Greg Lobanov likes creating art that’s about art. In his preferred medium of game development, that self-examination has become increasingly apparent in recent projects like Wandersong, an adventure game about singing, and now Chicory: A Colorful Tale, which is about visual artistry.
“Making stuff is a huge part of my identity,” Lobanov says, speaking to IGN. “It’s probably the main way that I relate to other people, like all of my friends are also creative people. And all I ever talk about with everybody I know, it’s just like, ‘What are you working on?’, and ‘What is inspiring you?’, and ‘What are your challenges right now?’ So in a way it feels very personal to make a game that’s about that conversation in that space, because it’s just what I’m thinking about all the time.”
Lobanov is an independent game developer from Philadelphia, now residing in Vancouver. He’s made and finished around ten games so far, starting out with simple free titles and gradually moving into more complex RPGs. His first big breakout game, Wandersong, helped him find his focus on non-violent games and creativity.
While Chicory is a very different game both mechanically and narratively, it still has those same roots in the challenges and struggles of being a “maker.”
“With Wandersong and Chicory, the mechanical starting point for both those games was a creativity mechanic like making music, making art, and trying to make a game about that,” Lobanov says. “I haven’t seen a game that plays these concepts in that way, a game that’s literally, you just draw all the time everywhere on things, and the game is about that drawing. It’s sort of surprising to me also, because playing notes on a piano and making music or just getting a box of crayons and drawing on paper, that’s something that is fun for people of all ages. Everyone loves doing this at some point in their lives. Yet there are no, or very few, games that explore that space.”
Getting a box of crayons and drawing…is fun for people of all ages. Yet there are very few games that explore that space.
Chicory interprets that philosophy quite literally. It’s a top-down adventure game set in a black and white world, where a “wielder” is appointed to use a magical paintbrush to color it all in. The current wielder, Chicory, is a beloved celebrity, but at the start of the game she vanishes, and all the world’s color goes with her. Playing as her janitor and number one fan, you take up her brush and fill in the world’s color again as you adventure around and try to uncover what happened to her. The puzzling and adventure elements are combined – the entirety of the game’s world acts like a coloring book, where you can use a brush to color literally everything you see. Much of Chicory’s exploration and puzzles are tied to your use of the brush, with different environments reacting to the application of color in distinct ways.
For instance, a small plant might grow instantly when colored in, allowing it to be used as a platform to cross a gap. Conversely, you might later need to erase that color to shrink the plant again, as its large size might block a path you need to walk through.
Lobanov is candid about how the game’s exploration and puzzle components were inspired by top-down Zelda games, but it’s the art that’s the core of the game. In fact, the exploration elements weren’t even part of his original idea for Chicory — the drawing came first, and the exploration was added to answer the question of what players would do besides just draw. And in the end, Lobanov says, the drawing elevated a style of gameplay people will already be familiar with. For example, he mentions that whenever a player enters a screen that’s entirely blank, they immediately know whether or not they’ve been there before – left behind paint splotches can help improve puzzle and map memory.
With painting at its core, Lobanov and his collaborators had to put a lot of effort into making sure that anyone could play Chicory, regardless of artistic skill level. He says that there’s no need to be an artist to play, as Chicory is ultimately more about the characters, puzzles, and story rather than being able to draw anything particularly well, though the in-game paint tools are robust enough to accommodate those who do want to get fancy.
If you give [players] a set of colors that always look nice together, you can’t not make something that looks nice.
One creative element Lobanov curbed to help make the game more accessible is the color selection. Each unique area of Chicory only has a selection of four colors players can choose from, which serves both to give zones their own distinct flavors, but also to help players feel less overwhelmed (and less inclined to spend hours in the interface just picking colors).
“If you give [players] a set of colors that always look nice together, you can’t not make something that looks nice,” he says.
That’s not where Chicory’s accessibility ends, either. Lobanov wants to make sure people know that his game is accessible to both deaf and colorblind players as well.
“Usually when people see color in a game, they assume that if you’re colorblind, it’s not for you,” he says. “This is not that case. This game is totally accessible to colorblind players; half of our [quality assurance] testers are colorblind. Your ability to distinguish color is not a puzzle or challenge in this game, because it’s not something the game is about. So please don’t worry about that.”
While it’s focused on visual art, Chicory certainly doesn’t shortchange in the music department. Its soundtrack is by Lena Raine, a game composer best known for Celeste but with works in Guild Wars 2, Minecraft, and plenty more. Lobanov has known Raine for years, saying that they bonded over a shared love for JRPGs like Earthbound and Pokemon.
“I assumed that what we were going to be doing was basically just like Celeste but different melodies, like piano chiptune stuff, which would be really cool for this chill painting game,” he tells me of their collaboration. “And Lena went a totally different direction with it, that is somehow just as good if not better than what she’s done on our other games. Like, it’s all old instruments, and orchestrations, and jazz, and all this weird stuff just thrown together – and it super works. And it is not at all what I expected. She’s revealed a huge breadth basically working on this project that I’m just really impressed by.”
But those specifically drawn to the more Zelda-like elements than the art and music may notice something missing: there’s no combat in Chicory. Lobanov says he’s gradually moved into making more non-violent games over time. He sees games as a source of joy, and he’d rather pass that onto others rather than sharing topics he finds personally distasteful, like violence.
“If I’m really gonna make things that are going to go out in the world and represent me that people are going to play and have an impact on someone’s life, even if it’s just like in the window of an afternoon, how can I be more responsible about what I’m putting into these? What do I actually want to say to people?”
Chicory isn’t just non-violent. Its aesthetics are charming, its characters are pleasant and silly, and its message is ultimately a positive one. As a result, it’s been categorized by some as a “wholesome” game, a label that’s been getting more attention lately thanks to things like the Wholesome Games showcase.
Lobanov doesn’t begrudge anyone the “Wholesome Games” label, saying he thinks it can be a very helpful categorization for people trying to find a certain type of game and is happy for people who find it useful. But he adds that he personally dislikes the word “wholesome” as a descriptor for his work, because he feels it carries a connotation of a game being unchallenging — which isn’t his aim.
If I’m really gonna make things that…have an impact on someone’s life, how can I be more responsible about what I’m putting in?
He doesn’t mean challenging as synonymous with frustrating, though, noting that many popular games are about frustrating players and creating a certain tension as a core part of the experience. Rather, he thinks that games should include challenging themes, and ask the player to think more deeply about ideas that matter in the wider world.
“I think there’s a growing scene of games that realize that this specific [frustrating and tense] design is not necessary to make something that’s fun and engaging,” he says. “So the games that I’m making, in that sense, they have very little friction for the player; they are meant to not be frustrating. And I think that’s why they feel wholesome in that way. Because a player playing them knows that nothing is gonna jump out at them or attack them or kill them. You’re expecting to have a relatively comfortable experience. But I see that as different from [not being challenging], because the games are still ultimately about themes that are challenging.
“That’s a huge part of why I want to make these games and why I think it actually works really well to have games that have less friction in the design, for players who are really interested in engaging with something on an emotional level…You don’t have to worry that you’re not gonna be able to beat the game because something’s too hard, or punishes you so intensely or something. But you are gonna have a conversation about something that is important.”
After years honing his craft with small, free games, the support Lobanov has received for Chicory on the heels of Wandersong is a meaningful turning point for him as a creator. Its Kickstarter was funded within the first day, it’s been featured in multiple showcases both digitally and at events like PAX, and it’s been picked up by indie publisher Finji, known best for publishing indie darling Night in the Woods.
Lobanov says he’s feeling a bit of “survivor’s guilt” now, having come from so many struggling projects prior to Wandersong and Chicory, and is trying hard not to take the support he now has for granted.
“When I was making Wandersong, I was at no point certain it would even be able to come out, because being able to afford rent was a concern at many points,” he says. “With Chicory, I haven’t had to worry about that. It’s so different.”
And fortunately for Lobanov, that support has meant that Chicory is already successful enough financially, even before it’s launched, that Lobanov will be able to make another game after it without worry. So instead of thinking about selling a certain amount of copies, he says that his hope for Chicory is that its message will resonate with someone.
“The thing that I will feel proud of is if this game comes out and it speaks to an audience in a personal way,” he says. “Basically the way that Wandersong did to some people. It’s great if a lot of people like the game, but what I really hope for is that somebody really connects with it on a deeper level. If it really means a lot to at least one person, that’s what I want for this project, artistically.”
Chicory: A Colorful Tale releases on PC, PS4, and PS5 on June 10, 2021.
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.