Post Game Wrap Up! ICO
ICO is a game with a huge cult following. Released in 2001, it might be the first real example people reach for when you make the argument that games can be art. I haven’t played this game since I played it once back in 2001. I never had much interest in it then, and by the time I had a PS2, it never crossed my mind to hunt it down. It’s a game many people tell me is a stand out title for the PS2. So a while back, I bought the HD collection of ICO and Shadow of Colossus, because I never really played either one. So, after many months of putting it off, I finally sat down to play ICO, mostly to see if the game lived up to its hype. After beating it, I couldn’t figure out how best to put my thoughts on this, so I mulled it over for a couple days. And I can only stand by my initial reaction.
ICO is many things, but ICO is a terrible game.
Now, I should explain what I mean by that. I really hated my time with ICO, for a lot of reasons. But, in its defense, I also saw exactly what makes this game a cult classic. Never have I had a harder time deciding what makes a game good and what makes it bad. In that respect, ICO is brilliant. I’ll get into it deeper, but first I should probably explain myself.
ICO is the tale of Ico, a boy locked in a haunted castle, as he was born with horns, which in the village he’s from is a bad omen. After an earthquake frees Ico from his sarcophagus, he begins to explore the castle looking for a way out. Shortly after, he meets a girl by the name of Yorda locked in a cage, which beyond being deathly pale, also speaks a completely different language. Ico frees the girl, only to be set upon by shadows trying to recapture her. Ico takes it upon himself to escape the castle with Yorda in tow. The story is a very simple one, like many things in the game, but that was done with purpose, in what the designers would call subtracting design. This comes more into play later, but keep this on your mind for ICO, as it was the driving force behind making it.
My problem with ICO can be summed up like this. I couldn’t decide in what way was fair to judge the game. Was it a game? Not really, as it was trying to be an immersive interactive experience. But at the same time, it wasn’t an interactive movie experience, as the player is not really able to shape the story the way they want to. Games like Beyond: Two souls and Heavy Rain are unique in that they truly are interactive movies, but are also terrible games from a game play perspective, being nothing but really quick time events. And yet your success or failure of those QTE’s change how the story progresses, making it uniquely your own. ICO isn’t like that either, because your character can die, the game can end in only one way, and there are many elements that are in the game solely to keep it a game. So I spent 3 days trying to figure out how best to judge the game, and frankly I never came up with a good way to do it. To be fair to ICO, it was one the first games that really wanted to be that interactive experience, and I highly doubt games like Heavy Rain or Beyond: Two souls would exist without it. So, I can only judge it as a game. Which is why as a game, ICO sucks.
The biggest reason behind that is based on controls. ICO is, to put it in a genre, a 3d puzzle platformer. By the time ICO came out, we already had some excellent platform games available, thanks to Super Mario 64 and Banjo Kazooie, among many others. Those games did 3d platforming perfectly, while ICO feels stiff and awkward. That may have been the point, but it doesn’t excuse ICO, as unlike Shadow of Colossus, you’re not climbing a moving mountain, I’m trying to leap from platform A to platform B, something gamers have been doing for decades. The camera might also be at fault here, as the camera is hardly ideal for platforming, and you have little control over it and at times it can be placed awkwardly to keep you from gauging distances. It’s worse indoors than outdoors, though.
(I hated this puzzle, because Ico can’t grab something in front of him)
But beyond even that, the other mechanics are shallow. Combat is really an afterthought. Again, I understand the concept, the player is supposed to be a child, devoid of any combat skills. You don’t even really kill the shadows, as at best they simply retreat to take you on other time. But it needs to be said, it’s shallow and void of any depth, mash square until the music stops. It’s also one long, nearly unbroken escort mission. Even the puzzles are shallow, while on the subject. While there are a couple of puzzles that stand out, mostly because they span multiple rooms, most won’t take long to figure out. It’s no surprise the game can be finished in less than two hours.
BUT… and I say this with as much capitalization as I can, ICO also has some shining moments. I’m hard on it for being a game, but I have to contend that there are a few things that make this the cult classic people say it is. As I mentioned earlier, this game was built with the idea to be as immersive as possible with the subtracting design approach. The first thing that really shines to me is the world itself, the castle, as it feels empty and hollow. Immersion plays a huge factor here in a lot of different ways. A lack of music is the first big step. There is sound in the stages, but it’s mostly ambient noises, like seagulls, wind and so on. The only time music is heard is when shadows attack you, and that music feels and sounds perfectly alien and creepy, and even still is very subdued. Of course, there is no HUD, which at the time was a big deal, as I can’t think of any games that didn’t have one in 2001 or at any time prior. While I complained about it earlier, the camera is used excellently to give you a sense of scope on the size of the castle, with big sweeping views of the larger, park like outdoors and the musty indoor settings, largely thanks to the bloom lighting techniques that were pioneered here.
I also have to give credit to the characters themselves in some way. The game was built off an idea of a boy meets girl story, and the game design reflects that. Ico and Yorda can’t even speak the same language, but despite that fact, through the game’s limited cut scenes and the way the two characters react to each other, you get the sense that they end up caring for each other despite the fact they know nothing of each other. It’s sweet, and feels organic. I’m also very happy the game doesn’t make Yorda speak Ico’s language at any point in the game, only translating for the player if they play the game a second time. There is also a child like wonder in the way the two characters physically interact, like when Ico takes Yorda’s hand and runs ahead of her, or when he calls out to her and waves his arm to get her to come to him. It’s a lot of little things that make not only the story sweet, but the characters themselves so endearing as well. Actions do speak louder than words after all.
So, as you can see, I was so torn on this game by the time I was finished with it, I had no idea what to make of it. How do you judge something like this? As I noted, I never did figure out a good way to do outside of it being a game, but in a lot of ways, ICO is more than that. Untraditional is one way to put it, and like a minimal art piece, it gives you just enough to allow you to see what you want to see, and it means something different for everyone. To me, it’s a game that despite having some standout moments, still sinks under the weight of its horrible gameplay. It’s harsh to be true, but in this case the good does not outweigh the bad. It makes it hard to recommend, yet somehow I still find myself doing so. ICO should be seen at the very least, perhaps through a let’s play of some kind. If nothing else, getting it and Shadow of Colossus for $30 bucks bundled together is a steal, and who knows? Maybe you’ll see it differently that I did. I can’t say it’s one of the must play games on the PS2, but if you’re curious, it’s worth checking out somehow. It was free for Playstation Plus subscribers a few months back, if you still have access to it, maybe you should check it out. Or a let’s play may be better. It’s a tough call either way.