After the past few weeks of hype from all the big publishers, it can be easy for smaller games to get swept under the rug. But if there’s one game you shouldn’t let pass you by, it’s Chicory: A Colorful Tale, which happened to release the same day as Summer Game Fest kicked off.
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Playing as a plucky dog armed with a magic paintbrush on an adventure to restore colour to the world, it’s a delightfully playful twist on classic Zelda games that also shares inspiration from other Nintendo gems like Earthbound, Paper Mario, and even Splatoon.
But what truly elevates it from a charming indie to a real game of the year contender is an honest story about the pressures of fame, creativity, and the self-doubt and anxiety that will cut deep for anyone who’s ever experienced impostor syndrome. You could go as far as calling it this year’s Celeste, arguably one of the most important indie titles in recent years. It’s an apt comparison since the two games share the same composer Lena Raine, whose mixture of synths and piano were every bit as important in conveying Celeste’s 8-bit twitch-platforming and its emotionally impactful story. Her music plays just as important a role in Chicory, whose developers Greg Lobanov (writer/director), Alexis Dean-Jones (character artist/animator), Madeline Berger (environment artist), and Em Halberstadt (sound designer), are also equally credited together rather than under any studio.
Of course, when Lobanov first reached out to Raine to collaborate on Chicory, it would have been easy and perhaps a likely expectation to build on the MIDI melodies of Celeste, especially in a project that takes inspiration from SNES-era games. But having gotten her first big break scoring Guild Wars 2, which was all about grand live orchestral sounds, she was also eager to explore a different musical direction, as she explained to me as we chatted over an audio call.
“For Chicory, I definitely wanted to push in more of a live instrumental direction,” she said. ”I wanted to bring a tactile feeling of playing instruments. Because the game experience is so closely tied to that intimate painting feeling, with thick brush strokes and wet paint, I felt the sound design and the music could come closer together if there was more of a live close-mike feel to it.”
It wasn’t just about using acoustic instruments as Raine also took a deliberate choice of using old baroque instruments but played them in a modern style. Taking the inspiration of the old and applying it to the modern era can also be seen with how she took inspiration from classic games but without mimicking the chiptune aesthetic.
“One of my favourite things about revisiting genres from older games is that you can pull musical inspirations from those places but put them in a modern context,” she explains. “For instance, an old Zelda game has this looping wallpaper background music that just keeps playing.”
“We wanted to kind of do it in a more modern way, making a lot of live-recorded instruments, and then also transitioning to different versions of the same theme depending on how far away you are from the core area, so you might leave the screen just outside of town and suddenly it switches or fades to a slightly smaller instrumentation, or fade away as you go into the next area.”
That said, Chicory still has its share of electronic bangers, which ties in the game’s darker confrontations where the chill adventure pacing gives way to frenetic bullet-hell boss battles. “I took this mysterious corruption that’s draining colour from the world in a literal way by processing acoustic instruments through distortion pedals and effects,” says Raine. “It gives it the feeling of taking the original source and twisting it to make this big electronic weirdness that you’re unsure about.”
There’s an even wider variety of music in the game, unique to each location in the top-down world of Picnic – food is a common theme throughout Chicory including your own character who’s called Pizza by default, or whatever your favourite food is. A personal favourite you’ll be sure to hear often is when call your parents at payphones. Besides harking back to Earthbound, it also serves as a gentle way to get help on what to do next (even if you don’t need help, it’s worth sticking around for some very hilarious dadsplaining moments).
“A lot of the younger generation now probably doesn’t have the experience of going to a payphone to call your parents, but I had a very specific point of reference,” Raine laughs. “I went to summer camp when I was a kid, and there was one payphone on campus. So dialing the 100 Collect number, saying my name, checking in with my parents – that memory is crystallised for me, so I really wanted to capture that feeling of just calling home and checking in.”
More attentive listeners however will also notice some of the same themes will repeat themselves across many tracks, which was intentional for Raine to convey the feelings and arcs of the two main characters, your character Pizza and Chicory, your idol.
“I always like to approach a project with leitmotifs and character themes in mind because it really helps me connect all of the music together.” she explains. “Their themes are kind of based on the same musical material – one is a bit more chipper and eager, and the other one is a little more slow and elegant. I really wanted to play those two themes against each other so when you hear them in whatever context they’re in, you’re thinking to yourself, maybe this is what’s going through these characters’ heads.”
That focus is important since the story is so closely entwined with your relationship with Chicory, who goes from someone you’ve put on a pedestal to one you’re fighting against, before becoming a mentor, and even a peer. The way that relationship changes over the course of the game is then conveyed through how their themes also evolve in the music.
“I think it’s really wonderful to take a theme like that, see where it goes, and keep throwing it against a whole bunch of different situations to see how it reacts, because that’s my character development, that’s what I can contribute to the story of the game,” Raine adds.
The story’s themes on the pressures of being a public artist, whose work is out in the world for everyone to admire and scrutinise, is naturally one that each of Chicory’s creators could certainly resonate with. Yet there was also a unique pressure for Raine when it turns out one of your trails in becoming a Wielder involves, just like in Celeste, climbing a mountain.
She laughs, “Oh no, another song about climbing a mountain! There was definitely a lot of pressure there where I very much felt like, okay, I have to do something different this time. But I think I was able to put it within the context of the game and still make it feel genuine to that moment.”
Indeed, reaching the mountain’s summit leads to the game’s standout moment, where the two characters sing a song that never fails to hit me in the feels. It’s difficult to communicate why it’s so effective without playing it, but it’s a surprising combination of reading the emotionally vulnerable and honest lyrics (“They’re watching me / but they can’t see / how scared I am / at all”) that appear on screen and form a rhythm game, as the song itself is delivered via synthesis.
“Since the game isn’t voiced, we wanted to come up with a way of presenting their singing voices that wasn’t necessarily English,” Raine explains. “Almost as a metaphor between them, I took a Super Nintendo vocal sample for Pizza, while Chicory uses Vocaloid – the same technology that does Hatsune Miku – which I then invented nonsense syllables to convey the rhythmic timing of the song. So you have a very basic early synthesis vocal sample versus the most advanced synthetic voice doing this duet.”
Nonetheless, by the time we reach the credits, the song returns in English after all, the beautiful irony is that it’s performed by none other than Emi Evans, best known for her ethereal vocals sung in a fictional language in the Nier series. Her surprise collaboration turned out to be a happy coincidence, with another Celeste connection.
“Emi’s manager worked with me on a Celeste arrangement album Prescription for Sleep,” says Raine. “So when we were considering a vocal theme for the en And so I worked with him on arranging that album way back when Celeste came out, and since he also manages Emi, we were considering a vocal theme for Chicory’s ending, I thought, let’s see if Emi’s available and can take some time away from Nier for our little indie game. So her manager put me in touch, she loved the song, and sang it beautifully, and I’m just so happy that we were able to make that connection happen.”