From a historical standpoint, the Playstation 2 was a bastion of interesting, different, and oftentimes downright odd design. Perhaps it’s safe to say that its astounding market lead made it possible for such unique games to thrive. Perhaps it was the nature of the times, when a game like Stretch Panic could be made on a home console and released in the US. That kind of brave near blissful stupidity doesn’t happen too much anymore, and it’s a damn shame. But even though smaller, experimental titles managed to swim in the current of the PS2’s success, bigger experiments in formula were also developed. And of course, the flagship of Sony’s determination to do good with it position of power was a title called Ico.
As with all Retrospective posts, the goal shall not be to merely review the title, but to examine it’s place in the modern world, both in regards to how it affected the games of today and how well it manages to play amongst the evolved design that followed.
Now as most will attest to, Ico didn’t leave nearly as large a legacy as did its younger brother, Shadow of the Colossus. The latter title has a larger fanbase with warmer memories and is often cited as one of the best games of the console’s massive library. Ico tends to stand in the corner, watching itself fade away as Shadow gets the lion’s share of the glory.
But to be fair, Ico did leave a lasting impact on many in both stylization and mechanical design. It’s one of the earliest titles that comes to memory to employ climbing mechanics that feel straight out of Assassin’s Creed or Uncharted. It not only established a stylized lineage for the team’s future game(s) but even inspired others. Just look at the trailer for the upcoming Rime.
Even if it isn’t as fondly remembered as the game that came after, it still managed to be one of the first big art games ever made, and for that reason, it holds a worthy legacy.
Now playing Ico brought about a few interesting revelations. First of all, it helped me realize that escort-style gameplay is not automatically awful, not when I, the player, manages to form a faint bond with the character being defended. Sure, the development and characterization of Yorda is flat and simple at best, but a subtle connection forms over the smallest details. Perhaps most notable was the small feeling of a heart beat through the dualshock’s rumble whenever I held her hand, a supreme example of mechanics servicing intimacy.
This hand holding element manages to be so fascinatingly effective due to its stark contrast with the major theme of the game, unknowing. Yorda and Ico have the inability to communicate, the shadow creatures evoke shocking uncertainty in their purpose and composition, and the game’s utter silence makes for an unsettling game that laughs in the face of any title cowardly enough to use elaborate scores or predictable emotional set pieces to make us feel something. In Ico, there’s simply too much left unexplained, so having that one physical interaction, the feeling of heartbeat, is brilliant design. It’s the one ounce of connection we get.
On a grander scale, Ico does something else that I love, something that I wish games did more often. It truly makes the player feel as though there are bigger forces at work than what’s immediately present. This may sound like a simple thing, but remember that story twists and elusive characters don’t sell this effect nearly as well as broad atmosphere. The world itself must speak to this looming power, and everything about Ico seems to point the player towards some greater unknown, an unknowable force.
In the context of today’s broad gaming spectrum we have at our fingertips, a little title like Ico might feel like an outdated and outclassed shadow of the past. Certainly its controls feel choppy and inaccurate, and it’s scope seems small compared to some of the more epic and gargantuan tales spun by today’s work, even in the indie scene. But where today’s experiences often feel bloated and hefty, Ico acts as a lean, quiet, personal adventure. It takes advantage of intimacy, an element frequently ignored in favor of bombast and showmanship.
So does Ico fit in with the diet of the average game enthusiast, modernized and online? Even without the addition of trophies, a feature the game now sports thanks to its HD rerelease on the PS3, this is a game that everyone with a desire for something more deeply personal should pursue. No, it’s not as grandiose as most retail-released console games of today, or even Shadow of the Colossus for that matter. And it may even frustrate you with some outdated mechanics and shoddy controls, but the bond you create and protect will stick with you long after completion, and you may just find yourself wanting for a little more quiet emotion in whatever you venture to next.