Ico: The Language of Love and the Language of Dreams

The first time I fell in love, I remember having a lot of dreams. Some were the tame fantasies of boyhood, but for the most part, they were fairy tale inspired epics, a twist on the narratives of classic fairy tales, with us standing in for the leading players. Disney had done a good job on me, I guess. But falling in love is very much like a fantasy quest. There is a call to adventure, when you first meet your beloved, there is a pursuit, and complications, and then victory and jubilation (or defeat and self-improvement and reflection).

I would sometimes walk in the woods behind my house, and mull over my feelings for this person. I would imagine conversations and adventures we would have in my head. Sometimes these wanderings would go on for hours, and the amount of time I spent in this pattern of behavior I’d rather not admit, but there was something emotionally satisfying about these roamings, even if they did not meet the qualifications for a well-paced story. Not every story needs to be observed in two hours like a play or a film. Some are meant to be lived in for a while, experienced, like a thick, juicy novel, or a video game.

Ico is a video game about love. It’s about first love, to be precise–that quest to be with a beautiful, powerful, unobtainable person; in the game, that person is the girl Yorda. Rather than force the player into constant hack-and-slash gameplay, Ico allows for long passages of reflection, where you can contemplate your quest and drink in the beauty of the natural world. The message here is that first love is meant to be savored. You want to appreciate all the little moments, so that you have them to cherish once the love fades. Memories fade as much as love does, but by treasuring those details about our first loves in the moment, they stay with us.

In many ways, Ico resembles that famous example of early Italian printing – the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, or Poliphilo’s Strife of Love in a Dream. Dreams are a key part of any love. Not love story. Love stories are usually dreams themselves, because how often do things work out that magically in real life? In the book, the hero travels to a lush island, where he explores a magical land for his lost love. When he finally finds her and goes to embrace her, she vanishes and he wakes up. This story has many similarities to Ico, not the least of which is that at the end of Ico, the heroes both wake up. Was some aspect of their adventure a dream? It is somewhat ambiguous.

But why do we fall in love while playing Ico?

Ico and Yorda share an intimacy throughout the game that is almost unrecognizable to most video game audiences. It takes a mechanic that is usually infuriating, the escort mission, and makes it endearing. A big part of what makes this work is the dialogue, or lack thereof. There is little spoken word in Ico. The characters communicate for the most part through gestures, images, and the occasional word spoken in a made up language, only some of which have subtitles. The silences are key. In those gaps, where maybe you would expect Yorda to comment on something, and she doesn’t, you fill in the space in your head. You create the dialogue subconsciously as you wander the castle. In my first play through, I remember the moment when I first stumbled onto the ramparts and saw the enormity of the castle’s battlements for the first time.

“Wowwwww,” I said aloud. “That’s awesome.”

Who was I talking to? I was alone in my living room.

I was talking to Yorda, who was standing right beside me, on the castle wall.

I was filling in the gaps with my own thoughts. My own words. I was writing lines of dialogue for Ico and Yorda, where Ico was was played by me, and Yorda was played by my projection of the girl I loved. It instantly generated a ton of empathy for the character. She was dear to me, and when she was in danger, I had to rescue her.

In the few scenes where there is dialogue between characters, it is not in English, nor the language of the game’s designers, Japanese. Instead, the characters speak a magical, made up language with subtitles that are (usually) in the language of the player. This artistic choice is one of the distinguished elements of Ico that was used later in Ico‘s spiritual successor, the greatest video game of all time.

But what does this choice do? How does it affect our experience of playing the game? There’s an old cliche that French movies are romantic. We’ve all seen the parodies, the man in black and white, staring with longing down a rainy cobblestone street, while puffing on a cigarette and drinking a bottomless glass of red wine. Oui, he says in a gravelly whisper. Oui, Oui, Oui. Do people in France think French movies are romantic? To them they’re just movies. So why do Americans feel that way? A love of Paris is a part of it, I suspect, but there’s something else too. People take dialogue more seriously when it’s in a language they don’t understand. There’s something about hearing the tone of someone’s voice, reading the lines, and interpreting them in your own way, that makes the drama much more believable. Contrary to what you might guess, that extra degree of removal–that little bit of psychic distance–enhances our suspension of disbelief and draws us closer to the drama.

My favorite example of this is the filmography of Wong Kar-Wai. Like the games of Team Ico, the famed Hong Kong filmmaker is known for his lush visuals, patient pace, and sad love stories. He uses minimal dialogue in his films, relying instead on the quality of the actors’ performances and the beautiful musical score. One place where Wong Kar-Wai does employ dialogue is in his clever use of voiceover, which is woven through several of his best films. Of course, if you don’t speak Cantonese, you’re going to spend a lot of time reading. But it works, because the words inform the pictures. Other foreign films use voiceover successfully in a very similar way. Take Amelie, whose breathless narrator is a constant presence throughout the film. I would argue that if you are an English speaker, movies in English can’t pull this off. Think of Stranger Than Fiction, (500) Days of Summer, and the notoriously awful theatrical cut of Blade Runner. And then there’s Wong Kar-Wai’s own foray into English language cinema–My Blueberry Nights. It was a box office disaster.

So Ico uses a fictional language. It gives the characters an emotional potency that is unexpected, and establishes an otherworldliness in the game. And even if you hear the tone of the character’s voice, you have to read the subtitles to understand the character’s words. A few weeks ago, Kotaku published a piece on why we fall in love with specific video game characters. A lack of voiceover was one of the criteria. Reading text dialogue in a game brings the story away from the film end of the spectrum and towards the novel end. It allows for deeper experience unique to every player.

And like the Kotaku piece says, it makes you fall in love with characters.

When I dreamt about the girl I loved, the dreams were a lot like Ico. That game’s story is universal. At some level, I think every young man wants to save a princess. Ico is the purest distillation of that dream. It is rich with symbolism. Its tableaux fill my dreams even to this day. I see the windmill, or the fall from the bridge, or the way the wave of energy from the queen’s hand explodes around my sword. Ico is a game about environment and experience and memory and dream, but most of all, it is about love.

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