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Ico: Feel the Love

November 9, 2004 review

(Two notes. First, I wrote this several months ago, back in May. Second, this articles contains “hidden” spoilers. They won’t reveal themselves until you click as instructed. Otherwise, you should be able to read it without worry.)

I recently tracked down and finished Ico, the PS2’s landmark puzzle game and general game geek favorite. I’m happy I did.

In Ico, you play the titular young boy with horns who is sailed to an abandoned castle, resting atop a cliff which is jutting out the water off the shore. (Got it?) Once chained and left alone, happenstance steps in. You are freed and begin your lengthy quest to escape from the castle.

The game has two important strengths that need to be considered in this review: puzzles and light and space. Being a puzzle game, the puzzle element seems obvious. But I found myself almost equally interested, if not more so, in the way light is used in the game. I’ll also get into the negative, which is the narrative aspect of the game.

puzzles

The puzzles weren’t, in themselves, a revolution in puzzling. Pull levers, push blocks. This is pretty well-travelled territory in 3D (and, really, 2D) mind-teasers. The important element here is Yorda.

Yorda is the princess you, as Ico, discover and release from a cage early in the game. She is weak and can do little more than walk where you lead her. This brings up a tangential point I’ll get to later on. But the way this alters your progression through the castle is the significant difference of Ico.

I’m not enough of a game historian to claim this as being the first use of this mechanic, but I’m at least tentatively willing to say this is the first time its use was central to a game’s design. If The Legend of Zelda copies it (as it did in Wind Waker), you know its something worth looking into.

If Ico were by himself, the game may have been half as long. But in guiding Yorda to places he can get easily, you must generally take detours that open up secondary, simpler routes for her. This leads to moments of contemplation, frustration, and relief. It also keeps you from getting selfish, which is a remarkably rare concept in games.

But — and this is a

*****SPOILER WARNING*****


click to show spoiler

***** END SPOILER *****

It’s not so much a problem that she slows you down, but rather that she becomes a frustrating management issue. Put her here, wait for her to climb, move her there. And I’m not entirely sure why leading her by the hand causes the spring-like bounce as Ico and Yorda run, but it was by far the most aggravating aspect of movement. This leads to a frustration that breaks gameplay enjoyment.

light and space

Once outside the castle, the sun washes over the landscape. Because of the castle’s location, you can view long into the distance at the cliffs across the water and, also significantly, at remote parts of the castle. It’s very large. It’s almost staggering to consider how the designers constructed the castle, as it is more or less a continuous and integrated setpiece, even if divided into bitesized chunks.

The entire game is low-contrast; there is bright — but not blinding — light beaming from the sun, against the middle-grays of the castle. The shadows are shown to be surprisingly lit once the game’s enemies show up. They are black, smoky spirits who stand out remarkably against the rest of the environment. They are the darkest things on the screen. And even they, I don’t believe, are 100% NTSC black.

When I mentioned that sunlight washes over the environment, I meant this somewhat literally. Its intensity bleeds into the castle, into Ico, into the horizon, and wipes away details. The effect is very dream-like. Standing atop the cliffs, looking out toward the sky, everything disappears into light. At times, you are forced to wonder if life even exists in the distance. The physical reality seems almost illusory. I loved it.

damsel in distress

I think you can tell by the heading where I’m going to go with this. And, oddly, I just read two articles (http://www.igda.org/columns/clash/clash_May04.php, http://www.gamespot.com/features/6093308/p-2.html) mentioning this. But: you’re a guy and you’re saving the helpless girl. Yea. But while I’m worried this is problematic, so far as this happens a lot in games, I’m less pessimistic about its use in Ico than these articles seem to be. Its not like males are the greater gender here — note the men who, in the beginning, lock Ico away. But also

*****SPOILER WARNING*****


click to show spoiler

***** END SPOILER *****

In general, I think this was just a very simple parable, pared down to its most simple elements, and one character happened to be a boy and the other a girl. It could have happened the other way around but, probably because the creators were mostly male, it didn’t. It’s questionable but, I believe, fairly harmless. Less harmless than the bikini-revealing ending of Metroid, which I’ve always felt undermined the “strong woman role model” kinda thing. And less harmless than Princess Toadstool. She seriously needs her own game, and one where she isn’t playing the dumb but brave blonde.

afterthoughts

Finishing Ico — I don’t like to say I “beat” it — I actually felt content. It came to a satisfying close. I really don’t feel like there should be a sequel. I do hope the sequel’s release, if the rumors are true, brings the first to a stronger mainstream audience. But I don’t hope it’s Ico: Harder and Longer.

Besides, as I was saying about the selfishness, this game may not be for the average game player. It was good, possibly great, and should be left to the archives of gaming as an important point in history. It is a game whose narrative is forged somewhat by its lack of narrative, whose sensations were brought about by the responsibilities given to you, the player, and also by the wonderful atmosphere of the environment.

Yeah. I liked it.


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