By GrantHeaslip 4 Comments
I know, I’m eleven years late to the party, but I finally played Ico. Writing up impressions of an art(ish) game originally intended for the PlayStation 1 is tough, because there are things Ico does well that we now take for granted but at the time were groundbreaking, are there are things it does badly that game design has evolved to compensate for. I have complaints about the way the Ico is structured and the way it plays, but I can also see how these faults happened, and in some respects, how they serve the narrative. So with that out of the way, here’s my thoughts:
Let’s just get this out of the way: Ico looks amazing. Playing it in 1080p, widescreen, and a solid framerate obviously helps, but from what I’ve seen of the PS2 version, the assets and effects are basically the same. I think Ico looks pretty good as a 2012 game — in the context of it being developed for the PS1 and retooled as an early PS2 game, it’s astounding. It’s one of those games that shows that strong, cohesive art direction is way more important than technical prowess.
Ico portrays a very effective combination of beauty and despair. Some areas of the castle are lush — you’re often looking out onto some serene vistas — but you’re also working your way through a dark castle full of shadowy sacrificed children who want to imprison Yorda and consume Ico. In the look of the game, like many other parts of it, Ueda is playing with duality, but not with the cheesy dark-world/light-world tropes that so many games fall back on.
Near the end of the game, the castle begins to get a bit repetitive and bland looking, but my sense is that this is the point — it’s an abandoned fortress, and as such, is supposed to convey impenetrability and strength above all else. The whole premise of the game is contingent on you not feeling like you can escape, and in that sense, the castle’s design works well.
I may be reading into them far too much, but I thought Yorda and Ico’s character designs convey something about adolescence that few games ever address. Both characters’ animations bring to mind the period of childhood when your mind and body are somewhat out of sync — movements are earnest, but also uncertain. The little intricacies of the hand-holding, like how Yorda kind of jerks back when Ico starts running too quickly, really add believability, and the way Yorda’s height leads Ico to have to hold his arm up awkwardly, again brings to mind the uneven growth of boys and girls.
Yorda, being on the verge of womanhood but also presumably the target of abuse, seems particularly unsure of herself and her body. She also conveys a sense of purity and helplessness that, whether or not you think it’s anti-feminist or a bit creepy, is something the Japanese tend to do really well.
Sound & Music
Ico has little music, few sound effects, and almost no voice acting, but it makes it count. Even when it’s not actively making noise, it’s got some of the best atmospheric sound I’ve heard, whether it be howling wind at the top of a tower, or oblivious birds chirping in a garden. I love the pitter-patter and echo of your footsteps as you run through the world.
Before you even hit the title screen, Ico’s score is already setting the tone. This ethereal but vaguely dissonant tracks plays as Ico, bound on horseback, is being led to the castle.
This track (especially the first few seconds), played as Ico escapes the heart of the castle, is nicely representative of the way the game portrays the castle’s darkness — a mix of otherworldly mysticism and simmering foreboding.
In the context of the scene, in which Ico is fighting a seemingly never-ending stream of shadows while trying to vain to protect Yorda’s petrified body, this track is extremely effective. It projects an aura of hopelessness, gloom, and immutable forces outside of Ico’s control.
This track uses musical themes from earlier in the game, but sounds hopeful rather than foreboding as the castle falls apart and the evil within it is (presumably) purged.
The Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection unfortunately kind of spoils this track by putting it on the game select screen, but it was still startlingly effective as it played over flashbacks. Ending with a folk song about the game’s events is a neat way of lending what happened more gravity.
Here’s where things kind of fall apart for me. In an admittedly reductive sense, Ico is a 6 hour escort mission. This is one thing during combat, when Yorda being caught is the only fail condition and thus basically a gameplay element, but she ends up just being a pain in the ass when you’re exploring and puzzle solving.
It’s in your best interest to have Yorda on hand (ideally literally) whenever possible, so you’re often stuck running back to grab her hand, waiting while she confusedly pathfinds to your position, or as she climbs ladders one rung at a time while you go grab a drink. Nothing about this is fun — even leading her by hand involves a maddening (though admittedly nicely tactile) delay as she jerks in your direction.
You’re often forced to leave Yorda behind when you’re traversing, and to my knowledge, in most of these instances there’s a risk shadows will show up. I’m somewhat torn on this, because in one sense, it’s very effective from a storytelling perspective, since it gives the player a sense of paranoia without any narrative cues or big sticks. I really was scared Yorda was going to be taken away, even if a large catalyst for that was not wanting to replay a chunk of the game. But from a pure gameplay perspective, I was often left wondering if I was missing a way of bringing Yorda along, speculating as to what my time limit might be, and generally having no good idea of the rules of the game.
Other game mechanics are similarly clumsy. The combat feels very loose and animation-weighted, which is especially problematic when one hit can leave you in a very precarious position. That said, once I learned to avoid finishing the three-hit combo if I was at risk of being attacked, combat generally ended up being easy.
The traversal — which I’m sure was very impressive at the time, especially animation-wise (Ico was one of the first games to use key frame animation) — often doesn’t convey what is and isn’t possible, leaving you scratching your head or making blind jumps in ways that feel cheap and leave you angrily backtracking. And this is all assuming you even know where you’re supposed to be going, which also isn’t always the case. Especially compared to modern platforming games, which tend to use clear visual cues to convey what’s possible and where you need to go, Ico feels dated.
What makes Ico so interesting
When people talk about Ico in glowing terms, they’re usually talking about the world Ico creates, not necessarily the act of playing it. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that if you took the gameplay of Ico and dropped it in a flat, lifeless setting, you wouldn’t be left with a very good game.
Ico is, at the very least, a unique world. The mysterious nature of the fortress, Ico’s reason for being there, Yorda’s nature, the world outside the walls. and the feelings behind Ico and Yorda’s non-verbal relationship makes for a game that people will rightfully make a lot of apologies for. It’s the little things — like the way Yorda is so prone to flinching and the way she patiently waits for Ico to wake up when you load a save — but it’s also the big, bold choices like the sparing use of music, tiny-yet-cohesive setting, gameplay mechanics that line up with the narrative (the no-saving/sleeping-till-Yorda-is-safe ending being a prime example, like it or not), and lack of active storytelling and dialogue.
When Yorda rescued Ico with what seemed to be the last of her humanity (let’s pretend the cop-out after-credits scene didn’t happen) as You Were There kicked in, even I — a guy who’s been fairly described as disconcertingly unemotional — came pretty close to tearing up. It’s one of the best endings I’ve seen in any medium.
There isn’t much out there like Ico, and while there’s plenty to criticize about Ico, you can’t accuse Fumito Ueda of not having original ideas. It’s a game that will stick with me much longer than others that are, in an unemotional sense, better, and it will undoubtedly punch well above its weight when we look back at that era in gaming. It’s a rare example of extreme and untainted artistic authorship in a medium of safe, marketable, and focus-tested games.