When Ico was released, it was routine for games to lavish players with all kinds of pertinent information via the visual medium of cluttering up the screen. Ammo counters and beeping radars. Health bars and mana meters. Pictures of guns and helmets and medikits. Giant spinning compass arrows indicating the most efficient route to the end of the game. An out-of-control abundance of display cluttery. But not Ico.
One of the most instantly noticeable things about Ico was how totally uncluttered it was. Like fresh air. There was absolutely no screen pollution. No interface smog. Just a big, clutter-free screen of game. Lovely. Not such a revelation today, but 10 years ago it was still a fairly radical approach to game design. There wasn't even an inventory. Ico only had a stick. What did he need an inventory for? It was minimal and simple.
Above: Note the distinct lack of clutter in this PS2 screenshot
And from the moment that Ico finds himself standing in the vast sacrificial crypt at the start of the game, that design philosophy is evident throughout the entire adventure. The audio is so minimal that if it wasn't so effective at creating a tangible sense of isolation it would be purely incidental. Echoing footsteps. Birds calling. The crashing of distant waves. The crackle of a burning torch. That distinctive sound of wind you only hear when you're somewhere that's exposed to the elements.
Even the game's combat and puzzle mechanics are simple. The options when fighting are assigned to a single button. Ico is brave, but he isn't a warrior. He can't dodge or roll or guard or perform devastating special attacks. All he can do is desperately swing his stick at the otherworldly wisps. That's it. And the puzzles are no more complicated than something a 12 year-old would naturally be able to figure out using some common sense and a little logic.
Above: Levers, boxes and platforming predicaments are the mainstay of Ico's puzzles
The plot is also stripped back to its most simple. It's not complex. The game *is* the story. There are a few paragraphs in the manual about 'The Curse' that offer some background, but besides that there are maybe two or three cut-scenes total. Yet despite this economical approach to narrative, I always regard Ico's story as being one of the most effective - and affecting - that gaming has ever told. I wish other developers would take note of this 'less is more' approach when it comes to storytelling.
Ico was criticised for being too short. It could be completed in just a few hours. I know this is true because I've gone through it in one sitting of just over four hours myself. But I don't have a problem with that. It's a beautifully perfect four hours. Those same philistines bemoaned the lack of any 'replay value', especially in the US where the game was released without the various unlockable extras contained in the Japanese and European versions. But I've completed Ico multiple times simply because it's an amazing game. I don't need any other reason. Surely the actual quality of the game should offer all the 'replay value' a gamer needs?
And anyone that got to the end of Ico and the first thought that popped into their head was "Well, that was a bit short", doesn't deserve to have hands with which to play games. The end sequence is incredible. Watching Yorda - now an inky-black silhouette - carefully carrying the stricken Ico, placing him gently into a boat and pushing him out to sea as the castle begins to collapse around her is absolutely gut-wrenching. I remember actually feeling my heart-breaking as the melancholy end theme played, thinking that Ico and Yorda had not escaped together. Get a sense of that overwhelming sadness by watching the ending video:
But there was a happy ending. Ico and Yorda are reunited on a beautiful beach. And there's that warm fuzzy feeling again. However, there has been some debate over the game's seaside conclusion. Is Ico actually just dreaming about seeing Yorda again as he's drifting in the boat and that's exactly what the happy beach scene is - nothing more than a dream? According to the game's designers, the ending is deliberately vague and open to interpretation. So I choose to interpret it happy.
Team Ico's following game, the awe-inspiring Shadow of the Colossus, continued this theme of ambiguity in its connection with Ico. The two games are clearly very different, but when I played Shadow, I couldn't help imagining that the 'Forbidden Land' of the roaming colossi was located somewhere beyond the forests visible on the faraway horizons of Ico. Then there's the ghostly, shadowy figures and the fact that both protagonists, Ico and Wander, have horns growing out of their heads. But who knows - is Shadow of the Colossus actually a prequel to Ico (and the origin of the horned curse?) and will either game have any connection with Team Ico's insanely anticipated PS3 project, The Last Guardian? I have no idea.
Above: This is Shadow of the Colossus. Also made by Team Ico. Also one of the best games ever
As you can probably guess, I consider Ico to be one of the best games ever made. It's simple, minimal, beautiful. But more important than that, it's a joyful affirmation that video games can be every bit as affecting as the most highly regarded movies or books or songs. It's an unforgettable gaming experience that will make you want to eulogize its virtues like a French poet. Beautiful.
If you haven't experienced Ico, I aggressively urge you to consider purchasing the fully HD, 3D and trophy-supported Ico and Shadow of the Colossus: The Collection, which is released next on PS3 week. Read the review here.
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