(Backstory: At one point this year, I was going to start a website. A few of you knew, a few of you were asked to work on it, et cetera. Well, that collapsed. This was the first review that was going to go up on the website.)
Life is full and wonderful. There are things of all kinds; materials, distractions, ideas, people, animals, energy, light, shadows, and tools. Of course, the development of tools is a hallmark of the development of the bizarre happening that is humanity. It’s easy to take the amazing variety of everything for granted. To consider the scope of all that currently exists would probably take up a large amount of time, likely taken from other, comforting tasks. I’ve personally lost myself in the things that surround me many times, taking almost bizarre fascination in the number of objects that currently occupy my own room. Hours spent inspecting doorknobs, wheels, pencil lead, and anything else that I see as being interesting on that day.
It would be strange to say, on my first review for a website, that I used to take video games for granted. They were pastimes, hobbies, and many other things, but they had never really taken the time to show me they could be anything else. Although I invested time in the pursuit of the independent scene, they either served as good ideas, or good distractions. In all this time of searching, I never really had found a game that would take me into itself as books did in my youth, and music in my adolescence. It seemed almost impossible for the medium to grab me by the throat and pull me along instead of just gently pushing me where it intended me to go.
In November of 2008, I jokingly suggested to Jeremy that we should do the game “Shadow of the Colossus” in review form for our not-very-old podcast, the Broken Lampcast. Our previous experiences with it were less than ideal. He was frustrated by mechanics, and I by the barrenness of the terrain, even if it was supposed to prove a point. The point it was trying to prove didn’t prevent me from feeling as if I was wasting my time traversing between admittedly exhilarating gameplay.
I got it stuck in my head that, maybe, possibly, in order to understand “Shadow of the Colossus”, which is widely seen as the better game from Team ICO, I should play the prior, inferior title they made. Even my writing heroes at Action Button Dot Net have made this claim, including “Shadow of the Colossus” as their game from the Team ICO ‘series.’ My expectations were low, and I was ready to just play another video game.
It refused to be.
I’m not about to claim that ICO is transcendent of video games, because I do not believe the days of transcendent video games have yet arrived while they remain trapped in this loop of sequels, big budgets, and ‘awesome’ mindedness. But, whatever game ends up being the one to transcend what being a video game means, it will have taken a majority of its cues from ICO. Everything that is video game-like in ICO doesn’t come off as such. In fact, it takes extraordinary efforts to not remind you it is a video game.
I was trying to get perspective and I ended up with revelation. The more I played, the more I wanted to play. The more I saw, the more I wanted to see. Every single moment of this game consumed me, and at points left me wistful.
For the people who have never seen this game, the “goal” of the game is to escape this massive, gorgeously unsettling castle, and helping the single other person you’ve found in this desolate structure also make it out alive. The player controls a young boy who acts entirely how you play, and the girl is how storybooks make damsels in distress out to be.
The difference is both of these characters are genuinely pitiable. The boy is taken to this castle, left to be devoured because of circumstances he had no control over. It is by sheer luck that he is able to escape his tomb, and he is left to himself, and to his own devices, in this enormous maze, this building that was never meant to be something to escape from. The girl looks thin and wispy likely because she is malnourished and unfit; when the boy finds her, she is trapped inside of a cage. There’s no way for anyone to know just how long she has spent inside this chamber, or why she was there- at least, not at the beginning of the game.
The interaction between the two is entirely how the player chooses to make it. I felt a twinge of guilt every single time I ran too fast and ended up pulling her along as she ran as fast as she could. Every time I had to leave her alone, I felt dread about leaving her out of my sight, over not being able to make it back in time in case something happened. There were even points when, urging her along, I spoke to her; softly, but urgently. This didn’t seem weird to me until Jeremy pointed it out as such. And in that brief moment, I was drawn out of what spell ICO had cast.
Until that one moment, I was in that world. I was holding a sword I had found, that I had gone to great efforts to retrieve. Slowly but surely, the girl and I had worked towards escape, through obstacle after obstacle. When the nature of her imprisonment was revealed, I was left indignant and determined, but I knew I didn’t have a plan. She probably knew too. So, instead of discussing, we merely went looking for another way out.
Then I was back on the couch. I was gripping the controller, looking over at the world I was actually in, and the people in it. For a moment, my mind rejected it, pulling me back towards the screen. But instead, I took a break to take it all in. I still have to stop and take it all in, even months since I had last played. It has colored every single other experience I’ve had with video games, and it’s completely changed what I know video games to be. It renewed my love in video games, and my utter fascination with what they can be and what they are becoming.