In honor of the Grand Opening of Virtual Katz, I got around to playing a game that’s been calling me from its shelf for quite a while – Ico. I have been delaying, for one reason or another, playing this game ever since I finished Shadow of the Colossus, or perhaps more accurately, since Shadow of the Colossus threw me off a cliff and redefined the concept of gaming for me forever more. I think I was a little afraid, rightly so, that Ico couldn’t live up to its purported prequel, which in fact was created later. I’ve run into that problem with several game series, most recently with Mass Effect, which I had trouble transitioning from the second to the original and I thought it might ruin what promised to be such a unique gaming experience. Whether it was because I cushioned the experience with a year of waiting between Shadow and Ico, or whether it was because of the quality of the game itself, Ico is a game surely worth revisiting in its revamped version for the PS3.
First I’d like to give a little credit to Team ICO who craft their games with an attention to detail and mood that speak of love. The company reveals every once in a long while a product a such revelation that it should shake gaming itself, but that goes sadly unheard. I have only seen one other fairly known video game company with a comparable ability to put out games that defy market standards, while setting their own standards for story telling, and that is Thatgamecompany, who recently put out the lauded PS3 game Journey, and who before produced the quiet and relatively undiscovered jewels of Flower and Flow. If you, reading, haven’t experienced at least one game that’s come out from Team ICO or Thatgamecompany, do yourself a favor, sit down, and enjoy a rarely visited but beautiful vista of worlds.
In the first shot of Ico we look at an ancient forest and understand that we’ve left what we’ve known far behind. Three masked men on horseback wordlessly carry a horned boy down a forest path. We have no idea why he has horns or they, masks, but we know its not good. When the trees open, we see a platform of stone. A bird calls somewhere. The camera pulls back and over a gulf of sea, a titanic castle sits suspended like stone crown upon an archipelago of cliffs. From the first, the castle makes itself known to us. It is a presence. It is waiting. Here we meet three of the five presences that people this stark landscape – the boy, Ico, the villagers, and the castle.
The men take the boy down a set of stairs to a boat and row the boat to a small cove beneath one wing of the castle. Though they haven’t said much until then, a sense of doom and blame pervades these scenes. Later, after they ride up an elevator, a man mutters an apology to the boy as he imprisons him in a stone chamber, saying its for the good of the village. Nearly alone in the gargantuan castle, filled with small stone chambers for what we can assume were other horned boys, the man, speaking barely above a whisper, manages to speak volumes. You get the feeling that he’s forbidden to speak to the boy – this is his job and a rule is that you don’t speak to the horned children. The men leave, the chamber begins to shake, and Ico frees himself. Climbing a tower, he meets Yorda, a beautiful young girl and your only constant companion, other than the stones of the castle.
Ico accomplishes most of its story telling in silence and you could reduce the entire transcript of the game to a three by five cue card. However, the sparse lines spoken are heavy with meaning. Actually, the entire game feels heavy with meaning even though not much happens and it only takes an afternoon to beat. That castle lodged itself more firmly in my imagination than many settings of books or video games that I’ve spent hours in and managed to speak more than other characters who had lines and lines to waste. The castle spoke with melancholy sunlit stones and the tired promise of machinery which turn on and on until they fall apart, their purpose already long forgotten and fading. The castle, which is its own character in that cast of five, and which acts as the main impediment to Ico, never feels malicious for all the obstacles it throws in your path. I felt like the castle was always aware that it was keeping me from leaving, and about the whole issue, felt a distant and weary regret for its role and sadness about my plight. The crumbling palace has the glacial consciousness of a god.
Only a few enemies lurk around the castle to battle and even they are not much more than shadows that gather in the corner (very literally), sunlight, and steep falls off the castle battlements. The shadows, which can only knock you down, are only threatening because they will take Yorda away from you and return her to that fifth presence I mentioned earlier, but won’t explain. The history of this world, the castle, the village and the boys with horns, is a mystery that is never explained but it feels cogent enough to support the story. The castle – which can be extended to be a metaphor for the world of Ico or the world itself – doesn’t need explanation though. It’s mystery is as mundane as existence. Rather, the game focuses on the relationship between Ico and Yorda by touching on the disturbingly powerful connection between a young boy and the older girl he idolizes. I think every young man can remember the girl who, to him, exemplified strength and purity when he began to grow troubled about the world. Yorda recalled those feelings, no matter times I wanted to throw my controller when her AI went nuts. My palms began to itch when I had to leave Yorda alone for longer than a minute and there were moments I caught myself gasping if she had to jump a gorge. Brilliantly, the creators of the game made verbal communication impossible between Yorda and Ico for reasons I won’t spoil, and of course, to make a point about human communication. I had moments of guilt if I swung my sword too close to Yorda and she made a noise of fear and there were times when I pulled her along to quickly and she stumbled and my heart broke. I felt cruel. All game making companies should look to this game when they inevitably introduce a romance character in their stories – which frequently end up annoying. Yorda, who annoyed me mechanically because of flaws in her AI, made me fall in love. The connection between Yorda and Ico rather arises out of something visceral, something so fundamental it lays beneath the river of language, in the mud of human consciousness.
Overall, I can’t say that this game is for everyone. It’s not a puzzle game but when I look at categories to fit this little enigma of a story into, its the one that fits the best. Honestly, Ico breaks puzzle games, if its to be called a puzzle. Furthermore, while Ico tells its story in subtle ways – in bird calls and ocean noise, going as far as to give Ico a tunic that makes you melancholy when the wind flutters through it – it lacks the polish of its successor, Shadow of the Colossus. The shadow enemies felt tedious to me when they broke the sunlit spell of the castle. It’s a strange thing to say about a video game, but I wish there would have been less to do except for navigating the landscape. Shadow of the Colossus, of course, solves this problem by emptying the landscape except for a baker’s dozen of the best boss battles in history.
With all of its faults, Ico should be viewed as a major break for gaming and a success in a new genre that still, after years of being developed, lacks a name. There’s nothing more to be said. Go find Yorda.
My rating: 8.4