It’s early summer in 2002. I’ve just finished up my freshman year of college, and as a reward have bought myself a Playstation 2. I haven’t had a new game system since the original 8-bit Nintendo, and although I spent most of high school playing Mario Kart on my friend’s Nintendo 64, I wouldn’t consider myself a gamer by any means—at least as far as the current generation is concerned. I have a fairly impressive collection of ROMs, and could and did pass as a knowledgeable old-school gamer, but I’m not hardcore. There were no nights spent until dawn drinking cup after cup of coffee to keep me going, no long conversations with friends discussing side-quests, no need to own a PS2 other than to catch up on the Final Fantasy installments that I missed, plus a couple of other high-profile titles.
A rental of ICO changed that completely.
It’s ironic that ICO was the game that caused my transition to being a hardcore gamer. Other than Katamari Damacy, it’s probably the simplest game I own. The control scheme is simple to a fault—one button handles every action related to things above you, one related to things below you, one to attack, one to manipulate switches, and one to interact with the game’s other character. The combat system is based not so much on fighting as it is on flailing—there are no combos, no special moves, nothing other than whacking enemies repeatedly with a stick. There is no health meter, no time limit, no inventory—you see nothing besides the action. Even the story is bare-bones. A boy is sent to a castle to be sacrificed. He meets up with a girl; the two help each other to escape. Other than a couple of minor twists—most of which you see coming—that’s the entire plot.
The castle in which the characters find themselves imprisoned is isolated—there’s a sea on one end and a vast forest on the other. Nothing else can be seen for miles; the castle is for all intents and purposes the entire world. The same could be said of the game, it insists upon itself so strongly. I’ve only seen one other game, Killer 7, that could be its equal in this aspect. But where Killer 7 appears to have been designed in a vacuum—only a deliberate avoidance of every game ever made could lead to a game as unique as that—ICO seems to be the product of a careful study of the last 20 years or so of gaming. Only by taking out every concept that causes other games to feel bloated or contrived could such a simple game exist. Scott McCloud theorizes that comics’ greatest strength is that of amplification through simplification—that by stripping a face to its barest essentials, for example, it becomes, in effect, every face—and ICO proves that the same could be said for games.
Where most games amplify through complexity—overly dramatic cut-scenes, complex battle systems, dozens of obscurely-clued side-quests, more characters than you can get in one playthrough—ICO achieves its power by only giving us what is necessary: a protagonist, an ally, an antagonist, and a set of obstacles. What floors me is the way these are all played off on each other. The set of obstacles (the castle) often acts as the main antagonist—the Evil Queen appears exactly three times during the narrative. And the obstacles offer you different challenges as well, depending on perspective: the boy is scrappy and athletic and can make his way quite easily through most of the rooms. The girl, however, is a different story, and most rooms must be solved in two different ways in order to find a path for her. Where most games featuring escort missions simply have the secondary character follow the main character, and perhaps they’ll make you restart the stage if the escorted character takes too much damage, ICO uses its escort missions as the forefront of its gameplay.
What I love most about the puzzles is how well-paced and solveable they are. ICO is one of those games that slowly teaches you how to play it. An early room will ask you to push a block to make a step; later, you’ll have to swing on a chain. A third room makes you combine the skills—you push a block to make a step to reach the chain. The curve is so gentle that you may not even realize that the game is slowly getting harder. You never need to read the designer’s mind or refer to a guide. (I’m normally suspicious when reviews claim that, but trust me, it’s true.) Perhaps most impressive is the fact that the game does not insult your intelligence with on-screen hints as many games do (“Push the block to the wall to make a step!”). It assumes that you’ll step back and look at the whole problem and then figure it out. Most of the time, it’s right.
The game has its flaws, of course. The AI on the secondary character seems completely inept at times—she never seems to be where you need her, she never climbs ladders when you want her to, and she always seems to move way too slowly. The battles, owing to the simple nature of the combat system, tend to grate on one’s nerves as too repetitive. But those are put into check by the fact that the game simply feels way too short. You can go through it in about five or six hours on your first playthrough, and once you know what to do the game becomes that much easier. There’s exactly one secret side-quest and the puzzles are exactly the same each time. You’re left wanting more. Of course, that’s not a bad thing, and it’s certainly preferable to being left feeling like the game was boring or too long.
Playing ICO for the first time let me realize exactly what possibilities gaming had, and it was from then on that I began renting games like crazy and amassing a sizeable collection. For better or for worse, it’s the game I measure other adventure games against. Predictably, most games fall short. Even Shadow of the Colossus, the next game by director Fumito Ueda, seems to take a few steps back in many ways (it features an on-screen display of health and similar things, an on-screen tutorial, a less-tight sense of pacing). The more I play other games—and certainly I enjoy many of them greatly—the more I realize how brilliantly simple ICO is.
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