Culture

ICO

Richard Jude Goodness

While the demands of many gamers and the dreams of many game designers seem concentrated on increasing layers of complexity, critics continually praise those games that buck the trend and opt for playable simplicity. Richard Jude Goodness explains how one such game helped spark the gamer urge inside him while showing him the way a game built on simple gameplay could also be thoroughly engaging.

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.


ICO
(Sony Computer Entertainment Inc.)
US Release: 26 September 2001
Japan Release Date: 6 December 2001



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.


ICO — Trailer

* * *

PopMatters is proud to invite artists, authors, actors, auteurs, and other creatives to contribute to the My Favorite Things series by sharing your thoughts about some of your own favorites. For details on how to participate, please contact Patrick Schabe or Sarah Zupko for further information. hors, actors, auteurs, and other creatives to contribute to the My Favorite Things series by sharing your thoughts about some of your own favorites. For details on how to participate, please contact Patrick Schabe or Sarah Zupko for further information.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image