Ico

Ico - Japanese Box

Introduction

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

Ico - Castle

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.

Ico - Ico and Yorda

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

Pros:

  • Interesting, minimalistic storytelling
  • Amazing presentation
  • Good characters
Cons:

  • Gameplay is lacking

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

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10 thoughts on “Ico

  1. I have similarly mixed feelings on Ico. I’ve played quite deep into the game twice and both times enjoyed the environments and atmosphere. The lack of a HUD, collectibles and other artifices is also refreshing, but I didn’t love the game so much to actually push forward and complete it (I must be close by now though). By contrast the sequel was far more engaging from a gameplay perspective, and I was sufficiently compelled to blast through it to the end.

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    • The endgame awaits those who can get past the castle’s main gate.

      I too played Ico after Shadow of the Colossus (I got the PS3 version, which features both games on a single disc), and I have to say that the former feels like a prototype to the latter. It’s not to the same degree as the first two Mother installments, mind you, but Shadow of the Colossus is definitely much more engaging from a gameplay standpoint. Ico relies too heavily on its story to keep the player’s interest, which is even more of gamble than it usually is in this case because the narrative takes such a minimalistic approach.

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  2. That is one thing we’ve been seeing a lot more of since Ico came out; the ‘art house’ style game aimed at evoking an unusual feeling or experience, or playing with the medium, rather than being straight up entertaining or seeking to tell a good story the traditional way. Except for the ones that you hear about all the time, you get such a mixed bag of those types of games and I have a hard time not mocking the bad ones, but a part of me is still always glad to see video games being stretched beyond what you traditionally see.

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    • I remember thinking to myself when writing this review that Ico could be considered the prototypical indie game because a lot of solo developers texture their works in a similar fashion to Mr. Ueda and Team Ico. Though considering that Another World (known as Out of this World in America) directly inspired this game, it might be more worthy of that distinction.

      It is interesting to see developers create experiences that do more than simply entertain. Unfortunately, I have to say that it’s not necessarily a forward-looking philosophy. I suspect that indie developers care more about critical acclaim than their AAA counterparts (or if nothing else, they don’t have the resources to game the system to the same extent as the AAA industry). Therefore, they go into their projects with the intent of garnering as much praise as possible. It’s from there that they observe that Ico and other art-house games get critical acclaim despite the lack of strong gameplay and they go on emulate its style. However, a lot of these developers are content just to go down a list of bullet points rather than to put their own personal spin on the tropes they use. Other times, they make token efforts towards innovation or creativity, but it usually just makes the experience overly gimmicky, which was the main reason I faulted The Stanley Parable. Either way, critics end up giving these titles near-perfect scores every time despite them having little (or even flat-out bad) gameplay.

      I’m not saying that these creators didn’t put a lot of time and effort into their work (they did). What I am saying is that as long as this propensity critics have continues to exist, it just means that future indie developers will start to think of this art-house style as a shortcut to success in lieu of creating something that’s innovative from a gameplay perspective. Then again, this is largely speculation, so I could be completely wrong about this.

      On a more positive note, this is why I prefer indie games such as Shovel Knight and La-Mulana. They’re not exactly innovative, but they manage to forge their own identities with an old-school mentality rather than leech off of nostalgia. Then of course, there’s Papers, Please, which is not only a very unique concept for a game, but also very engaging and surprisingly tense. The most important thing about all of them is that they’re fun to play. To me, that’s a more meaningful statement than the one from the developer who desperately wants to prove to outsiders that video games are art.

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      • I mentioned something akin to this in your post on the game, but I think the biggest point in Papers, Please’s favor is how it cohesively works all the parts together, including the gameplay, towards the specific experience it wants to make. Papers, Please is probably the definitive example of these art-house games done right because it doesn’t sacrifice anything towards the experience it’s building as so many other games do. Shadow of the Colossus, I felt, succeeds for a very similar reason; it has an experience it wants to transmit in mind, and it doesn’t neglect anything in pursuit of that experience. Both the mechanics and the story are built towards a common goal. It’s all about making good use of the interactivity aspect of video games in delivering the experience, and I think that’s where both the bad art house games and the reviewers making them critical darlings make their missteps.

        In fact, I think that’s where a lot of the dissonance between the reviewer reception and player reception comes from. Reviewers, by nature of the processes they filter a game through, regularly break a game down to it’s component parts and look at each individually, whereas players are more apt to get their impressions from a game as a cohesive work. So, if something sacrifices quality gameplay in order to deliver a feelz, that’s going to grate those who put all the pieces together a lot more than those who separate them. And that leads to video games that don’t do much with the whole ‘video game’ aspect and would probably be better off as some other medium still getting high marks and being marketed to players as the next “Must Play 9.8/10!!!!” deal. Like the Path. That came out a bit before the whole art-house game craze really hit, so it got mostly middling reviews, but everyone who did talk about it made it out like some really thoughtful, enlightening experience. So Little Baby Aether, thinking it’d be good to get him some culture, gave it a try. It tries really hard to justify it’s status as a video game, but the whole interactivity element adds absolutely nothing to the experience, and that drags the whole work down to the point that it ends up having a lot more ideas than it does substance. If you kept all the good parts, it would have been an interesting series of videos, and I would have enjoyed it a lot more in that format, but that’s all it had to offer, and it was a mistake making that experience a game in the first place.

        Also, there definitely are the factors of reviewers raving for anything that’s different in a safe way from the all the other games they’ve had to burn their tastebuds out on and the whole “Hey look at how highbrow I am!” thing that have both been (not unfairly) brought up all over the place. As well as the fact that anything that goes for emotional resonance is automatically going to be a lot more hit and miss, eve without getting into how well they achieve that resonance.

        I wonder how much the price of these games plays in the critical dissonance, as well. I really enjoy visual novels, but I have a pretty high wall to clear before I’ll actually pay for a VN that doesn’t have gameplay elements, and even in those cases, I have higher standards for what I’ve bought versus freeware. I’m sure Analog: A Hate Story is an objectively better experience than Digital: A Love Story in a lot of ways, but I recall having a lot more positive feelings about the latter than the former, and I think that’s in large part because part of me was trying to weigh the value of Analog against what I paid for it. Likewise, I got a lot more out of Gone Home than it seems many others did, and I look on the Stanley Parable more positively than you did, but I got Gone Home on sale for just a couple of dollars and picked up the Stanley Parable on a Humble Bundle, so the only real consideration I had to weigh them against was the time I spent playing, rather than the money I lost picking them up.

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        • That assessment of Papers, Please and Shadow of the Colossus hits the nail on the head; couldn’t have said it better myself.

          My experiences with The Last of Us showed me that individual components of a game can be sound (the voice acting is amazing, the presentation is superb, and the controls are good), but that means nothing if they don’t mesh well together (i.e. the aforementioned clash between the narrative and the gameplay). For a counterexample, I have no doubt in my mind that Planescape: Torment is worthy of a 10/10, but such a conclusion would make no sense if I were to divide the scale into several different parameters (gameplay, story, graphics, music, etc.), for it is a game where the quality of a single aspect overshadows everything else. Either it would make no sense because the parameters wouldn’t average out (i.e. a 6/10 for gameplay and a 10/10 for story somehow translating to a 10/10 overall), or I would have to break the scale in order to get the math correct (i.e. giving a 6/10 for gameplay and a 14/10 for story).

          This is why I make it a point that I can only review games I’ve finished and that my final score is based on the experience as a whole. Plus, as we’ve talked about in great length, a bad ending can retroactively ruin any work. I gave Ico a higher score than System Shock 2 even though I actually think the latter is superior as far as gameplay is concerned. That is, Ico never had a moment that was so far below the quality of the rest of the game, that it stuck out like a sore thumb and soured my memories of the experience.

          I saw someone play through The Path. It looked pretty boring. I share your sentiments about games like that; they really shoot themselves in the foot by introducing an interactive element. They could have just been a series of web videos and absolutely nothing important would have been lost. Judging by its Metacritic score, it looks like it’s sort of the opposite of Ico in that it did not benefit from when it came out. I’ve noticed that timing plays an important factor in determining whether these art-house games become critical darlings or not.

          I agree with you on reviewers raving about works being different in a safe way. Sometimes, the key to getting praise isn’t by being innovative, but by being the right kind of derivative. If it’s one thing I’ve noticed time and again (and it’s not just with video games), it’s that critics can be just as quick to dismiss avant-garde ideas as the general populace.

          The other reason I didn’t care for The Stanley Parable and am confident with the 4/10 I gave it is because I’ve played other games that indulged in creative, medium-specific storytelling in ways that were better fleshed out (though I’m glad you played the game and formed your own opinion on it). I even remember a game that used the very machine it was released on to tell a story in a unique fashion. I won’t say the name of the game for those who are unaware because it’s an amazing twist, but I know for a fact you’ve played it.

          As for visual novels, I’ve only played ones that offered gameplay, yet I think the admission fees for the stories alone were worth it. Other than that, I think price does have a factor in my final assessments. Indeed, the reason I use three different colors for my final scores is to make my stance on whether or not a game is worth the investment clear (red = avoid at all costs; yellow = maybe, maybe not; green = definitely).

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  3. “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.”

    I agree. I feel that the game gets a bump simply from its uniqueness and because Shadows was such a great follow up. The game is still solid, but gets higher praise than it may have otherwise. Also, were you playing the PS3 or PS2 version? I haven’t played the PS3 version, is it much better?

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    • It does seem like a tendency critics (and certain gamers) have is that they are quick to hand out critical praise if there are some unique things about it. It’s doubtlessly important to have your work stand out in some way, but I’ve found by playing several games over the years that just because something is unique, it doesn’t automatically make it good. After all, it’s possible for the unique aspects to have no impact on the work’s quality. If said aspects are negative, that just means the work is bad in a unique way, and that is much worse than being bad in a generic way. Unique ideas are important to help your work stand the test of time, but one needs to make sure that they actually enhance the experience in some way.

      I think you might have a point about the critical praise surrounding Ico. It wasn’t a big hit when it came out, so it received a lot of retroactive vindication once its spiritual successor was released. Some of it is deserved; some of it isn’t. I played through Shadow of the Colossus first, and I have to say that Ico comes across as a prototype to its spiritual successor. It’s not to the same degree as the relationship between the original Metroid and Super Metroid, but by the time Shadow of the Colossus rolled around, Team Ico was able to translate their artistic ideas into good gameplay, which is something that was lacking in their original title.

      I’ve only played the PS3 version – the release that combines Ico and Shadow of the Colossus into a single disc. I’m not sure if there are any gameplay differences, but apparently, both games are presented in 1080p HD, so I’m guessing they look better than their original versions.

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  4. I’m going to review this ASAP, and just played through it again twice (once normally and once on New Game Plus), making it the second and third times I’ve beaten the game. Though I think I enjoy it more than you did (expect me to give it an 8-ish), I definitely agree with you complaints. Personally, I love the exploration and puzzle elements, which I think are the real gameplay hook of the game. But no doubt Ico’s controls, the camera, Yorda’s AI and the combat hold it back.

    I also agree that this was kind of the “prototype” to the indie game scene. Though personally, I think Ico both tells a better story and is a more engaging game than most of the indie games it inspired (I’m going to sound like a villain, but I really don’t like Limbo and other such indie titles).

    Ico is a unique gaming experience, to be sure. And its uniqueness is what I think keeps its legacy alive. But it definitely doesn’t even compare to its spiritual sequel/prequel. Shadow of the Colossus is one of my favorite games of all time, and arguably my favorite Sony exclusive (except maybe Symphony of the Night, and Ni no Kuni deserves a mention in there).

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    • It’ll be interesting to see what you think of this game. I’d say my stance on this game is that it’s good, but I think the critics may have jumped the gun in handing out praise. It’s sort of like how the original Metroid is a beloved NES game, but a lot of that goodwill comes from a combination of nostalgia and the existence of its superior sequels. I think this because I noticed that the original Fire Emblem wasn’t well-received when it was remade for the DS in America, despite being beloved in its native Japan. Without context, it’s a Fire Emblem game with fewer features, thus the scores it got reflected this perception. Having said all that, Ico does stand on its own if for no other reason than because Shadow of the Colossus was not simply “the same structure, but improved in every way” as was largely the case in those two Nintendo series.

      I’ve remarked that Ico could be considered the prototypical indie game, but I think it probably shares that distinction with Mother 3. A lot of independent teams that don’t draw inspiration from the former seem to do so from the latter. What’s interesting to me is that those games have the exact opposite weaknesses; the gameplay in Ico isn’t very strong while the story in Mother 3 goes overboard in its messages. They have the opposite strengths as well; the dramatic scenes in Ico speak for themselves, and as a JRPG, Mother 3 is a solid, challenging game with clever boss battles. Whatever the case may be, I have to give more credit to Ico because, unlike Mother 3 and a lot of the indie games it may have inspired, it doesn’t overreach or make any significant missteps in its story design. Indeed, I was surprised how much I liked the characters with such little context. Mr. Ueda truly has mastered the art of subtlety. Now we just need other developers to follow suit and we’re good to go.

      As for Shadow of the Colossus… I definitely think it’s good, and certainly better than Ico, but I’m stumped as to what score I would give it and why. I think I may have to play the game again before I actually review it.

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