I’m always looking back to find good games that I missed playing at their time of release. In this case I recently got access to a Playstation 2 for the first time, and decided to take advantage. Ico, a minimalistic, puzzle-based, action-adventure game created in Japan in 2001, is an astonishingly fresh experience, and a contender for the single best computer game I have played to date.
In the game, you play the title character, a young boy born with horns who is imprisoned in an ancient castle as a sacrifice. It is granted that you must escape, but what really makes this game a beautiful work is the interaction you have with a captive girl you find locked in a cage at the start of the game. Yorda speaks an unknown language, and is in the castle for unknown reasons; she shines, and as soon as you release her shadowy creatures are after her. The relationship you build with Yorda as the game’s story unfolds, developed entirely through body language and character action, is an astonishing achievement, and unprecedented in my computer gaming experience. There are so many good things about this game, that I will have to back up.
First of all, the aesthetic of the game: the world where you play is breathtakingly beautiful. Not just beautiful, but moody and haunting. I first realized the full impact of the visuals early on, when I was walking up a long winding flight of stairs to investigate a cage hanging from the ceiling of a tall tower. I walked around and around and around, and I realized that in any other game I would have been annoyed by what would inevitably be the tedium of holding a button and waiting for my character to get where he was going. Not so in Ico. In Ico, walking up those stairs was a revelation of how captivating a game’s aesthetics can be: the scene, the artistic style, the colors, the camera placement… all were perfect, and together created an almost hypnotic pull. From that moment on I was, for the most part, glued to my screen. Ruined mead halls, maze-like corridors, dark passageways, wet and breathing caves, wonderfully airful balconies and parapets: all were equally well realized. The game’s music and sound, minimalistic in the style of the visuals, always served the mood well.
Which brings me to Ico’s level design. Again, a contender for the best level design I have ever seen. In most games, level design is more or less limited to individual rooms, which can be strung together in any way the designer wants (think different levels in Packman); in Ico, by contrast, the entire game takes place within a single castle, where every room (a design challenge in itself) must flawlessly fit together within the overall design of the castle. Consider that this castle is mammoth, and that you frequently forget that the world entire does not consist of the single room or area you happen to be located in. Consider that what you see at one point in the game from a balcony or window turns up several chapters later, when you thought you were going in a completely different direction, but then realize that all your windings have not defied the laws of 3D space at all, but have of course brought you here; and now that you are here you can of course go this way, and use that object, and then proceed toward that other area that you saw a few steps back, that will lead you where you need to go. I’m afraid my jabbering cannot do the thing justice: suffice it to say that the experience never ceases to amaze. The cleverness of it all, and the integrity…
Themes (spoiler warning)
What about the game’s themes? There is the question of identity: who am I? What is my purpose? Do my horns define me? Does my isolation? Does my role in another person’s life? Does my ability to protect? There is darkness and light. By golly this game actually stripped some of my fear of dark places: sometimes you just have to go through them. Sometimes you have to live in them, but sometimes they’re okay; sometimes you’ll be attacked, but you know that. There is imprisonment and escape: themes that can easily be read metaphorically. Then there is everything to do with companionship: loneliness and isolation softened by the presence of another; that profound and inexplicable nature of friendship and shared experience: the mystery of basic interaction that turns into trust and love; the comfort of not needing to say anything; the fear of losing a person; the agony of being unable to save them; hope.
Can these themes be adequately addressed in a mere game? Well, in Ico there is a point where you have finally made it to the front gates of the castle, and you have opened them, and you see before you a bridge leading across the void to the world and freedom. This is what you have been working towards the whole game: this is your goal, the end. So you start running across the bridge with Yorda’s hand in yours. Then suddenly, she collapses. The bridge is made of two parts which meet in the middle: Yorda collapses immediately behind the meeting place, and you are immediately in front of it. The bridge starts to separate. There are causes, and elements of the story here that I cannot get into, but the important point is this: as soon as that bridge started to separate I jumped across without a second thought, to get back to Yorda; despite the fact that my freedom was on the other side, and slipping away; despite the fact that I thought I was meant to leave Yorda at the castle; despite the fact that the gap was too far, and I went falling to my death. I had to pause for several minutes after this as I pondered the attachment I had developed to this non-player character. Not unusual in a book, or a film, but quite unusual where computer games are concerned. I did not jump across that chasm to be cute, or to try to get to an alternate ending, or because I thought the game required it: I jumped across because I felt a need to get back to Yorda. The emotions that this game invokes are real, and strong.
To quickly touch on hope: in the final scene of the game Ico wakes on a beach after seeing Yorda imprisoned once again, and the castle destroyed. You make your way along the beach, shaken by the credit sequence and everything you’ve been through, and then you see Yorda is on the beach too. A simple scene that in fact forces us to make a very significant decision about what we believe. Is this real, or is it a “dream?” You can try to explain how it could be real, but every option seems highly improbable; at the same time, this beach world is presented by the game in the same way that the “real world” is. We are into the realm of afterlife, illusion, and the nature of reality. As my good friend Matthew Fisher points out, depending on how you answer, “you can claim that the game demonstrates that love overcomes all obstacles, or that the emotional ‘closeness’ represented by the clasped hands of Ico and Yorda is a fleeting but beautiful dream, or that good hearts may shine but even the purest intentions may be subsumed to the machinations of evil, or a number of other things…”
Ico’s mechanics are not new, but they are utilized in a fresh way. I have heard people complain that Ico is a glorified puzzle game, and ultimately this is true, and not true. It is true, because, yes, the gameplay consists mainly in solving fairly linear puzzles: generally you must interact with your environment to make it passable, for you, and more importantly for Yorda, who is not quite as physically capable or strong. But at the same time the accusation must be approached cautiously, because to say that something is “just a glorified x” is to some extent beg the question at hand (whether it is worthwhile, significant). Because at the end of the day you can say that just about anything is “just a glorified x.” The Bible is just a glorified book, and books are just glorified words, and words are glorified pieces of nothingness. The mechanics of Ico are not new, but their implementation is very good, and fairly unique.
Is Ico a perfect game? I don’t think so. I think we have to be careful putting a game like this into a box like “glorified puzzle game,” or “glorified movie,” but the fact that these boxes come to mind points to some truth, as stereotypical labeling often does. Playing Ico is a beautiful and thought-provoking experience, but sometimes when you are playing it, trying to solve a puzzle, it is just another puzzle game. Sometimes it is frustrating, sometimes it feels shallow, sometimes contrived (though much less so than most puzzle games I have ever played). But it is still an exceptional and landmarking achievement, and at times it is breathtaking. If you care at all about the interactive medium I would go so far as to say that you need to play this game.
Issue #2 of The Gamer’s Quarter features a nice point/counterpoint debate regarding Ico vs. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (another game that features guiding an NPC to safety).