Innocence has been explored as a concept in video games since storytelling methods became advanced enough to utilize themes. This is not just limited to the ability of youth overcoming evil (Ristar, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, etc.), but the destructive force created by the loss of innocence. Secret of Mana, Panzer Dragoon, Astal, and dozens of other titles have shown that capable hands can use the medium to express the power and sadness inherent in the transition from childhood to adolescence.
Ico takes this to another level entirely. Not simply content to utilize age-old motifs and themes (burgeoning sexuality as seen in the character of Yorda, the dark magic inherent in child sacrifice), it plays on the themes of simplicity with regards to gaming itself. This is a game simple enough for a child to play, to understand, to interact with… but one that does not reveal its darkness in full until the gamer has already become enmeshed in the story and mechanics.
The title reveals its hand, one trick at a time, from the very beginning. You are Ico, a young boy with an unfortunate set of horns. Because of this deformity, your village has imprisoned you in an ancient castle to ward off the bad mojo that births such as yours may bring. Only a tremor that runs through the crypt allows you to escape the fate of so many other children (as visualized by the dozens of other tombs around you). You are alone and intentionally forgotten by the village, but you will not give up so easily.
What’s stunning is Team Ico’s ability to connote all of this with such little dialogue and tutorial. There is no interface, no way to tell what buttons to press to pick up a torch or climb a ladder. The gamer, like the character, is an innocent in a world that does not make sense. The journey of self-discovery will be interwoven between avatar and gamer.
Such a linkage makes the upcoming horror all the more powerful. Ico soon discovers a young girl imprisoned in a cage: Yorda, ethereal and pure white. Freeing her calls to dark, shadowed things—the spirits of other horned children, their spirits risen from the grave—that cannot harm nor be harmed. Ico can only disperse them temporarily with a stick. They seem drawn to Yorda, but Ico refuses to let his age or Yorda’s seeming simpleness be the cause of capture. He (i.e., you) help her across the landscape, solving puzzles and aiding her escape. They must learn to work together… or they will die.
Deep in the castle is Yorda’s mother, the Queen. She has given birth to Yorda only so that the girl can be sacrificed to retain the Queen’s own youth. The obstacles and horrors that await Ico and Yorda all stem from this desire: the desire to defy aging, no matter the cost. It is innocence corrupted, paid for in blood. To break out, Ico must find an ancient weapon that can finally “kill” the shades and defeat the queen, destroying the castle in the process. What is left is a final question: will freedom ultimately stem from death rather than life?
Notice that it is only Ico’s ability to kill that allows him to save Yorda and himself. He “saves” the other children by dispersing their forms, allowing them to pass on. As a gamer, you are complicit in this act. Each cause-and-effect puzzle is worked out in the player’s mind before completion. There are no bells and whistles to distract. As lead developer Fumito Ueda said, “subtracting design” led to a minimalist approach that accentuates each moment, be it of security, safety, terror, or despair. The destruction that beats like a snare drum becomes the foundation of the gameplay, and of a lifetime.
Like a child’s first steps, each discovery has meaning simply by its isolation or novelty. Each moment builds on another even if it is only in the subconscious. The gamer may not remember how he learned to call Yorda, but the recall is there when the monsters close in. Terror teaches survival, which becomes truth, for if there is truth only in death, then existence itself has no meaning. Thus, the ability to kill—base power—is the context of continued existence, of growing up.
Once the player has become accustomed to the mechanics and to the story, he/she begins to systematically destroy the story world. Each minute brings the tale closer to an end, to when the Queen must inevitable die and the castle must fall. Even in this, an aspect of Ico is destroyed: his horns, the symbol of his own innocence and the reason for his banishment.
The girl is saved, the battle is won, but not everything has been answered. Has Ico proven his villagers right by the great power he has shown and wielded? What is to become of Yorda and Ico, together or apart? Was this “awakening” unnecessary, or did Ico require a trial to emerge into adolescence?
That is the key word: adolescence, the period at which human beings radically redefine themselves. There are few answers in that period of life, though many revelations. Simplicity gives way to complexity. Magic gives way to reality. Ico is stored for another day, the gamer goes back to the real world, but the moments remain. It is a powerful statement, and it is no surprise that Team Ico’s next game, Shadow of the Colossus, dealt with this topic.
It is a necessary step, after all. Childhood, though “pure” and “magical,” is but a rung in the ladder of any person’s life. To arrest momentum is to become like the Queen: vain, monstrous, inhuman. At some point and in some fashion, innocence will be lost. Ico has dealt with the tribulations that went along with it, and so have most gamers. The title itself is just a testament to that in the form of a game. We relive the memories of our own childhood in an active way that is also subconscious. The shadows we find may not be pleasant, but they serve their purpose…
To hold on to preciousness is to obliterate it, and…
To survive requires destruction.