ICO (2001) Game Review

ico c2

Ico is the type of video game that’s more meditative than fun, challenging us not only to overcome monsters and puzzles but also challenging us to be patient with its quiet moments. And that’s what keeps drawing me back to it.

When the largely elusive Team Ico released this inaugural title of theirs in 2001, the same year blockbuster action games like Metal Gear Solid 2, Halo: Combat Evolved, and Super Smash Bros. Melee were released, they intended for it to be the arthouse counterpart to typical video game mayhem, opting for minimalist, emotionally-driven storytelling that would engage players in a way it couldn’t engage those watching over their shoulders.

As for me, I didn’t play Ico until I got the remastered Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection for the PS3, and so far said collection is the biggest game-related reason (because it can also access internet and play Blu-rays) I’m glad I got a PS3 since Team Ico’s games are PlayStation exclusives.

Despite children being the protagonists, the titular horned player-controlled boy Ico and the otherworldly princess Yorda, this was never meant to be a children’s game; the duo’s main goal is to escape a castle they’re being held in to be sacrificed in a mysterious ritual. On the other hand, the times we’re simply traversing make it easy to forget the story’s harrowing undertones, and an otherworldly beauty peeks through the art style’s muted, except for occasional patches of vibrancy, color palette.

In arthouse fashion, the pacing is deliberate, and the gameplay is barebones, which is why it takes a while for the game to grab me. Capping off the arthouse appeal, the characters speak in a subtitled language created for the game. In between the showdowns with shadow creatures and the completions of puzzles, much of the game is devoted to Ico and Yorda just running from point A to point B, and said gameplay is presented in wide shots that make us observers of the action as much as participants in the action, which is actually a pretty interesting conceit as it invites us to reflect on what we’re playing.

If the story were about only Ico escaping the castle, it probably wouldn’t hold my interest at all; however, this was conceived to be a boy-meets-girl story, and the role of Yorda is what makes it special. Guiding her through the castle by holding her hand adds a huge layer of player immersion, and protecting her from the shadow creatures as they try to carry her into their voids and trigger our own demise adds a huge layer of intensity to the repetitive combat.

The biggest limitation to the story’s minimal scope is a lack of sympathetic grownup characters as the only ones depicted are Yorda’s sinister shadow queen mother and the soldiers who imprison Ico in the castle (my other big concern is the preteen Yorda’s dress; I can’t tell whether it’s innocuous or creepily risque). Perhaps the grownups depicted could be representing not grownups in general but a fallen society that sacrifices children, all too resonant of today’s society. It’s possible that Ico’s climactic choices affect his society for the better, but the denouement isn’t interested in answering that.

Still, I appreciate the meekness in storytelling and the refreshing purity in Ico and Yorda’s companionship. For what makes it stand out, Ico deserves to be considered one of the definitive examples of video games as an artform.

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