“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”
You’ve wandered into something wonderful.
Ico (pronounced EE-koh) is a puzzle-platformer-action-adventure game developed by Team Ico (pronounced Teem EE-koh). This is a game that embraces minimalist artistry, exploration, and experimental storytelling and technology. It is one of the earliest examples of new visual techniques such as bloom lighting. The end result is stunning, something that knows how to use silence and stillness to great effect. Ico is a sharp, high-contrast game that feels like a movie with its reductive gameplay. It was re-released as an HD remaster together with another acclaimed project produced by the same developers, Shadow of the Colossus, and I highly recommend that you pick up both titles and experience them if you haven’t already.
Providing little explanation, Ico’s narrative is constructed with very little dialogue and a lot of mood and imagery, underscoring basic themes that everyone can relate with: fear of the dark, fear of loneliness, the necessity of another human presence, good versus evil, courage without hope, child-like curiosity, protecting innocence, dreamlike surrealism, the sense of safety found in light. Light, in fact, plays such a key role in Ico that it almost feels like a character all on its own.
The story begins with a strange boy with curved horns, Ico, taken by a group of armored men and placed like a prisoner or sacrifice inside of an ancient, abandoned castle. He is abandoned there apparently as a kind of expiation. Escaping his confines and exploring the empty castle, the boy encounters a girl. She is trapped in a cage suspended at the height of a tower and Ico experiences a vision concerning her. Freeing the girl, named Yorda, Ico is horrified when shadowy figures appear and attempt to recapture her. Fueled by all of the righteous wrath of a boy defending a girl and armed only with a wooden stick, he beats back the shadows and flees, leading Yorda by the hand. The rest of the game illustrates Ico and Yorda’s flight through the castle, escaping from the shades, seeking their way past obstacles and through puzzles, and encountering the Queen of the Castle, (spoiler: highlight to reveal) Yorda’s mother. The connection between Ico and Yorda, though unspoken, is at the heart of the game. Leading her on by the hand and calling out to her to follow seems to give Ico reason to keep going on despite his oppressive surroundings.
“Only the very top of the arched ceiling remained in shadow, as though some dark creature lurked there, devouring all light that strayed too close.”
― Miyuki Miyabe,
If you crave a clearer exposition of what happens in Ico, including the identity of the horned boy and the history of the castle, the Queen and Yorda, I suggest you read the novelization Ico: Castle in the Mist by Miyuki Miyabe. It’s hard to find but I did manage to get a hold of my local Barnes & Noble’s last copy. Note that it may take away some of the mystique of the game’s experience with too much exposition in the same way that reading the novelization for 2001: a Space Odyssey can destroy some of the mystery of the film, but it might be an enjoyable reading companion for you nonetheless. Just a suggestion for the curious.
Ico is all about its balancing acts. Leading Yorda along slows you down and inhibits you from quickly running past obstacles. However, leave her behind for too long and the shades come to claim her. She is frail and helpless while Ico is energetic and full of young life. Yorda is Ico’s only tether and Ico is Yorda’s only defense. Their juxtaposition against one another gives the game its pace, its tension and of course its narrative.
Further, there’s a balancing act between light and darkness. Many of the puzzles and environments involve the use of light, or shadow, and both of them seem like tangible substances in the castle thanks to the bloom lighting. Not only that but Yorda’s radiance even in dark places contrasts heavily with the Queen’s appearance, robed in shadowy mists. The pervading light of Ico’s environment feels like an entity, as does the dark. Their crisp opposition to one another emphasizes the struggle going on between innocence and corruption.
As I said in the case of Journey, Ico is a work of art that is bigger than the sum of its parts. It’s focus on primordial fears and innately relatable themes as well as its reductive gameplay makes it a distinctive and memorable experience. Ico was well-received by critics and has long been lauded by those who have had the pleasure of playing it.
In an interview, director Fumito Ueda said of his work on Ico:
“It isn’t a video game — a conventional video game has things like a life meter or other icons on the screen. Ico doesn’t have these things… for Ico, at the beginning of the development period, I thought that the games industry had a negative image for many people. If I called my work a video game, people would think, ‘Well, this is just a video game, so I don’t want to play it.’ …Ico is not a conventional video game title, we set limitations on ourselves for the development of the game. We had to eliminate everything that made it look like a video game.”
I would say that his approach was very, very successful. Ico feels like something entirely different. Hats off to you, Mr. Ueda. Thank you for your contribution to an industry sorely in need of something fresh.
The 8-Bit Review
Pioneering its own unique graphics technology, Ico is surreal. It both looks the real world and it doesn’t. Objects and characters have a kind of wispy, ethereal quality to them.Soft light and shadow clash in a slow, amorphous war with one another, filling up space like water in ways totally unlike real light and dark. After the credits roll and the game ends, you might just feel like you’ve woken up from a dream. Ico’s graphics were already eye-catching on its original PS2 release and now with the HD edition, it is even more enthralling.
Ico touts a discordant, atmospheric soundtrack with dark moodiness, echoing sounds of metal and stone and water, and long sullen tones that lend to the feeling of emptiness and presence of the castle. Intriguingly, it has whispering sounds evocative of bells and organs and strange voice-like noises nearly hidden under its main instruments. This gives its soundtrack a kind of eerily religious weight, as we normally associate sounds like those with religion, which points to Ico’s unseen historical backdrop. Other tracks like “Castle in the Mist” play around with different styles, in this case with a folk sound of wandering mandolins, giving a sense of age and rurality. Somehow it all works without being unpleasant when coupled with the visuals. There is a balance between melody and dissonance, between harmony and chaos, music and noise. A soundtrack furnishing setting in this manner with elusive noises is genius and essential really in a game which otherwise has very little to say about itself.
The final track “You were There” includes the only lyrics on the entire OST. It was performed by a boy singing soprano, which makes it feel like its tied to Ico himself. Since it includes both the touches of the mandolin and the atmospheric sound effects of earlier tracks, I think its the best example of the strangeness and beauty that is Ico.
I understand the complaints and I disagree with them. Some might say Ico is too slow paced. I think it is careful. Some might say there’s too much backtracking. I think it is exploratory and curious. Some might say Ico has shaky animations and iffy mechanics. I think it lends to a sense of fragility. Some might say Yorda’s AI is stupid. I say that it’s intentional and that she’s just a girl who seems frightened and hesitant. It is my opinion that Ico’s gameplay would be terrible in any other title but because even its controls and physics contribute to its themes, it’s a triumph in my book. You want perfectly responsive controls, go and play an action game with an action hero as the lead. This is about two children and they act just like children should act in such a situation, and I believe that’s reflected in the way the game handles and interfaces with the player.
The assertion that Ico has no storyline is completely unfounded and only believed by idiots. Sorry. Ico has an immense historical, religious, archaeological, cultural and possibly even political background that lies just below the water like the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The fact that Ico and Yorda’s connection is at the mercy of that vast backdrop and not at the driving center of it doesn’t mean it isn’t there at all. The castle seems like it has a whole wealth of story to it but all of that is peripheral compared to the simple relationship between a boy and a girl of different languages and their journey together. You’ll learn enough of what she means to say through body language and setting. There is plenty of discovery in Ico about the nature of the horned boy and the radiant girl and the castle in the mist, but almost none of it is spoon-fed. Top honors for conveying what it does convey with its lack of normal communication and dialogue. The story is about their survival in the face of a hostile world they don’t understand, at least Ico wouldn’t, and there is really no narrative more fundamental than that.
As a puzzle-platformer, Ico is unique in that it blends action-adventure gameplay alongside its puzzles. Abandon Yorda alone for too long or leave her behind in another room and the shadows are sure to grab her and haul her off into the darkness, earning you a quick game over. Problem is, as you progress through the castle and the puzzles become increasingly more complex, Ico is forced to leave Yorda further and further behind in order to surmount the obstacles in their way. This lends Ico an invisible time limitation to its puzzle-solving that gives it a sense of tension even in the silent moments where nothing seems to be happening. Ico won’t be able to just sit idly by and take all the time you need to muse over his obstacles. You’ll need to think on your feet and go with you intuitions.
Though essentially a puzzle-platformer that loses its novelty once its puzzles are completed for the first time, Ico does get extra replay value points for its HD re-release (trophy support did wonders for its replayability), as well as its secrets and its mystery. It’s like some of those movies that you have to watch a second time to really “get it”. You’ll need to piece together what’s happening as you discover it, and that may in fact take you back to the title screen and pressing New Game all over again, especially in regard to its vague connection to Shadow of the Colossus. Unfortunately, Ico is woefully short. Its brevity may be a turn off for some players but for me, it just left me deeply impacted by the whole experience before it became tiresome.
It is the product its developers intended. Ico is a video game that doesn’t feel like a video game. It is free from all of the shackles of menus and stats and complicated controls to focus on its emotional core and presentation. What you’re left with is something cinematic which, ironically, would be out of place at the cinema. Ico and its spiritual successor, Shadow of the Colossus, represent the possibilities that clever designers can be capable of with the technology that exists if only they would stop chasing high-budget sequels in their safe tried-and-true franchises and finally put artistry ahead of sales.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
Reliving Ico on HD was a great experience, even trying for that platinum and speedrun. Ico deserves all of the appreciation I’ve just heaped upon it, as well as all of the praise it has received from gamers and critics alike. It is a game of stillness in an industry crowded with noise. It is a profoundly unique visual, musical and thematic ride built on the backs of experiences we have all had. I commend it to you in the words of Ico himself: “ohpah“.
Aggregated Score: 8.8