In a hard year full of great games, Merry-Go-Round Magazine is taking some extra time to talk about games on and off our favorites list that meant something to us in 2021.
In one of my PhD classes, we were asked a question that instantly filled me with dread and shame: “What are you passionate about?” While everybody had passions ready to share (baking, cooking, or making clothes, music, and movies, etc.), I made some quip about not really ever doing anything (sick deflection tactic, I know) and said something about enjoying movies and video games. Video games and movies are great! But am I passionate about them? I like them, but what does liking movies and video games do for anybody?
Immediately after, everybody started talking about getting together and “skill sharing,” and I felt this deep insecurity of not having anything to provide. I felt this disconnect—these people actually DO things, and all I do is enjoy what other people do. School already fosters a sense of inadequacy in the ways you’re always in competition to say the most interesting thing in order to get more funding, but I found the same feeling outside of school too. I haven’t done enough academic work to feel established, but I also don’t spend my free time doing anything that feels important. Then I played CHICORY: A COLORFUL TALE, a game that took me by surprise in the way it deals with feeling inadequate in everything you do. The truth is, we all feel insecure about something, because that’s just how the world works.
The game explores inadequacy through interactions between Chicory and the player character, named after your favorite food (in my case, Pizza). The pair are on a journey to fight back an evil that’s stripped their world of color. Chicory is a “Wielder” and has ownership over the only magical paintbrush in existence. Their role is to fill the world with color and art. Pizza, on the other hand, begins as their janitor, and a lifelong fan of Chicory’s work. When Chicory abandons their brush because it’s hurt their ability to find joy in what they do, Pizza takes it up with the intention of giving Chicory a break from their responsibilities—and fulfilling a desire to be something greater.
Pizza uses Chicory’s brush to fill in the world with color, one designated palette at a time (doing this with a stick experiencing Joy-Con drift was not the best time). The gameplay is pleasant and the soundtrack fits the world, but where the game shines is in its writing, the strong central characters, and the themes it engages with. The world is kind of EARTHBOUND-like, presenting itself through a naive/childlike lens. The characters have quirky one-liners, it’s self-referential at times in its own mechanics, and you even can call your parents whenever you need advice on where to go next.
As you explore the world completing little tasks for characters and exploring enemy-free dungeons (think a top-down LEGEND OF ZELDA without a health bar and an OKAMI-style paintbrush mechanic for puzzle solving), the game illustrates the Wielder’s responsibilities in a world where only one person’s art matters. While designing a cafe’s new logo or the new flavor of donut topping, you learn just how much the people rely on the Wielder to tell them what’s important and valuable. All of these conversations relate back to the main theme of the game: How we value what other people do, and the effects of building a system of commodification and power around being the best at something.
Chicory eventually takes on a mentor type role for Pizza, guiding them through their different trials in order to empower their connection with the brush and share their own experiences as a Wielder. All Chicory ever wanted was to be a Wielder, but when they finally achieved their goal, they felt isolated and disconnected from the world, no longer able to make art that felt important to them. They were so focused and determined on achieving one thing, they forgot the point of making art in the first place. Pizza has the opposite problem, feeling like they aren’t good at anything and never knowing what they want to do. This lack of motivation led them to play a supporting role their whole life, always helping others and putting themselves second. The conversations between these two characters highlight just how hard it is to feel proud of anything you do in a world that only really cares about how good you are and how you can be used by others.
Chicory’s self-worth is in making art, and the second they stop being able to do that they lose all their value. Pizza has never felt important because they think anything they do is below Chicory and those around them. I saw myself in Chicory in how I’m constantly second guessing the value of my own research, but I also saw myself in Pizza in how I feel inadequate and bad about not doing enough at the same time. I’m so busy thinking about what I could be doing or ways I could be better that I bury myself in a deep hole of self doubt.
The irony is that both characters are incredibly envious of each other’s lives and throughout their adventure they continue to admire qualities that the other can’t recognize in themselves. Chicory loves how much Pizza cares about their friends and helping others, and Pizza reminds Chicory of all the amazing work they’ve done and how important it’s been to them. It’s in these sweet moments where the two remind each other of how special they are that the game highlights how difficult it can be to see our own value.
I asked my friends what they think I’m passionate about and they were able to point to plenty of things that I hadn’t thought about as being impressive or important. And it’s not that those things weren’t actually important, per se, it’s just that I have a hard time seeing them on my own. The system isn’t built for us to value ourselves, only what we could be. It takes others to make us feel special and important. We live in a world that loves to measure everything and place a value on how you spend your time. But the value of what you produce is immeasurable because it comes from you. You are the most important part of all this, not what you produce.
I really like enjoying what other people do, and I’m bad at liking myself and the things I do. The people in class who make stuff are also worried about the stuff they make and how good it is. We need to have something to work towards, something to be better at, but it also makes us not recognize all the things we are already good at and do for those around us. CHICORY isn’t a plea to do less, but it is a plea to think about everything you do as important to the people around you. In a world where we are asked to individualize and stand out from the rest, CHICORY is a reminder that we don’t have to create, say anything or be anyone special in order to matter and be important in this world.
CHICORY made my world smaller, it made me think about whose opinions really matter to me and for who I am doing things for. It highlights how we can’t do this alone, that we need each other to pick us back up when an evil painted eye boss (input your own interpretation) keeps wailing on you. CHICORY is a game that meant a lot to me as someone who constantly feels out of place and not good enough, in a world that functions by telling me I am out of place and not good enough, and I highly recommend it to anybody who’d like a reminder that maybe our worlds could be a bit smaller than we think.