Naughty dog is turning thirty this year. Very impressive considering their humble beginnings.
Ico: The Ultimate Illustration of Human Connection
In this series, I take a look at some of the most beloved gems spanning Sony’s (almost) two decades in the gaming industry. Potential spoilers ahead. (Click here for the previous entry.)
Having kicked off this series with one of the PlayStation 2′s most beloved gems, it should come as no surprise that Ico is among my favorite PlayStation 2 games. Curiously, I didn’t play it until years after first playing Shadow of the Colossus. In fact, I’ve never even played the PlayStation 2 release. I first experienced Ico in HD glory when it was ported to the PlayStation 3. Nevertheless, this heartfelt game first hit the market in 2001, throwing the gaming industry on its head with its offbeat focus and gameplay.
Today, Ico might not seem that odd. The whole “video-games-are-art” trend has begun making waves in the industry and consequently games with focuses similar to Ico can be found all over the place. But, as I alluded to in this series’ first entry with Shadow of the Colossus, Fumito Ueda is, in retrospect, a pioneer among developers. I’d dare say he’s the father of indie games the way the Pixies are the fathers of alternative rock. Ico is a prime example why.
This classic, defying conventional gaming methods, detracts from combat-focused gameplay in favor of puzzles and, even more prominently, the lead characters. I am careful not to say Ico focuses on plot because, quite frankly, there is very little of one. The game begins with the title character being carried in a sarcophagus into a great hall in a castle filled with thousands of identical sarcophagi. Why is he brought here? Did he commit a crime? Is he to be sacrificed? Though a (sort of) prequel novel offered an interpretation, officially Team Ico has not confirmed any theory, and there is certainly no explanation offered within the game.
As the story progresses, Ico meets a mysterious woman who speaks a completely different language and is being hunted by shadow creatures. These creatures provide the only combat the game contains—and it isn’t much. Though there are a couple of weapons Ico can acquire, but for the most part he merely wields a stick that he wards off the shadow creatures with when they attempt to drag Yorda into dark portals. Why is she being hunted down? For most of the game, no real reason is given. Though Yorda’s mother, the queen of the castle, reveals some details in a dialogue between the two, it is only on the second playthrough that the player is privy to what the two are saying in one of the game’s few cut-scenes.
This it the true beauty of the game. Instead of focusing on plot, melodramatic characterization, or even strict gameplay, Fumito Ueda somehow, without dialogue or backstory, crafted a beautiful relationship between two characters. A presumably outcast boy breaks out of captivity, springs a young woman from captivity herself, and the two, without any knowledge of who the other is, are conjoined by a common cause: escape. What more do you need to build a timeless relationship? According to Ueda, you don’t need complicating factors like words or similarities. The two come together because they’re all the other has, and that’s more than enough.
In the end, most of what happens after Ico’s escape from the sarcophagus is revealed: the queen wants Yorda’s body to grant her extended life. Despite being no match for the terrible queen, Ico braves the danger for the only person he has in his life, and unlike many stories, I was genuinely happy to see the couple end up together. So often it feels cliche, but Ico couldn’t have ended any other way. We needed that ending as much as Ico and Yorda needed each other.
The real tragedy, as it were, comes in the form of Ico’s spiritual successor (which in all likelihood is a prequel). Shadow of the Colossus ends with the birth of a child with horns—just like Ico has. Providing a connection of sorts (aside from the beach seen at the end of Ico, which can be found in the Forbidden Lands in Shadow of the Colossus), the epilogue perhaps explains the origins of the children with horns, and how Ico was unfortunate enough to be born with them.
As ever, the legacy of Ico (and Shadow of the Colossus) lives on, and will hopefully continue with The Last Guardian, if ever the game escapes development purgatory and graces us with another mind-blowing adventure. Until then, we have Ico to remind us of the essence of human connection.