Fumito Ueda’s Ico is hailed as one of the first mainstream games to really inspire emotion and potent characters. Sometimes to appreciate a video game it’s best to frame it not only using a simple method but also looking at it from a critical angle. In this specific instance, Ico raises a really interesting question because it crosses the disingenuity barrier that Jonathon Blow describes in many games. Specifically, he refers to how a game where I’m waiting for a character to unlock a barrier while I defend them creates a disingenuous relationship. I’m hanging out with them because of circumstances, not because I care. I’m keeping them alive to open the door and keep the plot moving, not because I’m worried about their safety. How does Ico follow a similar game design and yet surpass this issue?
Ueda’s two games, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, both contain interesting elements of animation that really enhance a sense of fragility in the avatar. Both of the protagonists from his games have gawky, awkward running and walking animations. Contrast this to a game like God of War or Ninja Gaiden, where the characters move like Olympic athletes and are the epitome of physical perfection. This is also highlighted by the fact that a stick is your main weapon for much of the game. When you do make the transition to a sword in Ico, it’s heavy and you can tell it drags down Ico’s arm. This awkwardness of presentation carries over into Yorda as well. When she climbs up stairs or a ladder, she carefully steps on the same leg to get up. When Ico is pulling her across a room at full run, her arms flail and you can tell she isn’t used to moving at this pace. Contrast this to the agile and liquid fast shadows that hunt both of you while you move through the castle. A real sense of fragility, of being inferior to the monsters that hunt you is communicated through the animation. The game begins to bridge the disingenuity gap by animating the characters as fragile and thus getting the player worried about them. Contrast this to a game where you play some ultimate badass who is then handicapped with someone much weaker and you see the dilemma. If the game is making me feel like I’m a scruffy but weak kid, a different set of emotional expectations develop as opposed to being Super Death Guy.
The game design takes the relationship established by the animation and further enhances it.
Yorda cannot make huge jumps or climb chains. To get up a wall or cross a chasm, you must call out to her and help her up. And you don’t just tap X when you do this, you have to hold R1, and then once she grabs your hand you have to pull the d-pad back. The point is that the game design makes it so that helping Yorda is a fully involving activity as opposed to something you click like a T.V. remote. The game design also takes the stress off your relationship by making it so that protecting her is never very difficult. Every time you help Yorda across a cliff or up a wall, there doesn’t have to be monsters around. If there are, you can get rid of them easily enough. There also is never any concern for your own safety; Ico can only die if he falls off a cliff. Yorda doesn’t have health either, you only lose because of her if she is dragged into one of the gateways and you can’t get to her in time. Unlike Resident Evil 4, where Ashley’s death was usually the result of me accidentally shooting her, you also can never accidentally hit Yorda. In this way, the game design promotes a much purer bond for players to role play with because they never accidentally lose because of Yorda. If she gets kidnapped, you’re thoroughly warned. Contrast that to Prince of Persia: Sands of Time where the hardest levels of the game involved keeping Farah alive and can induce massive amounts of frustration. When characters make you lose as often as Farah does, it’s no wonder a lot of bitterness can grow between the player and them.
The game design further helps the relationship move away from Yorda being a liability and becoming instead someone the player worries about by keeping her always at risk. If you leave her alone, it’s a race against the shadow monsters and hoping they don’t kidnap her before you get back. Since there are multiple moments in the game where you have to abandon her, even when Shadow monsters are moving around, you will have to worry about this problem several times. Which begs the question…when does game design-induced fear and concern become real fear and concern? True, I lose if she gets taken away and one needs her to open doors, but the relationship that the game design creates finds its ultimate expression in the story. The game design creates a variety of ways for the player to express concern and co-exist with Yorda, while it is the plot that pushes and pulls that relationship into being.
Technically, the story is fairly minimal. Ico has been abandoned by his village because of the horns on his head and he finds a spiritual soul mate in Yorda. Like him, she is marked by her ancestry and forced to live out a life in the castle through no choice of her own. You also can’t understand each other, a situation that forces the player to impute a lot of identity on her rather than leaving it up to the game. Even her final parting words when she sends Ico off on the boat are untranslated, a fact that lets the player have their relationship achieve a depth of their own making. Even in the few moments that the game takes control with cut scenes, the player can still interpret Yorda however they see fit. But perhaps the moment where the game truly makes the relationship cross the disingenuity gap is at the bridge. As Ico and Yorda flee across, you begin to realize something is very wrong with her. The game design makes it so she can’t run anymore and the player has to pick her up and eventually slow down for her. When Yorda finally collapses and the bridge begins to separate while Ico is on the other side, the player genuinely feels a pang of emotion. You’ve never been apart from her before and the game expects you to either leap back across or miss your chance. I played the scene out in both ways and the emotions going on are intense either way. You either must bear the awful moment of watching Yorda slowly dwindle as the bridges pull farther and farther apart, or watch as she struggles to pull you up before the shadows engulf her. It’s a mirror of the numerous moments where the player helps Yorda up a cliff or wall, only now they aren’t in control and can’t help Yorda when she needs you.
Another moment where the game design induces pity is when you realize the origins of the shadow monsters. As each tomb, just like the one Ico was locked inside, begins to light up and a shadow comes out, you recognize the truth. They are the ghosts of abandoned boys like you. It’s the same emotional connection that the player has with Yorda, both being abandoned children, but one that is complicated by the fact that you’re enemies with the shadows. Since the player possesses the magic sword in this instance, they far overpower them and instantly destroy the shadows when they hit them. Because you still can’t die as well, you end up feeling pity for these creatures. The game design makes you immortal and all powerful, yet rather than this being a fulfilling or fun moment, it is a sad one. As you finish them all off, the monsters just run around in confused circles while you swat at them. The sad music and frozen state of Yorda make this scene all the more troubling for the player.
There are countless visual touches throughout the game that also makes all of this come together. The minimalist influences of Giorgio de Chirico can be seen throughout the game and lead to an economy of not just aesthetics but levels as well. You don’t just run around room after room to the point that the structure no longer feels realistic to the player. Countless games just keep producing these humongous mansions and castles that make no structural sense while this game avoids it. You backtrack a lot and you develop a real sense of space and logic to the castle’s architecture. You can see buildings you visited in the distance and appreciate ones you’re heading towards. The dark and plain walls of the interior give way to beautiful greenery and amazing soft-lighting. Perhaps the most beautiful moment in the game is when you’re running to the two solar stations to turn on the gate. As you and Yorda run across the long bridge, the camera pans out and you see the lush green forest you both are trying to escape to. The game instills beauty in this forest because it’s the place you’re seeking to go in the game design, the place Yorda and Ico seek in the plot, and the player enjoys the sight as a result. The game design, plot, and player input all come together in a way that supports the whole experience as opposed to having the two operate with unrelated motives. Moments like this and others are what make Ico cross the disingenuity barrier where other games fall short.