Delphine Software International released many beloved PC classics in the early nineties such as Another World and Flashback. The titles from this now-defunct company were groundbreaking for treating players to cinematic experiences with their visuals and emphasis on storytelling. Inspired by the works of Delphine, an up-and-coming art student named Fumito Ueda sought to pursue a career in video game industry, joining Sony Computer Entertainment four years after graduating from the Osaka University of Arts. The game that would result from this project was Ico. Initially meant to be released on the original PlayStation, Ico wouldn’t see the light of day until 2001 – one year after the debut of Sony’s second gaming console. Though it was largely ignored in North America in favor of the more hotly-anticipated titles at the time such as Metal Gear Solid 2, Ico nonetheless captured the attention of critics who continue to cite the game as one of the best storytelling experiences in the medium.
Analyzing the Experience
There is a village of warriors who strongly believe in tradition. Every so often, a child is born with two horns on either side of their head. The warriors’ ethos states that such an anomaly is considered an ill omen and that every horned child must be sacrificed. And so they lock these children inside of a stone coffin in an abandoned castle far away from the village. The protagonist of this game, Ico, is one of many horned children to be left for dead in this sacrificial chamber. Luckily for him, a tremor knocks the coffin out of the wall and cracks open upon hitting the floor.
Shortly thereafter, he meets a girl named Yorda. Like Ico, she was held captive in this castle, though for reasons unknown. As soon as he frees her, they are accosted by strange monsters who live in the shadows that seem strangely determined to capture Yorda. Though separated by different languages, Ico vows to protect Yorda from these creatures and help her escape the castle.
This brings us to the gameplay. Ico can best be described action-adventure game with an emphasis on exploration and puzzle-solving. This game is notable for not having a heads-up display (or HUD) – there are no health bars, currency counters, or any other omnipresent graphics during gameplay. Enemies cannot permanently harm Ico; at worst, they knock him down for a few seconds. For most of the game, the only way Ico can die is if he falls from too great of a height.
The real danger stems from protecting Yorda, for the game will end if she is captured. Because of this, one could also describe Ico as a game-long escort mission. Such scenarios are typically the source of much ire among fans of video games. Speaking from experience, this negative stigma is well-deserved. Fortunately, in the case of Ico, it works surprisingly well. Only one creature can make an attempt to capture her when several are present, and you are given a reasonable amount of time to rescue her should the situation arise.
Other than that, the gameplay has very little to comment on; there is no higher goal other than protecting and escaping the castle with Yorda. Ico can occasionally get new weapons, but the game lacks an advanced inventory system, so the only difference between them is the amount of damage they inflict. The monsters are pretty one-dimensional as well, and you dispatch them all in the exact same way. That is to say, you hit them several times until they fall over and die. There are obstacles to clear, but Ico is not a puzzle game, so figuring them out isn’t terribly difficult. As a result, Ico can easily be construed as very monotonous.
Even though the gameplay doesn’t have much in the way of substance, Ico is a good storytelling experience, especially for an interactive medium, for you are told only the bare basics of the setting and its plot. A majority of the story isn’t presented through dialogue, but with the environment. The characters aren’t exactly morally ambiguous, but the narrative still gives you a lot of leeway to allow you to form your own interpretations using what little context is provided. Ico’s motives are unambiguously heroic, but because he and Yorda are unable to understand each other, the exact nature of their relationship isn’t clear – it provides a unique spin on the ubiquitous boy-meets-girl story.
Perhaps the biggest reason why Ico succeeds where similar games have fallen short is that everything wonderful and tragic about this game speaks for itself. Revelations will make themselves known but it’s up to you to connect the dots. |There’s a really good example of this near the end of the game when you find out from where the shadow creatures originate.| Furthermore, I could tell when playing it that Mr. Ueda devoted a lot of time and effort into crafting the story and its setting – even going as far as creating two different fictional languages for his protagonists to speak. What makes his work stand out from other story-heavy experiences is that a lot of the effort went into subtle details that would go unnoticed by many people.
Drawing a Conclusion
Although I have little doubt that Ico is a good game, I’m not completely convinced that it’s actually worthy of the praise critics have given it over the years. In a way, it can be compared to Sega’s Altered Beast in that both games were some of the first to truly utilize the graphical capabilities of their respective console generations. In other words, both games garnered notability due to when they were released more than anything. To be fair, Ico has held up much better with time than Altered Beast, the latter of which is merely a mediocre beat ’em up.
Moreover, Ico was one of the first console games whose creator wanted make an artistic statement rather than just to entertain. That said, it’s somewhat difficult to assess because the level of enjoyment you’ll get out of it is completely dependent on how much you can immerse yourself in the setting. If you can, it’s a great experience, and if you’re unable, you’ll wonder how so many people can hold this game in such high regard. To be honest, I find myself torn between the two scenarios. Ico avoids many of the common pitfalls associated with this style of game with its minimalistic storytelling. Many teams attempting to create a game like Ico end up overreaching in some way, such as loading the narrative with too much pathos, thus ruining what they had built up in the process. On the other hand, if you were to remove the story entirely, you would be left with an incredibly basic action game that was dated before the development process had even started. Despite this, I do think Ico is worth playing at least once. Just know that whether it’s good, bad, or somewhere in between will depend entirely on your own perception.
Final Score: 7/10