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Classic game appreciation section: Ico

I like to think that 'Ico' means 'beautiful thing' in some exotic foreign language. Because it is truly a thing of beauty. I'm not just talking about the dreamy fairytale vistas surveyed from the game's many vertiginous parapets, or the golden radiance of the sun flooding through some towering window. No. Not just that. The beauty goes way beyond anything as cold and hard-coded as graphics or technical spuffery. The sentiment is beautiful. The mood is beautiful. The emotion is beautiful. Yes. If there's any game that makes me waffle like a French poet, it's Ico.

The first I knew about this beautiful Team Ico developed platforming-adventure-puzzler was reading the review in Edge magazine. Issue 104, December 2001. The review consisted of some perfectly complimentary words and the number 8. And while these were fine tools of gentle persuasion, it was actually the screenshots on the page that made me think 'Oh shit I absolutely have to play this game'. They looked magical and so distinctly unlike anything else that they completely captured my imagination. I knew it was an adventure I wanted to be part of. So I went and bought a PS2 and a copy of Ico.

Above: Here is a reconstruction of me falling in love with Ico a decade ago


>>>>BEWARE: INSANELY BIG SPOILERS<<<<


You've got a friend in me

The source of all that nebulous talk of beauty comes mostly from the relationship between the game's odd-couple, Ico and Yorda. Ico, a 12 year-old boy with horns growing out of his head, cast from his village and imprisoned in the huge ancient fortress. Yorda, a young girl held at the castle by her mother, the Queen, and so dainty that the ever-blowing wind threatens to carry her away at any moment. Together, they set out to escape.

From the very first moment that Ico grabs Yorda's hand, I started caring about them. That's all it took. A simple gesture of innocent intimacy between two lost children and I felt more compassion and emotional attachment than I ever have done since for John Marston or Marcus Fenix or Commander Shepard or Nathan Drake. I actually genuinely cared for these forsaken companions and what would happen to them.

Above: So beautiful *sniff*

Despite Yorda clearly being the eldest, Ico leads her around like a protective parent. He calls and beckons, always encouraging her. He's the little kid playing at being the grown-up. He's giving the frightened Yorda hope. And I always got the sense that Yorda felt safe around her fearless chaperon. He would keep her from harm, even though he had little more than a stick (which I always thought was fitting for Ico as the stick has always been the traditional playtime weapon substitute of choice for children).

Any moments when Ico and Yorda are apart always made me anxious. What if the castle's enemies - shadowy spirits intent on capturing Yorda - appeared and I couldn't reach her in time? Poor vulnerable Yorda, the embodiment of loneliness. I couldn't let her down. These uneasy separations created an almost unbearable feeling of suspense. Every time the children were reunited I breathed a sigh of relief and got a lovely warm fuzziness in my heart.

Above: Yorda standing forlornly on her own makes me sad and nervous

The strength of the relationship is brilliantly realised when Ico and Yorda succeed in opening the gates to the castle and see the bridge stretching out to freedom before them. But as you lead them across, an ominous cut-scene kicks in. The Queen uses her magic to separate the two friends, the bridge divides and begins to retract. Yorda stuck on the castle side. Ico on the side that leads to freedom. When control is given back to the player, in that split-second decision, it never even occurred to me to abandon Yorda - to see what would happen if I just turned and legged it in the general direction of freedom. That's because a) I'm not a cold-hearted dead inside bastard and, b) there was no way I was leaving Yorda behind.

16 comments

  • Rhymenocerous - September 25, 2011 9:53 a.m.

    I still have both Ico & SotC on PS2, but I'm going to buy them again anyway. They deserve it - unlike Resident Evil.
  • gilgamesh310 - September 24, 2011 4:44 p.m.

    @Matt_Cundy, yeah I have played both of them. They are great games but I don't think they have particularly great stories. Silent Hill 2 tells a lot of its story true visuals and that has one of the greatest game stories ever. Ico or Shadow of the Colossus aren't up to that standard.
  • Gene - September 23, 2011 2:38 p.m.

    The second best game of all time, after Zelda: Majora's Mask. Alongside Braid and Super Mario Galaxy, arguably the purest gaming experience in existence. I can't imagine there ever being a game as good as this in the same way ever again, in the same way there's never been a film as good as Casablanca ever again. Technology advancements aren't everything. Ico was created by someone who understood games more thoroughly than anyone else of his era.
  • gilgamesh310 - September 23, 2011 1:53 p.m.

    I think Ico is a great game, but I am now starting to think it's a little overrated. I mean a lot of what you spoke about here appears very pretentious. What exactly is so great about the game's story? It uses minimalism, but how does that automatically make it have a great story?
  • Matt Cundy - September 24, 2011 2:20 a.m.

    Ico is a classic tale of good overcoming evil. It's the characters and setting that make it so special. It's not complex in any way, which is why I love it. The plot is moved forward by natural progression through the game, not with stacks of dialogue and cut-scenes. If anything it's probably one of the most unpretentious examples of video game storytelling in recent years (what with 90% of big releases having pretensions of being movies rather than games). And it's the same with Shadow of the Colossus. Seriously, if you haven't played either of them, give them a try. It's the only way you'll be able to judge for yourself.
  • DukeNukeThem - September 23, 2011 12:30 a.m.

    Yeh it's got good physics.
  • MeabhieD - September 22, 2011 11:17 a.m.

    I need to get me one of those... :D
  • db1331 - September 22, 2011 10:11 a.m.

    I cannot wait for this to come out. I never got the chance to play either game. This is the reason I bought my PS3 this year. I wish I could read this article. I'll have to fav it and come back to it after I beat the game.
  • EnigmaSpirit - September 22, 2011 6:20 p.m.

    Same here, for every point, except I plan to buy a ps3 some time this year.
  • MyCoolWhiteLies - September 22, 2011 9:24 a.m.

    Oh, I also wanted to mention a couple other things about the game that people who didn't play the game in it's original run sometimes have a hard time appreciating. As you mentioned, the lack of a HUD was actually pretty groundbreaking at the time. But in addition to this was the hand-holding mechanic. The physics-based hand-holding, which didn't use canned animations and was combined with a very strategic use of the PS2's rumble feature, was also completely unprecedented. It was instrumental to making the players feel the connection between the characters, and the fact that you could roughly yank her around if you weren't too careful forced you to use restraint. You see similar mechanics in many games today, but so far I've yet to see one that does it better, including Fable 3's that was much touted by Peter Maw-la-noo.
  • MyCoolWhiteLies - September 22, 2011 9:08 a.m.

    Yeah, Ico's length never bothered me. I bought it the day it came out for $50, and finished it not long after that. In addition to it being one of my favorite game experiences of all time, I played through the whole game two more times back then, the later times getting the weirdly well-hidden mace weapon. I also played the last half hour (the last save point is a half hour before the end) at least 10 times total, as it was soooo well done. Also, not long before they announced the new HD collection, I made it a point to play through once again, and it held up wonderfully. Regarding the SotC/Ico connections (spoilers of course): I reserve absolute judgement until the Last Guardian is released, but I think the most commonly accepted interpretation of the games' relationship is pretty solid. It's centered on the belief that the girl you're saving in SotC is is actually the queen from Ico, and that Wander at the end of SotC, after slowly growing horns and then becoming a baby, is the first in the line of cursed children, of which Ico is part of.
  • ParanoidAndroid - September 22, 2011 8:35 a.m.

    Ah, Ico you gorgeous thing you. A truly mesmerising game.
  • Darkhawk - September 22, 2011 8:29 a.m.

    SotC is my all-time number one game, and Ico certainly falls somewhere safely in the Top 10. Classic Appreciation, indeed.
  • Caenlen25 - September 22, 2011 7:10 a.m.

    Ico was draw dropping back in the day. It truly is art, and not just a game.
  • ericthesmith - September 22, 2011 6:23 a.m.

    Awwww man I really wanted to read this but I haven't had a chance to play this yet. I looooved Shadow of the Colossus though, and I'm probably gonna steal someone's PS3 so I can play both.

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