Brave Design in 'Ico'

by Scott Juster

1 December 2011

Making a challenging game that is defined by mechanical and narrative minimalism is a brave choice, one that we're lucky Team Ico made.

Even though we’re in the thick of new release season, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about a ten-year-old game.  Of course, Ico isn’t just any old game, and its recent HD remastering provides ample justification for replaying it.  This time around, the critical distance and sharpened visuals gave me a fresh perspective on the game.  After experiencing Ico again, its confidence in the player, stark environments, and mysterious story struck me as decisions that were as brave as they are artistic.
For a game largely about holding hands, Ico is surprisingly hands off when it comes to teaching you how to play.  The introductory cutscene quietly transitions into gameplay, and the player is left to investigate what each button does, which either means experimenting with the controller, checking out the options screen, or reading the manual.  The point is that there is no formal tutorial; there are no contrived on-screen instructions or button prompts pointing you in the right direction.  After a few safe rooms in which to practice jumping and climbing, the environment opens up and players are left to navigate the world by themselves.  It’s a sign of respect on the part of Team Ico; they have faith that players will orient themselves and eventually succeed.

Ico’s overall structure dances on the thin line separating bravery and foolishness.  The entire experience amounts to a grand escort mission, one of gaming’s most despised dynamics.  Yorda can barely defend herself and getting hit by the enemies sends Ico reeling.  Nothing is automated and very little is telegraphed.  You must pull Yorda up every tall ledge, and the game gives no indication as to whether you are on the right path to solving a puzzle.  Thanks to the absence of auto-saves and the presence of demanding platforming sequences, Ico can be frustrating and disheartening at times.  These roadblocks function as layered challenges.  Each one is an immediate obstacle, and taken together, they become one large challenge that boldly asks the player to press on without explicit guidance or rewards.  Today, it’s easy to imagine what Ico might have felt like had it come from a studio with less confidence—just picture a third-person version of this satirical Doom remake:

Ico is perhaps most remembered for its magnificent settings and striking art style.  In among the intentionally washed-out visuals and quiet castle walls lies more brave decisions.  Instead of filling its huge environments with collectibles and offering the player a constant stream of dialogue and music, Ico fills the space with quiet details.  If you listen closely, different sections of the castle do have their own soundtracks.  Some rooms crackle with the sound of flames dancing from the ancient torches.  Other spaces are inhabited by the raw, wild sounds of the coastline.  Escape into one of the secluded courtyards and this noise is muted and replaced by the birds’ playful chirping.  There aren’t any explosions or huge boss battles; memorable moments take the form of watching Yorda chase the birds or stopping to admire one of the many sweeping views from the castle walls. 

Perhaps counterintuitively, Ico banks on subtlety to keep the player’s attention.  The chilling moment when I realized that figures of horned boys were carved into the stone pillars dividing the rooms is as memorable as the most cinematic action scenes in games like Uncharted or Modern Warfare.  The smooth, highly detailed animation says as much about Ico as Kratos’s movement says about him—and with far fewer words.  By the time that Ico is over, a grand story has been constructed out of tiny pieces.

Of course, Ico’s “grand story” is largely an assertion of my own construction.  The story remains broadly defined throughout the game, relying more on implication than on explanation.  We know Yorda is in trouble and that the Queen’s drive to preserve her own life is relentless, we know Ico bears the mark of an outcast, and we know he and Yorda grow close as they try to escape the castle together.  Thanks to glimpses of the outside world and the castle’s apparent age, we get the sense that Ico takes place within a rich fictional world.  We don’t get many of the details, but snippets of dialog and ancient stone sculptures offer a foothold for interpretation.  Again, we see Team Ico’s confidence and their respect for the player.  Ico never feels the need to baldly flaunt any particular message, but the game provides ample evidence from which to gather conclusions.

It’s a fitting way to tell a story about two characters armed with little more than courage.  Like Ico and Yorda, the player is thrust into a strange situation full of uncertainty and danger.  While Ico and Yorda are stuck in this austere environment, the player isn’t.  If you get tired of the solitude, the deliberate pacing, and the obscure puzzles, you can always turn the game off.  Because of this, Ico certainly must lose players before the end, but those that persevere experience a rare treat.  Making a challenging game that is defined by mechanical and narrative minimalism is a brave choice, one that we’re lucky Team Ico made.


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