The blank canvas. It’s where almost every creative project begins. In the case of Chicory, it’s also where your adventure begins: a colourless world that practically begs you to fill it with paint. And that blank canvas? For director Greg Lobanov, it wasn’t the beginning at all, but rather the result of many months of effort. “I tried a bunch of prototypes, for a long time. I made a lot of bad ideas.”
Development of Chicory began even before Lobanov’s previous game, Wandersong, was complete. “There’s always that period of time where you can’t really touch anything, and the game’s not out yet,” he says. “So I just started thinking about what I would do next.” This non-stop work is typical for Lobanov, it seems. “The thing about Greg is, Greg’s always making things,” says Lena Raine, composer of the game’s score. “The moment that something’s done, he’ll be onto the next.”
Alexis Dean-Jones, who would become Chicory’s artist and animator but at this point in development just happened to be Lobanov’s housemate, remembers the project’s beginnings: “I would come home from work at the end of the day, and Greg would either be like, ‘Grr’, working on bugs for Wandersong, or he would be really excited about this new thing.” It’s easy to relate: there’s nothing that reinvigorates the creative process quite like the feeling that you should be working on something else. But more than that, we get the sense that Lobanov is fundamentally happiest when he has a blank canvas, stressful as it might be to decide what will be painted on it.
All that existed at this point was the seed of an idea. Where Wandersong had been all about creativity in the musical sense, next Lobanov wanted to tackle visual art: “I’d seen games that had drawing in them, but I hadn’t seen a game where drawing was actually your way of interacting with the world, and it was focused on creativity.” An exciting opportunity, perhaps, but also a problem, because it meant Lobanov had no easy reference points to work from. “It was really, really hard to find a way to work that [concept] into a game design.”
At first, he began with Wandersong – “like, literally copied and pasted the project” – and added the ability to draw platforms for the character to jump on. “That just seemed natural. But it was really bad. I mean, it worked, but no good game was going to come from that.” The problem, he says, was creating challenge for the player. If you were free to create your own route to the exit, then level design was meaningless. But if he applied restrictions, such as areas where the player couldn’t draw, or a limited quantity of ink, that undermined the core concept. “Now you’re just solving a physics puzzle, and you’re not even thinking about drawing pictures,” he says. “A lot of the ideas were wrong in that kind of way where it wasn’t creative any more, it was just a problem-solving game.”
Various other prototypes were considered and rejected. “We were trying to think of, what’s a problem that could be solved by you drawing?” Eventually, after a lot of “cycling the idea in my head over and over again,” Lobanov finally found the reference point he needed: The Legend Of Zelda, and the sequels that kept the original’s top-down view. “That was a huge thing,” he remembers, “because it made the whole screen a canvas that the player could draw on.”
“Once I figured that out, I was just drawing different game mechanic ideas in my sketchbook.” He quickly filled three or four pages with ideas. “And basically every drawing on those pages was just the entire ten-hour game.” All the fundamental building blocks of Chicory’s puzzles and dungeons – flowers that grow and shrink, bubbles that explode when loaded with paint, doors unlocked by join-the-dots puzzles – arrived in a rush, bringing with them the challenge that first prototype had so sorely lacked.
There was, however, one major epiphany left: that the game world would begin in black and white. “There was a while where I didn’t even know that,” Lobanov says. “I was thinking of a colour world where you just drew on top of it.” And there it finally was: a blank canvas, waiting for you to leave your mark on it.
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