Image Credit: Press kit image used with special thanks to the developers Greg Lobanov, Alexis Dean-Jones, Lena Raine, Madeline Berger, A Shell in the Pit.
Games have long since grown up. For some years they have been able to deal with adult topics, and I’m not talking about sex and violence. The troubles of being a young adult returning home have been explored in games like Little Red Lie or more famously in Night in the Woods, horrific personal tragedy in That Dragon Cancer, or saying goodbye like in To The Moon and Spiritfarer.
One of the most common topics for games is mental illness and health. It’s a pretty obvious topic to choose – all the metaphors of ‘the dark dog’ or encroaching darkness can easily be made manifest as enemies which you can then overcome by not-so metaphorically beating the snot? out of them. This has not, however, always been successful. Even heavy hitting indies such as Fractured Minds or Sea of Solitude, rather bungled their attempts resulting in confused abstraction, obviousness to the point of hilarity and ultimately bad games.
So, it’s in this context that two new games Chicory: A Colorful Tale and Minute of Islands have been released, each with a more subtle and earnest attempt at dealing with mental health than some of those that have come before – whilst both also attempting to offer actual gameplay.
Minute of Islands is by far the weaker of the two. It offers a stunning art style that deliberately invokes a children’s picture book but is filled with dark and disgusting images. But once you get past the first meeting with the giant ‘Stefan’ and the screen filled with a beached, rotting and fungus-infected whale, it offers little more to shock or surprise. Chicory uses a much simpler line art for everything from the buildings to the characters - again in a fairly deliberate childish way which also twins well with your ability to colour in everything and anything at will. The art style leaves less of an impression but can far more easily draw your eye to details which get lost in the colour explosion with the other title.
Chicory also offers much better gameplay – a kind of Zelda style puzzling using your increasing painterly powers which can be fun, if a little simple, even when doing the harder optional routes for goodies along with a handful of fun side activities to keep mixing things up. Minute of Islands on the other hand, has only simple, floaty platforming and never truly expands beyond moving from point A to point B with the collectables. It offers no more challenge other than walking out of your way to find them and only rewarding you with uninteresting snippets of information which route you in place as they try to fill out the main character Mo’s back story.
The interesting crux of the games though, is perhaps how they deal with mental health. It’s here where Minute of Islands shows its strengths. The artwork alone is enough to give anyone attempting to analyse it material enough for an essay. Mo’s journey starts as an important mission but eventually reveals itself as a doomed, stubborn quest that should long since have been abandoned. However, it is the complex metaphorical layers of Mo’s journey that really speak to the theme of mental health.
Meanwhile, Chicory uses formless darkness to explore mental health issues. The land is threatened by a physical manifestation of the negative feelings of all the mystical wielders of the paintbrush that you are handed, as the titular character sinks into a deep depression. In coming into the power of being a wielder you must work alongside the depressed former wielder and work not only on their problems but also your own by both emotionally growing through talking and understanding but also the occasional paint brush centred combat.
Overall Chicory forms a better game. Although it may not match the depth, subtlety or wow factor of Minute of Islands, it is simply more engaging to play. Both offer a better experience than many of the offerings that came before them but it’s pretty obvious which one is more likely to call me to return to it when I feel the need to explore mental health through a game.