Ico is something else. Ico is about remembering what it’s like to figure things out for yourself.
I played the game to completion for the first time earlier this summer. I freed Yorda from her cage, beat a shadowy kidnapper into smoky submission, and grabbed her hand.
Watching, my girlfriend asked, “Do you have to drag that dead weight around for the whole game?”
“Yeah. That pretty much is the game.”
“Really? Fuck that.” She didn’t watch me play it much.
I feel like she missed out.
The fact of it is, this was not my first exposure to the game. I played the demo over a decade ago, on a PlayStation Underground demo disc. I had fun with it, and intended to buy the game, but in that way of things, I just never got around to it.
Finally, a couple of years ago, I prevailed on a friend of mine to sell me his copies of both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, which I also had not played. (In fact, I still haven’t. But I will! Soon!) I knew by this point that I was missing out on what were widely considered to be among the finest, if not the finest, experiences in the realm of video games, games that, for many, represented the apex of the argument for games as art.
I started playing, finally. It’s a short game, even if you’ve never played, and I could have done it in a sitting if I had dedicated the time. I wanted to savor it, though, and so intended to spread it out over a few days.
Over those few days, the PS3 HD collection of the games was announced. Bitterly, I abandoned my game.
Until a few weeks ago.
As Matt touched on, Ico manages to make one of gaming’s most despised devices, the escort mission, compelling. For an entire game. It is not because Team ICO did a great job programming Yorda, either. Every time she arbitrarily decided to turn down a proffered hand of assistance or chose to go back down the longest ladders this side of Snake Eater, I grew a little bit testy.
Yet somehow, that worked in the game’s favor.
In modern games, it is exceedingly difficult to get lost. Even when you find your player character dropped into a sprawling world tens or even hundreds of miles across, you almost always have a handy-dandy arrow overhead pointing your way like you’re an insane cabbie with a thing for Offspring.
On top of that, any action you may need to take will be demonstrated with a friendly onscreen prompt. Don’t know what button combination to press to drop the hammer on those creepy monstrosities? No worries!
It makes the first few minutes after you get out of the tomb into which Ico has been ensconced a little strange by comparison. Part of it is definitely that I only just played the game this year; a game over a decade old is almost always going to have different standards of instruction than whatever is current. Nevertheless, dropped into this story, you tell Ico run around, getting the hang of the controls, some of which don’t appear to do anything. You jump around, you try to get the camera to point somewhere useful, and you find the door to the next room.
And then you find a door you can’t open.
It’s maybe ten minutes into the game when you find Yorda. You drop her cage and rescue her, using a weapon that you just had to figure out how to 1) pick up and 2) use. Without anyone telling you how to do it. That fight is a breeze once you know what you’re doing. When you don’t? Well, you’re just a scared, confused little boy trying to free someone you found locked in a giant birdcage, and you’ve got to figure some shit out real quick.
I was wrong when I said that dragging Yorda around is the game. That fight? That figuring some shit out? That’s the game. Yorda turns out to be the key to opening the locked door, and it is cemented from there: you need each other. Without Ico, she’s helpless against the shadows. Without Yorda, he’s doomed to starve to death (or die falling from a huge height). Without both of them, there is no escape.
So: in much the same way that you (the player) are Ico in that tense moment when you first wield a weapon, so too are you Ico when Yorda decides she does not want to follow you and you shout at her to come up the ladder. Sure, you get exasperated with her, but you still need her, and as the game goes on and you meet the queen, the need to protect her becomes overwhelming.
You can probably tell by now that I don’t mean that “overwhelming” in the typical video game sense. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of games where the need to “protect” someone is a critical objective. To beat the game, you need to save that character. That is an overwhelming need in the typical sense.
The need to protect Yorda isn’t like that. With a story economy that borders on ephemerality, Team ICO created someone that you (or at least I) legitimately care about. Yorda is not just the key to escape, nor is she just a damsel in distress. She is someone that needs you, and if the game gets its hooks in you, you will go to whatever lengths necessary to make sure that she stays safe.
My connection to the game is nowhere near as personal or visceral as Matt’s. He imbued it with something even deeper. Yet I do not find it at all difficult to perceive how that happened. I care about Yorda as much as I’ve cared about any video game character, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that she is a blank slate onto which you can draw. That aspect of her, the fact that beyond her resolve to help and her need to be helped, makes her matter more than any princess waiting to be rescued.
And so you will fight for her, and you will save each other. That is always the hope.