Splatoon, allows you to snorkel through spilt paint as if it were a coral reef—useful for squeezing through narrow passages. Another, unlocked later in the game, lets you jump. Whoo.
The developer is Greg Lobanov, who made Wandersong, a game about a singing bard. It started out as a serenade to Zelda—a hero, greenly tunicked, chasing a prophecy to prevent calamity—but soon strayed off-key. Likewise, in Chicory: A Colorful Tale, Lobanov is drawn to the gentle mockery of genre—the lampoon that springs from a loving place and casts a light into its darker crannies. One character describes the game’s threat as “An ancient evil”—pause—“Or something like that… probably.” Other times, we get low-hanging meta-humour mingled with pathos. At one point, a wistful capybara bemoans the youth of today for not interacting with people more than once; “Even when they do interact,” he says, “They’ll use O to skip through the conversation quickly.” It’s a tutorial, tinged with longing and ending, oddly, in hope. “I appreciate you stopping to listen. Maybe the young folks are doing all right after all,” he says, before giving us a reward: “Some Trash.”
The sort of treasures that we have come to expect for our trouble—the rupees, the weapons, the pieces of heart—are tossed aside in favour of trash and, the most common reward, items of clothing. Pizza is yours to dress, to be wrapped in hoodies, berets, and shades. The fact that I found these distractions rather dull, I suppose, could well be Lobanov’s point: How could we truly strap ourselves into the role of Hero, if we do it with the expectation of reward? Besides, what is a scarf, given in kindness and gratitude, if not a piece of heart? Likewise, I felt no great compulsion—aside from a few sudden spells—to bring brightly hued health puddling back into the hills. Whether this is a failing of the game or the fruition of its prevailing theme—the freedom to shirk one’s place in the prophecy—is for every player to decide.
That shirking, regardless, gives Chicory: A Colorful Tale its inquiring power. It is bound to the template set forth by The Legend of Zelda, but, rather than offering reflexive glibness, or inking the affair with irony (like those tiresome games that crack convention-mocking jokes about fetch quests before sending on your merry-fetching way), its critique wraps warmly around its subject, like a scarf. “I’m a messed up person,” says Chicory, bruised by doubt, and we’re urged to consider the wearying weight of the brush—how it may scratch away at the base coat of one’s self-belief. But so, too, how it may lend definition to one’s life: “When you gave me the brush… I felt like a real person for the first time,” says Pizza. And so from the brush to the ocarina, or the hourglass, or the mask. Each can bequeath a purpose, or billow into a colourful tale; but only as it is wielded by a person—undestined, real, and free to be messed up.