I started playing Chicory recently, and there’s so much to admire about the game. I’d even say it’s a great game, with a totally original core idea: instead of going from zone to zone fighting a bunch of creatures and doing the occasional mind-numbing puzzle, you progress by doing art and coloring in the world. But just as often as people talk about Chicory’s novel core idea or incredible soundtrack, they mention something else. They mention the game’s story, and the inspirational themes, and the inspirational themes it serves to struggling artists or creatives of any kind.
Not content to merely challenge players to overcome some obstacle, it seems like a lot of games these days want additional points for relating with the player, perhaps even addressing their mental health – and they’re often rewarded for doing so. A few years ago Celeste was released to overwhelming praise and an outpouring of comments to the effect that the game was some kind of panacea for depression and self-doubt. And over the last few years, the Game Awards even had a category honoring games about “important” subjects called “Games for Impact”, which is typically filled with indie or smaller-studio selections centered around mental health and identity.
This hasn’t been sitting particularly well with me, but it wasn’t until playing Chicory recently that I feel like I was able to start to articulate why.
The thing is, Chicory (and many games like it) want to talk about my mental health; here, it’s my depression and my self-esteem issues. The problem is, Chicory doesn’t really want to go there, does it? Behind the pretext of a conversation is something else, something more (perhaps unintentionally) insidious. Chicory, like Celeste, wants to sell me a sort of commodified answer to the conversation. It wants to acknowledge my struggles, and present me with what is sees as affirmation that my struggles are real, and that I matter.
OK, that’s fine. But I don’t believe it. And isn’t that the case for most people suffering from some form of depression? Unfortunately, these games don’t offer much in terms of solutions or even tools, and there’s nothing for your to learn if you don’t want to. You can embrace the pixely glow of the Chicory’s commodified inspiration or not. It’s up to you. Perhaps you might even be made to feel like not buying or not liking the game is even like pitting yourself against the ideal version of you who wants to overcome your problems.
By the way – I’m not saying I need, or even want, a game that can truly help address the mental health of its players. That’s what professional help is for. But professional help is expensive, and hard to find. More than a few indie games want to be recognized for helping their players deal with mental health issues that should be handled by a trained professional. But are these games real psychology, or are they just a new wave of cutesy, millennial and zoomerfied self-help?