ICO (PlayStation 2) review
"Though intimacy between individuals is one of the most important experiences of the human condition, video games have remained understandably silent on the subject. When attempting to mimic the narrative techniques of films, video games can only come so far – evoking real attachment to polygonal actors is an enormous feat, and one in which most games comically fail. In addition, there are so many negative, misunderstood (cf. Mass Effect on Fox News), and downright misogynist representat..."
Though intimacy between individuals is one of the most important experiences of the human condition, video games have remained understandably silent on the subject. When attempting to mimic the narrative techniques of films, video games can only come so far – evoking real attachment to polygonal actors is an enormous feat, and one in which most games comically fail. In addition, there are so many negative, misunderstood (cf. Mass Effect on Fox News), and downright misogynist representations of romance in games that the subject is generally avoided entirely.
Taking this into consideration, the premise of Ico is surprisingly bold. It takes one of the most reviled gameplay styles, the escort/protection mission in which the player must guide an NPC through some dangerous situation, and expands it into an entire game about the relationship between a young boy and girl who have been held captive in a dilapidated castle. It’s short, sparse on dialogue, sparse on cinematics, sparse on music, offers no bonus for replaying, executes simple puzzles, and is virtually void of difficulty. It’s a crass contrast to conventional ideas of how a game should play and tell its story.
If you approach Ico with the expectation of leveling up and comboing things to death in some sort of grand epic, then you’d be missing the point entirely. I’m not quite sure if “game” is even a fitting word for Ico as it seems like an insult to its artistic integrity. It puts the heavy handed narrative techniques used in most story-driven games, generally games that are attempting to imitate films, to shame. Imagine being placed inside a quasi-surrealistic painting and left to your own bidding – that is Ico in brief; a brilliant, beautiful, and captivating experience that will haunt you long after its final moments.
You are a child named Ico who has been born with horns. For this deformity, he has been taken to a ruined castle on an island, locked in a prison cell, and abandoned. He manages to escape confinement and, after a dream, encounters a radiant girl in a white dress, locked in a cage and suspended high in a tower. Soon after Ico frees her, a shadowy figure appears and attempts to carry her off. Ico fights the shadow off with a stick, grabs the girl (named Yorda) by the hand, and proceeds to lead her through the castle to escape.
This is the basis for the rest of the game – lead Yorda to the castle’s exit while protecting her from shadows. Don’t let this fool you as you will not be fighting shadows very often. When they appear, they generally ignore you anyway and chase after Yorda instead; try to fight them off with a stick and they will hit you back, but only to brush you aside. You have no health bar either, so the only way you can lose your game is if a shadow succeeds in carrying Yorda to a nearby portal in the floor, at which point she will slowly sink away into the ground. Run to her and grab her by the arm, then pull her to safety lest she be imprisoned once again.
The primary purpose of these shadowy enemies is not to challenge you, but rather to unnerve you when you leave Yorda alone. When you are forced to let go of her hand to access an area that she can’t reach, there is always the lingering anxiety in the back of your mind that something could appear and capture her before you can return. I remember the first time this happened to me. I am climbing across a ledge; I am too far to return but I am so close to where I want to be that I decide not to turn back. I reach the other side. As I walk across the floor, I hear a scream. My hands tense up and my arms tremble. I let go of the controller and on the screen Ico stops moving. Half a minute passes. The screen cuts away to a distant room. I see Yorda’s white hand grasping helplessly for mine as she sinks deeper and deeper into a black void. She vanishes and my game ends. I am asked if I would like to continue, but I do nothing. At this point, I realize that I am crying.
At its heart, Ico is a simple adventure game – pull any levers and climb any ladders – what makes it special is the way the bond between Ico and Yorda is developed seamlessly (and often without the player’s notice until they find themselves suddenly touched) as the game is played. Most puzzles involve creating a path for her to follow you by activating elevators, lowering bridges, moving blocks for her to step on, etc. At any time, you can press the R1 button to call to her, at which point she will attempt to move towards you. When she is next to Ico, pressing R1 will cause the pair to hold hands; walking around will then cause Yorda to be tugged along like a child. Though Yorda’s AI path finding can cause her to act strangely at times, such instances are well hidden by the overall impression of Yorda’s helplessness. When you call to her and she paces around as though she isn’t sure how to reach you before you run over and grab her by the hand, there is such pathos, such sympathy for this frightened creature, that I would argue that any oddity in her AI really enhances the immersion the player feels.
Perhaps the most delightful touch is when Yorda must attempt to jump a gap or scale a ledge. If you hold R1 in such situations, Ico will hold out his hand and Yorda will take a few steps back before leaping with all her might in his direction. Often this will result in her grabbing him by the arm and dangling nervously in the air until the player pulls her up. The animations for this are absolutely endearing, as Ico grabs her arm with both hands, leans back, and puts all his weight into pulling her to safety. You will do this many times, and it goes a long way in illustrating the special bond between the two.
You’ll spend so much time either holding her by the hand – this too being extraordinarily touching as well – or in a state of anxiety because you’re not holding her hand, that is it difficult, if you have any sensitivity in your being, to not feel a strong sense of attachment for these characters. Even the smallest details of the game quietly draw attention to this relationship. Saving your game, for example, is done by seating Ico and Yorda on a sofa, having the two hold hands, and watching them fall asleep together. During some of the more complicated puzzles, Yorda will stand in some central area and her face will be following your every movement. Once, I separated from her to climb a ladder and pull a switch. I looked down, and there against the gloomy castle interior I see a beautiful white figure looking up at me. It’s at moments like this when Ico truly shines.
The game makes wonderful use of bloom lighting; textures reflect warm colors, with the surreal image of Yorda perhaps being their source. Distant land and features of the castle are either rendered or pre-rendered – either way, the whole thing looks spectacular. Sometimes you can step out onto a ledge and the camera will pan out across a vast landscape of trees and water and towers in the afternoon sun. There is careful attention to consistency in such instances, such as seeing a bridge far in the distance that you had been standing on naught twenty minutes ago.
The camera is fixed, but you can move it around and zoom in at your pleasure. This works exceptionally well, never preventing you from looking at the things you’d like to examine while still retaining dramatic vantage points. Puzzles are designed in such a way that the camera will direct your eyes to objects and places of interest. This subtlety not only helps the player solve puzzles, but allows them to be solved intuitively, as though the solution was known from the outset.
All of these elements come together to create an experience that is genuinely unlike any other. The narrative is told with minimal interference, and the gameplay is so seamlessly integrated into the narrative that it is very easy to lose one’s self in this fantastic world. This can best be epitomized by a scene in which Yorda and Ico are separated by a small, but widening, gap on a bridge. Yorda is lying helplessly on the other side and Ico is just rising to his feet. As control is returned to the player, the gap between the two has grown to the point that it doesn’t look like you can safely jump across. Every player, without thinking, will jump anyway.
Community review by dagoss (June 21, 2008)
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