“They…they tried to sacrifice me because I have horns.” (Ico, after releasing Yorda from her cage.)
Ico is an action-adventure game that revolutionized gaming by elevating it to an art form. It gained widespread acclaim for its original gameplay and sparse storytelling. A cult classic that is now considered one of the greatest video games ever made, Ico introduced a bunch of fresh elements. ‘Bloom lighting’ and ‘key-frame animation,’ for instance. It also won various awards for its gorgeous landscapes and minimalistic approach. Ico inspired future games like Shadow of the Colossus and Last Guardian. Originally released in 2001 for Playstation 2 and got a couple of re-releases in 2006 and 2011. In its initial release, the game did not garner much attention and failed on a commercial level. The game frustrated players by having no clear instructions and no tutorial videos.
So how did it garner a cult following?
Playing the game for the first time one may not realize the inherent beauty of the game. As they get the hang of it, one begins to appreciate its subtle gameplay even more. A masterpiece that stands the test of time, Ico grows on you. It sucks in your attention and awe and renewed admiration.
Simple and affecting story (Ico)
It is known for its simple story with deeper meanings. Ico – a horned boy – is kidnapped by a group of warriors and locked inside a stone coffin to be sacrificed. An adventure game about a boy locked away in an abandoned castle. Ico escapes and as he searches across the castle, he finds Yorda. Yorda is a captive girl who speaks a different language. Ico and Yorda escape the castle after destroying the shadow monsters. As they arrive at the bridge, The Queen does not want Yorda ( her daughter) to leave the castle, The bridge collapses and Ico falls off the bridge. The Queen saves Yorda for her personal gain.
As Ico tries to make his way to the upper levels of the castle, he finds a magic sword. It helps him to vanish the shadow monsters and the Queen. While fighting with the Queen, he gets to know that the Queen wanted to start a new life by taking possession of Yorda’s life. As the Queen dies, the castle starts to tumble down. Ico loses consciousness but is saved by Yorda. The storyline on paper may not be groundbreaking or may not feel like a particularly complex one. Yet it connects with the player on a deeper level. To give an example: Yorda speaks a different tongue which is not translated. It seems vague, but you do get to experience the connection, due to the other aspects of gameplay.
A feature that differentiates Ico from its counterparts is its minimalistic approach to gameplay. Fumito Ueda, the director, wanted to create a simple game around the “boy meets girl” concept. Subsequently, to impart greater clarity to this template, the team implemented a “subtracting design” approach to reduce elements of gameplay that interfered with the game’s setting and story. This was done in order to create a higher level of immersion. It removed everything that did not support the skeletal story they are trying to portray. (Interestingly, Ueda would go on to direct and design another classic, Shadow of the Colossus using a similar sparse palette albeit with much darker shades.)
There are no on-screen instructions like” Press X to Jump,” etc. The ‘enemy types’ have been reduced to the bare minimum – as they wanted to focus on the ‘escape’ part of the adventure more. This does not mean that it is less competitive. The player needs to solve puzzles and overcome obstacles frequently throughout the game. There are only five to six cut scenes to move the story ahead. Instead, it goes for a real-time experience and does not waste time by getting mired in complex details or heavy dialogues. It is very direct and allows the players to discover it for themselves. The large camera angles help in a smooth transition from one atmosphere to another. Ico does not feature much background music. Instead, ambient sound provides the score – in keeping with the overall tone and vision.
In conclusion, Ico is a unique and emotional game. It is a game that draws you in and grows on you like a serene display. It lets the player explore and find out what they are supposed to do. Ico focuses mainly on the story and removes everything that distracts us from it, making a strong case for how ‘less is more.’ Ico inspired many later games like The Last of Us, the infamous Dark Souls, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Metal Gear Solid 3, and especially significant, Journey. In retrospect, Ico introduced a new flavor and showed how sometimes simplicity brings out the best in a game, It may not feature a complex narrative or dialogues but brings storytelling and gameplay seamlessly, organically together.