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ICO - Please rate this review
Having worked before as an Animator on Enemy Zero, a project from the underrated Kenji Eno for Sega Saturn, Fumito Ueda’s first game as Director, ICO, had a remarkable impact on the industry, creating a cult of dedicated followers and regenerating the debated question: “Are videogames an art form”?
ICO is a personal project in which Ueda performed multiple jobs – Art Direction, Lead Animator, Lead Designer and Director – in the approximately four years of development, including a PlayStation to PlayStation 2 transition. Both critics and dedicated gamers acknowledged the game, yet the sales dictated its cult status and underground recognition even after its re-release in Europe along with Shadow of the Colossus, it’s so called “spiritual sequel” - more prequel than a sequel, actually.
In fact, this is not a “game” for everyone: Ueda wanted to create something that transcended this designation and prejudice. His method of work was named “Design by Subtraction”, where every element is reduced to its essence, to a general and apparently simple definition that is entirely open to the player’s mind and imagination and to an infinitude of questions. We know nothing of the character’s pasts. The dialogue is also scarce. And yet it is here that the gestures symbolize more than any word, thus enhancing the physical and humane part of ICO.
Who is the character Ico? Why has he been locked inside a cold stone cocoon, ready to be sacrificed “for the good of the village” and liberated by chance? Perhaps we will never obtain a solid answer. Perhaps not even Fumito Ueda knows it just yet. His second work, Shadow of the Colossus, is set once more in the ICO universe, not in the future but in an uncertain past. The connections between both are unclear as actual answers remain to be provided. There is only room for curiosity and speculation: what will Ueda’s new game be like? How will it make use of the current generation technology?
It is by chance that Ico encounters and joins Yorda, a spectre of light, “princess” of an immense and desolated castle. The boy is guided by impulses in blind courage and unfathomable determination. He releases her from the small cage within the greater prison and understands that, being lost and abandoned, he can but try to escape his fate, never leaving Yorda behind. And thus is forged a connection that stretches beyond verbal communication – the “princess”, so frail and delicate, speaks a language inscrutable to Ico –, a symbiosis that will lead them to defy the authority of the Queen and to try, against all odds, escaping from the castle.
ICO may appear to be a very clever and obscure subversion of classical fairy-tales, and indeed it is in its own fashion, but Ueda’s minimalism, as I said before, leaves an endless space for the player to interpret the meaning of this story. Personally, the main themes seem to be incommunicability and the passage from childhood to adolescence. The first is evident; the second: emancipation – Fumito Ueda has said in an interview that the original concept of ICO began as an exploration of the “Boy meets Girl” premise. When the boy meets the girl he knows the only alternative is to run away from the castle and together find their own way; it isn’t love or friendship that moves them – they are two complete strangers that nurture a fascinating relationship throughout the adventure – but, perhaps, the perspective of a fresh start, a new beginning far away from a world that cursed them from birth. The two horns seem to be the reason behind Ico’s imprisonment; Yorda seemed to be destined to become the new Queen, who appears in the game as a parental, greedy and over-protective figure. The mystical, ethereal and timeless world portrayed in ICO allows one to interpret the story as a parable.
Questioned about the sources of inspiration for his “game”, Ueda replied: “It is difficult to specify as there were so many things that gave me inspiration. It could be TV commercials, films, music or places where I used to play as a child.” His work is influenced by a myriad of artists, such as metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico – to which is notoriously paid tribute in the cover of the Japanese and European releases. In what has to do with gameplay, many have referenced Eric Chahi – author of Another World – for his personal method of work. The original Prince of Persia, by Jordan Mechner, seems to be another work that reflects its influence in ICO for the physical presence of the place as an obstacle. The Legend of Zelda, by Shigeru Miyamoto, is a series where childhood is a nuclear issue, in particular. Ocarina of Time seemed to be a great influence (namely the concept of dungeon) and it may stand as a curiosity, but I remember vividly one scene near the end of Ocarina where Link has to cooperate with Zelda: she has the power to break and open some special doors, whereas Link (the player) has to protect her along the way from fiends.
If I was given the task of placing ICO within a specific genre, I would say it is a balanced hybrid of Platform and Puzzle. The irreverent absence of HUD is an attempt of liberation from a common denominator which seems to remind the player he is playing a mere videogame. The enemies – creatures made from pure darkness – are mostly revealed during the first hour and there will be no great surprises concerning this until the end. These foes are not interested in the boy himself, but to bring back the “princess” to her “home”. Combats are a panic moment in which we must protect her furiously, having nothing but a wooden stick as a weapon of defence for the first half of the game – such a simple protection stands not only as a symbol of a desperate struggle but also an indication that the boy will not give up no matter what hardships lie in his way. The castle, its traps and natural hazards represent the true feeling of a constant menace as well as the Queen - the puppeteer of the barren play.
Ico and Yorda complement each other. Without her it would be impossible to unlock a few entrances blocked by statues – the girl emits a light that forces them to break apart – and to record our progress in the memory card – the only time that we’re reminded that we are “only” playing a videogame. The interaction between them is done through a complex simplicity and a subtle system of “context-sensitive actions” – a single button (R1) abridges their relation: we can call her, give her our hand (again, a strong symbolism) and help her get through certain obstacles. The gamepad becomes a natural and intuitive extension of our body.
Progression and rhythm adapt to the player, stimulating his intelligence through the countless puzzles and constructing an illusion of apparent freedom and exploration – when in fact there is only one way and solution to each problem. This was one of the ways to go around the need of a HUD: to outline a clear path, provide clues in an almost subconscious way and plenty of time to think them over.
It is hard to analyse ICO’s design in a cynical and objective way because the game isn’t captured by restraining concepts like “levels”. We stand before an individual entity, much like another character: the Castle. There is no design – there is (Digital) Architecture. One of Ueda’s goals was to create an “unreal reality”, underlined by the graphics, the majestic and impudent stage, a living portrait filled with camera artifices and careful use of lighting, in a natural spectacle that uniquely combines Cinema and Videogames – the current obsession of the industry with Cinema does not encounter its pinnacle through blatant close-ups offered by Unreal Engine 3 and its mindless explosions, but rather by works like ICO. The quality of the sound accentuates the feeling of isolation and is accompanied by a feeling of melancholy and loneliness. The “game” also bears a very interesting existential tone.
ICO is an epiphany. It is an outstanding demonstration of talent and creativity which demonstrates there is room for the individual and for Art in a market dominated by generic First-Person Shooters and annual updates. It is the perfect fusion of various styles and influences that bring about original and irreprehensible mechanics. It is a fascinating way to tell a story, an intimate and sublime experience that shows the full potential of videogames as an art form. 10/10