Classic game appreciation section: Ico

Like a breath of fresh air

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.

The end

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.

September 22, 2011

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  • 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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