On its surface, Greg Lobanov’s Chicory: A Colourful Tale is the poster child for escapist video games. Chicory is a colouring book turned video game, complete with Zelda-inspired puzzles, Metroidvania elements, and fun side-quests… all of which combine to create a disarmingly devastating commentary on what we are taught to want, as opposed to what what we actually need.
The first instalment in Aries' column, 'Unwriting the hero's journey in Chicory: A Colourful Tale'
CW: brief mentions of depression
On its surface, Greg Lobanov’s Chicory: A Colourful Tale is the poster child for escapist video games. You play as a cute little dog in a world of anthropomorphic animals with food names, painting in the world of Picnic after a mysterious colour wipe. Chicory is a colouring book turned video game, complete with Zelda-inspired puzzles, Metroidvania elements, and fun side-quests… all of which combine to create a disarmingly devastating commentary on what we are taught to want, as opposed to what we actually need.
The protagonist (named after the player’s favourite food, which defaults to “Pizza” if none is selected) is a textbook video game main character—bright-eyed, enthusiastic, and ready to take on the task of saving the whole world armed with little more than their pluck and determination. Video game protagonists with such cheery two-dimensionalities are excellent stand-ins for the players themselves. There is little need for mental gymnastics to justify the protagonist’s involvement in a potentially life-endangering quest. They’re a hero. Life-endangering quests are what they do. If the protagonist doesn’t think too hard about it, then there is little reason for the player to think too hard about it either, and they are free to continue their merry way hacking through monsters and saving the princess.
This is a large aspect of the role of video games as an escapist medium. Video game protagonists are often inoffensive everyman that the player can freely project their agency upon, or otherwise, more realised characters with stories that allow the player to be immersed in somebody else’s journey. Chicory’s Pizza manages to be both. The crux of their arc is a transition from the category of the former to that of the latter, and in doing so, Lobanov turns the whole narrative of an adventure game neatly on its head. The question being asked at the core of Chicory is not, “Can I save the world?” but rather, “Why do I have to save the world at all?”
At the beginning of the game, Pizza arms themself with the Brush, the magical weapon responsible for bringing colour to the world that has been wielded by generations of, well, Wielders, before them. The beginning of the game progresses in a manner familiar to anybody who has played an adventure game before. You explore the cosy hometown of the main character, learning the basics of the mechanics along the way, until an encounter with the big bad propels you into the quest itself. The story beats are almost textbook, coaxing the player into a false sense of security that is shattered when Pizza tries to return the Brush to its rightful Wielder.
The eponymous rabbit, Chicory, is beloved and idolised by Pizza. To Pizza, it is Chicory who is the protagonist of this story, and so to Chicory the Brush must go. Except, this time around, Chicory refuses the call to adventure—she is disillusioned, miserable, and grants it to Pizza without a lick of fanfare. Something has gone wrong with the conventional narrative structure of a happy adventure game. Suddenly, you are not being granted a magical sword by a wise master. The wise master is a depressed rabbit, shut up in her room, and the sword has been left unceremoniously on the ground for anybody’s taking.
The mentor in Joseph Campbell’s theories of the hero’s journey is a crucial arbiter for narrative escapism. In drawing the protagonist into the story and guiding them from the world they know into the world they don’t, the transition is also made easier for the reader. In many ways, the mentor marks the beginning of the “journey” part of the hero’s journey. They are external proof of the potential of the protagonist, the first source of emotional and mental support that will bolster the hero into their life-changing quest. When the mentor is removed, suddenly the entirety of the hero’s journey crumbles with it, and the illusion of a cheerily unfeeling protagonist asked to do the impossible dissolves into thin air. That destabilisation of Pizza’s narrative journey is the first blow against their sunny game-protagonist optimism, and in turn, the first real challenge to the role of video games as an escapist medium.
Yet Chicory goes on, even as Chicory does not. Pizza is thrown into a dizzying array of quests almost instantly. “Fix the Wielder Temple!” “Deliver mail all over Picnic!” “Design T-shirts, rescue lost kittens, remake historical paintings that were lost in the colour wipe, plant a garden for a grieving koala!” Without a mentor who can advise and commiserate from a position of informed experience, Pizza faces imposter syndrome, burnout, and a very real frustration with the people who they were tasked with helping in the first place. How can you fight for people who keep taking you for granted? How can you escape into a game that takes pains to remind you, time and time again, of the mounting misery of the protagonist that is driving the whole thing? Pizza is railing against the confines of the narrative without even realising that’s what they’re doing, because they, like the player, were anticipating a story that was entirely the opposite of the one they have found themselves in. Of course, because Pizza is the protagonist, the player is driven to do the same, and soon the focus moves from the individual struggle to the structural and communal; why is Pizza suffering in this way? Why is this how things need to be?
The Brush itself becomes the symbol of the angst that is faced over the course of Chicory. It is a coveted object, adored and respected, and capable of fighting off the shadowy monsters that lurk at the colour-drained edges of the map. Yet, it is also a bloated symbol of ancient power, one that has hurt people as effectively as it has helped them. Neither Chicory nor Cardamom, another past Wielder, are comfortable with the Brush’s presence, reminded as they are of the years of solitude, and endless drudgery that the wider public saw only as heroism. Those who want the Brush aren’t free, either. Talented art student Radish is denied the Brush time and time again despite her hard work and conventional success, eventually succumbing to her frustrations and dropping out of art school. This narrative is familiar to players in a way that is, perhaps, more painful and less enjoyable than the hero’s journey; ceaselessly working towards something that you have desired forever, and either failing despite your best efforts, or succeeding only to find that the reality of finally owning it is far more demanding than you ever wanted.
This narrative approach is largely lacking in the mainstays of the adventure game genre. Very rarely does the antagonist of the game become, not the monsters that lurk in the dark, but the sword that you wield against them. Without spoiling much more than that, the Brush is a far darker force than its genre might indicate, presenting yet another level of narrative destabilisation that drives Pizza’s gradual loss of illusion. The player, too, is brought on Pizza’s journey of narrative deconstruction and challenging of conventional wisdom, one that could easily cross over (and does, in Chicory) into matters of career, creativity, academia, sexuality, and gender, life under late-stage capitalism, and beyond.
Questioning prevailing narratives is the fundamental thesis statement of Chicory, and it’s expressed in some way by everyone you meet on your journey to restore colour to Picnic. What begins as escapism in Chicory: A Colourful Tale becomes a ceaseless encouragement of the player to ask difficult questions about the assumed realities of their lives—in other words, the polar opposite of the escapism that Chicory’s adorable world seems to promise.
Chicory: A Colourful Tale is available on Steam, and for the PlayStation and Nintendo Switch.