Chicory and the Work of Art

This is another article written by Leaf, you can follow her on Twitter at Leafdoggy.

I’m not a good artist.

I don’t mean that in a self-deprecating way. It’s not a personal failing on my part, and I’m good at other things, for sure. I even call myself an artist for my writing and in that way I do feel like a good artist.

I just can’t draw.

Art—all art—is hard to make, and I think everybody probably realizes, on some level, that the idea of ‘natural talent’ is not nearly the factor it’s made out to be. It takes effort, and practice, and time, and work. Making art is a job! And it is daunting.

An example: Mark Rothko was an American painter most well known today for his abstractionist works. Often untitled, known by names like Black on Gray, or No. 8 when he did title them, his most famous pieces fall squarely in the realm of color field painting. It’s what you probably think of when somebody mentions ‘modern’ or ‘abstract’ art: big canvases with solid blocks of color.

They’re the kind of paintings that make some people say, “Well, what’s so special about that? I could do that.”

There’s an easy, gut response to that kind of thinking. Mark Rothko didn’t just spring up from the aether one day with a big monochrome canvas under his arm. He painted for decades before setting a foot in abstractionism, and those decades color every inch of his art. His paintings are one of a kind, the brush strokes meticulously hand-crafted to the finest detail, the paint mixed to a ridiculous level of precision. His paintings hang in some of the most prestigious art galleries in the world, and with good reason. They’re simple, but they make people feel, sometimes more than any traditional art ever could.

But… Isn’t there something to be said about the fact that people are seeing them in those same art galleries? Doesn’t that color their experience?

He’d been a painter for decades, and so, when he brought out those big monochrome paintings… people looked. They weren’t just looking at a painting – they were looking at a Rothko. They studied them, and yes, they felt something, but didn’t they already want to? Hadn’t they already primed themselves to feel something?

I can’t help but wonder if people would still feel something if the art didn’t have Rothko’s name on it. If there weren’t thousands of other paintings, traditional and modern and everything in between, framing them in the galleries, saying this is as good as those.

I don’t say all of this as a way to knock Rothko down a peg or somehow ‘prove’ that abstract art is lesser than other forms. I love abstract art! I love the way it makes me think, makes me question the gut feelings I get from seeing it, asking “Why do these shapes make me feel so much?” So much of the power of art lies in its ability to make you ask questions of yourself and the world around you, and nothing has made me think the way some abstract art has.

Rather, my point here is to try and show the raw, unmovable power of doubt. Doubt is a tangling ivy that can creep up anywhere and ensnare your mind before you’ve even noticed its presence. Doubt is easy. I could spend all day coming up with arguments against the merit of any art, not just Rothko’s. It’s a lot harder to believe, to fully accept in your heart the time, the skill, the work that goes into art.

So, what is so special about them? I could do that.

And the thing is… as much as we like to think there is something special about them, I could do that. Rothko’s decades may very well have elevated his later art more than just his reputation—I certainly think that’s the case—but, so what? I could do that, too. I could paint for decades, and become a master worthy of drawing colorful shapes. I could use those decades to paint the Mona Lisa, too. None of it would be easy, it would take years, decades, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do it.

That’s what I’ve always been told, at least. Anybody can make art. It feels almost cliched at this point. Paintings and movies and books and video games and artists themselves have always tried to tell me that I, too, could make the kind of thing I’m seeing.

But that’s such an easy thing to doubt.

The thing is, it’s easy for a movie to tell me I can make a movie. After all, the creators already made a movie! They know that they can make a movie. What if I just can’t, though? What if there’s something neither of us sees, some hidden factor that just makes me incapable of making art?

These doubts plague any work of art telling people that they, too, can make art, and they’re inescapable. You need to be able to make something to tell me I can make something, because otherwise, what do you know? You can’t make things, either. Come back when you’ve made something yourself. Except, don’t, because then you don’t know what it’s like to not be able to make things.

The experience required for your message to mean anything is the same experience that makes it mean nothing.

Going into Chicory, I think this all worried me more than I even realized.

Some background: I loved Wandersong, Greg Lobanov’s previous game. The day I finished it, I decided it was my favorite game I’d ever played, and that stuck for a long time. No joke, Wandersong made me so happy it gave me an existential crisis. So, Chicory had a lot to live up to.

I tried to keep my expectations low, and, well, it wasn’t too hard. From the earliest days of seeing little bits of Drawdog on Twitter, I remember thinking, “well, it’s certainly cute, but what’s the game?” Obviously there would be drawing, but could that really sustain a whole game?

(As an aside, they totally did manage to bring a full game out of the concept, and it’s loads of fun. People compare it to Earthbound, but personally, I felt like I was getting to relive my childhood experience of exploring the world in Link’s Awakening, complete with dungeons, power-ups, and incredible bosses.)

So, I was a bit worried about the scope of the game, but honestly, I was just as hesitant about the concept itself. I mean, drawing? Sure, maybe an artist will get something out of it, but I’ve never really enjoyed drawing. It’s too easy to get frustrated when things don’t come out the way they look in my head. I was scared the game might just not be for me.

I bought it anyway, though, and started it up, and it was clear from the jump that the developers were clearly aware that not everybody playing would be an artist. The world in general is fairly simplistically designed, although it still looks nice, but even before that, you’re presented with something very important:

A hallway.

The second and third screens in the game are just a hallway, but they’re not empty. They’re lined with the self-portraits of past wielders—people who have held the brush that gives the world color—and they’re… Inconsistent. Some are clearly drawn with a lot of talent, but others are, well…

It’s a pretty blunt message. These are the most important artists in the world, and some just… Couldn’t really draw. Not how you’d expect. And yet, they’re treated with the same reverence all the other wielders are. Because anybody can make art.

But… isn’t there something to be said about the fact that I’m seeing all of this in a beautiful game? Doesn’t that color my experience?

After all, this world isn’t real. There are no wielders, these paintings didn’t crop up naturally. They were put here, by an artist, and the juxtaposition is manufactured. The bad art in this game is bad on purpose.

At least… some of it is.

Chicory recognizes the difficulties in telling somebody they can be an artist. The game knows that gestures like including some pieces of ‘bad’ art will, on their own, likely ring hollow. So, the game goes further.

It doesn’t just tell you that you can be an artist. It shows you, and it does so brilliantly.

Chicory is a game about drawing, and not in the Art Academy sense, where you’re given a drawing toolkit and are told what to do. It’s a game about somebody who isn’t an artist being thrust into the role, and having to learn from scratch how to be an artist, and the mechanics of the game are designed to reflect that.

The clearest way this manifests is through the tools you’re given. On any given screen, you have access to four colors, three brush sizes, and any stamps or patterns you’ve found while playing. That’s it. The colors aren’t always the most conducive to what you might want—some screens take three of your four color slots and makes them all blue—and the smallest brush size is way too big for fine details. It’s ridiculously barebones.

I can imagine that annoyed some people, but I welcomed it. If the tools were better, more robust, I’m not sure I ever would’ve filled in the world, because it would never feel like I was doing it well enough. If I could add shading but didn’t, it would be missing something. If I did try, though, it would just look bad, because I’m just not good enough to make proper use of it.

And that’s what it really comes down to. More tools wouldn’t make me feel like I have more options, because they’re not an option for me. They would just make me feel like I wasn’t good enough to get the full experience offered by the game. Not a good enough artist to qualify for the message that anyone can be an artist.

The tools make it so that nobody is really very ‘good.’ There are no masters in Chicory. Your character is an amateur, and so are you.

The game gives you that, and then asks you to color the world.

It’s… overwhelming, at first. It never really stops being overwhelming. The whole world, the whole game starts in black and white, and the only way it can get color is through you. You, the player, with your lack of talent and pitiful brush.

Through me.

I’m not ready for that! I’m not capable of that. At first, I just didn’t do it. I used the brush to get past obstacles, but I left most of the world blank. When I did try, it looked bad. Either everything clashed too hard, or everything was the same color and you couldn’t see any of the decorations on the screen. I didn’t like the results, and I figured it was better off blank.

But then characters start asking me to do things for them. A character wants their house painted, and sure, I can do that. But, no, not that color, they say—okay, I’ll change it. I start to fill it in with something else, and they stop me and say “that’s good,” but it’s not. It’s a mess of scribbles. I’m not happy with it, and they’re not happy with it.

I’m not done.

So, I ignore them, and I finish it. It still doesn’t look great, but it looks finished, cohesive, and somehow… somehow I’m almost happy with it. Because I’m no longer comparing it to what it could be. I’m comparing it to what it was when they stopped me, when I wasn’t done. Instead of looking at what I’m below, suddenly, I’m seeing where I came from.

And it doesn’t stop there. The house is painted, but the rest of the screen is still blank, and that looks awful. So, I color the whole thing in. I still leave most of the town blank, but that screen is finished, and you know what? It doesn’t look half bad. An hour later, and I’m painting every new screen, mostly because I don’t want to have to go back and paint them whenever I decide I do want it all painted. I’m not doing anything super intricate, but I have reasons for where I put colors, and I start to develop a method to it. A style.

At the end of the game, they gave me an animation of the entire world filling with color. It looked awful, completely incohesive, but you know what else it looked like?

It looked like me. Like my world. Because it was.

I’d filled it all. It didn’t look good, but it was done, and it looked good enough for me. I didn’t do it because the game made me. There wouldn’t have been a punishment if I didn’t do it, and there wasn’t really a reward for doing it. I did it because I wanted to. Because I was having fun drawing.

Still, though, was I really making art? I was filling a coloring book. I was just splashing paint wherever it was needed. Playing around with a fill tool doesn’t make you an artist.

Again, that doubt creeps in.

But everything really solidifies when you visit the art school in the game. There, the game asks you to make paintings—real ones, on a canvas. It even gives you an expanded color palette. It’s actually a pretty noticeable shift from the main game. As much as the game is about drawing, the art school—which is entirely optional—is just about the only time the game actually outright asks you to draw something.

There are two different kinds of painting the art school asks you to make. The first is what you might expect: you’re given a vague concept, like “love” or “a cute creature” and get to draw whatever you want. They’re fun, but for me they were just fun. It didn’t feel like an art class. It didn’t feel like art.

They were, however, a very welcome break between the other assignments the art school has for you.

See? Told you I could do shapes.

In Chicory, color has been wiped from the world. Homes, rivers, people—and art. There’s an art gallery in the game, one dedicated to holding the art of past wielders, and every painting in the gallery has lost its color.

They still look phenomenal in monochrome, but these were probably some of the only paintings in the world that had color. It makes sense that people would want to see that color restored.

And, well… You’re the wielder. You can give them color, right? And so, there’s the second type of painting: recreations.

This is, frankly, a ridiculous thing to ask of the player. With the tools you have, recreating the pictures it gives you is just not possible. How am I supposed to recreate clear, individual brush strokes? Surely, you can’t expect me to give my drawing shading. It can’t be done!

Still, I tried.

At first, I tried to just recreate the original wholecloth. Results on that were… Mixed. They’re recognizable, sort of. But I wasn’t happy with them.

This was probably the closest I came during my playthrough to that frustration I was worried about.

It didn’t last, though. In drawing with such a limited toolset, I was forced to make compromises, and I saw what worked and what didn’t, what I liked and didn’t like. I didn’t do all of that consciously, of course, it just happened, and that experience colored my future drawings. I did some things more, and some less. I developed a style, I got more invested in making things I liked instead of perfect recreations, and before I knew it…

I was making art.

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