Ico: Creating an Emotional Connection with a Pixelated Damsel
by Charles Herold
No discussion of the potential of videogames as an artistic medium can take place without reference to 2001’s Ico, a game most reviewers described as “art” when it came out. Yet at its core, Ico is simply a Tomb Raider-style game involving jumping, puzzle solving and fighting. Like so many of these games, it takes place in a world of artifice where machines and objects seem to have no other purpose than to be used to bypass an obstacle that has no reason to exist.
And yet, from the moment you start playing, there is a feeling that this game is unlike other games. It pulls you into its world so strongly, and creates such a sense of otherworldliness, that it really does have the quality of a living, breathing painting or an interactive art film.
Ico begins with the single weakest dramatic element in the game, an opening cutscene in which a young boy is taken to a moldering old castle and encased in a big pot. It is a dull, slow-moving scene that doesn’t make clear what is happening or why, and the player is better off skipping the scene altogether and reading the little intro in the manual that explains that the boy, Ico, is the latest unfortunate child in a nearby village to be born with horns that mark him as a sacrifice.
Without that, you probably wouldn’t even know Ico had horns growing out of his head. Ico wears a headband, and the horns go through the headband, so it just looks like some sort of hat.
Once the player is given control off Ico, conveniently freed from the pot by a tremor that cracks it open, this initial misstep is quickly forgotten.
There are a number of things that immediately strike the player about Ico. One is that Ico himself is not the superhero of so many video games. He is a little boy. When he runs his breath becomes ragged, echoing through the vast chambers of the ruined castle. Ico strains to pull a switch, and waddles slowly when carrying a heavy object. His movements have the awkward qualities of a young boy, lacking the grace and fluidity seen in adult athletes and video game action heroes.
Ico’s smallness and vulnerability are emphasized by the vast stone castle that imprisons him. Everything in the castle is huge. The pillars, the chasms, the precipices and the mysterious machinery all dwarf Ico. No matter how fast he runs, his short legs make traversing every room a lengthy task.
As Ico explores the castle, looking for a way out, he comes across a young girl locked in a cage hung by a chain at the top of a tower. He frees her.
This is Yorda, a barefoot girl in a translucent white dress. Her skin has a luminescent paleness and she speaks a foreign language. All language is subtitled in Ico, but while Ico’s language is subtitled in English, Yorda’s is subtitled in mysterious glyph-like characters, which prevents her from explaining who she is or why she was caged. (I’ve read that in the Japanese version of the game, if you play through a second time Yorda’s words are subtitled in the player’s language, but this is one of a number of features dropped from the U.S. version of the game).
Yorda is attacked by shadowy creatures seemingly made of oily smoke that try and drag her into a black whirlpool that appears on the ground. Ico grabs a stick and beats them off.
From this point on, Ico’s goal is to escape the castle with the girl. There are two reasons to help the girl escape. Emotionally the player wants to save her because she is vulnerable and weak. But if you’re not the sentimental type, you’ll still need Yorda, because only she, for some unknown reason, is able to open magical gates that close off parts of the castle. Dramatically, Yorda is an emotional focal point, but in terms of mechanics, she is essentially a skeleton key. You cannot even use the game’s liberally distributed save points if she is not with you.
As keys go, Yorda is difficult to carry. The puzzles in Ico revolve around creating paths to allow the girl to get from one area of the castle to another. Unlike Ico, she cannot climb ropes or leap to high ledges, so Ico must push blocks in place to create steps, climb walls and pull her up or even destroy sections of the castle to allow her egress.
Unfortunately, this all seems a bit sexist. Yorda is several inches taller than Ico (reflecting the height differential between pre-teen girls and boys), and appears uninjured. Why can’t this girl climb a rope?
Some people will dismiss the sexism argument as knee-jerk political correctness, but it is also a common sense argument. Girls can, to the best of my knowledge, climb ropes. In fact, I seem to recall girls in the Olympics doing back flips and spiking balls.
You might argue that Yorda’s imprisonment, which could well have lasted for her entire life, would have left her in a weakened, unathletic state. It’s a reasonable argument, but the game makes no attempt to posit it. Yorda seems to be in pretty good shape; ignore her and she will run around chasing butterflies. She never exhibits a need for rest.
Ultimately, this is something you just have to live with. In the logic of the game, Yorda fits a stereotype of women popular in the 19th century; feeble, defenseless, easily frightened (hit a stick against a wall next to her and she will flinch, although if you hit a demon next to her she won’t react at all) and basically unable to think her way out of a paper bag.
For my own peace of mind, I blame it all on her lifetime of imprisonment.
Once Yorda appears, she becomes the game’s entire focus. It is strange in a videogame to be responsible for another character throughout. Action games generally put the player in the role of a lone wolf. If the protagonist has a traveling companion, that companion is usually invulnerable.
Yorda, on the other hand, requires constant attention. Leave her for more than a moment and she will be attacked by shadow demons; fail to rescue her in time and the game ends. At times you must leave Yorda briefly to explore your surroundings, but every second she is out of sight you are thinking of her, worrying about her, hurrying to get back to her before something happens. It made me think of that assignment high schools students are given in which they must care for an egg for a week to underscore the difficulties of caring for a baby.
While this concern is built into the game mechanics, it is emphasized by Yorda’s trust and childish fragility. Yorda is powerful as a character because you believe in her. Leave her alone and she will explore her surroundings. This makes her seem like an independent character, although it is also a game mechanism: she will often run and look at something that the player should be paying attention to. Whenever she is attacked, Yorda will run towards Ico for his protection.
One of the notable achievements of the game is its sense of reality. Ico and Yorda seem real. Ico can take Yorda’s hand to lead her around, and if he starts running there is a moment where she stands there quietly before the pull of his hand causes her to stumble forward then start running. When Ico calls to Yorda, encouraging her to leap a chasm beyond her capabilities she will pace nervously on the other side, visibly afraid. Ico can lean forward to catch her when she jumps, but even then you can see her trepidation as she tries to determine whether she can make it. As Ico catches her you can see her weight pulling him down before he braces himself and drags her up.
A lot of thought has gone into how characters behavior. If Ico calls Yorda to come to him, she looks around to see where he is before she starts moving. It’s a small thing, but Ico is a game built of small things, and it is wonderful how the characters’ movements show you their thought processes. It all looks so authentic that as I played I assumed the game had used motion capture technology, but apparently this technology failed to give the game’s director Fumito Ueda what he wanted; instead, every subtle character movement has been created through old-fashioned, hand-drawn animation.
While the game revolves around action and puzzles, the player must often stop simply to admire the game’s beauty.
The castle itself is a wonderful creation. As you climb to high parapets you can often look out over a vast landscape to see where you have been. At times you will see a familiar location and realize you have spent 3 hours getting from one side of a wall to the other. Ico was the first game I ever played in which the environment felt complete; it is not a series of unrelated levels full of puzzles, but a complete architectural structure that makes sense in every detail.
The game uses light and shadow to wonderful effect. Much of the castle has a gloomy splendor, but some rooms are drenched with sun pouring in through tall windows. There are also arresting moments where you move onto the castle grounds, as when you leave the gloomy interior to discover a windmill by a lake bordered by pale green grass.
The green of the lawn is also striking for being one of the few signs of color in the game’s almost monochromatic color scheme. This lack of color is the most notable difference between Ico and the visually similar but much lusher adventure game Myst. The sameness of the charcoal and sepia visuals wearied me at times, which may be why excursions onto the grassy lawn always seemed so exciting.
I don’t know whether this was an artistic choice or simple a technical limitation. Game design is a series of trade offs, so more colors could have impacted some other visual effect the designers wanted.
The indistinct pixilated quality of the characters is pretty clearly a technical limitation, yet the impressionistic figures that result give the game the quality of a Seurat painting. This is one of the great strengths of Ico; it takes everything it can get from the PlayStation 2 console, squeezing out every once of beauty, and when the game hits a limit it becomes a strength.
The game’s beautiful craftsmanship can also be observed in the great sound design. There is a constant wind blowing in the castle, which is set on an island hill. At times, as when Ico and Yorda are on a high tower, the wind howls, while in some subterranean chamber it is distant and muffled, but it is rarely silent.
Ico is wonderful as a purely visceral experience. Faded sunlight plays on crumbling stone as Yorda and Ico run through the castle, her white skirt billowing, their echoing footsteps and heavy breathing heard just over the perpetual wind, pigeons or doves fluttering through the windows. This is what I must show friends when they come over. It is not the puzzles or the combat that makes me put Ico into the console and play it for them; I just want them to experience the game’s visceral elegance. I have played Ico through twice, once when it came out and a second time before writing this essay, but I have played through pieces of the game repeatedly in order to show people what makes it special.
The attention to detail that distinguishes the game’s look and sound also distinguish its gameplay.
Ico is primarily an adventure game of environmental puzzles revolving around getting Yorda to the next gate. Sometimes this is as simple as pushing a block to where she can use it as a stepping stone to a higher location. Other times it involves using levers and switches, jumping, climbing and making your way along narrow ledges.
Puzzles are very logical. No guessing is required, as it is always possible to scope out the environment and ponder on what you need and where you can get it. Usable items have a slight glow or draw attention to themselves in some other way; torches crackle noisily in case Ico needs flame. Puzzles are not, for the most part, especially difficult, although there were times when I was stuck on one for a while. There are certainly more difficult adventure games, but much of their difficulty is often a result of requiring the player to do things that make no real-world sense, like opening a door with a banana, a flute and a quart of acid.
Battle is also easy; even Ico’s final boss battle is easy as final boss battles go. Combat basically consists of hitting demons with a sword until they melt away. Demons can’t kill Ico, and don’t really want to; their only desire is to drag Yorda away to their shadowy realm.
This makes the demons smart but single minded. Two will gang up on Ico while a third grabs Yorda to drag her into the portal.
Combat is somewhat exciting but too simple to be considered much more than a dramatic device created to add suspense to the narrative. All Ico does is swing his sword or stick at demons over and over. There are none of the combos and fancy moves found in a game like Tomb Raider: Legend or Prince of Persia, but then, Ico is a small village boy with no combat training, and he fights demons with the straightforward swing of a child playing at being a pirate.
In Ico, gameplay serves story in a way it does in few games. Even though the story is ultimately fanciful, there is a commitment to its internal reality that keeps the player firmly rooted in the game narrative. This is not to say that nothing in the game design is artificial - certainly some of the puzzles rely on an architect who placed levers in ridiculously out-of-the-way places - but overall, combat, puzzles and the mechanics of guiding and helping Yorda all make sense within the context of two young children attempting to escape a cursed castle.
Like everything else in Ico, the story is slight and delicate yet has surprising power.
Like most story-driven videogames, the narrative in Ico is split into explicit and implicit threads. There are events in the game that make up the explicit story. Ico is left to die in the castle. Ico frees Yorda. Ico and Yorda confront the Demon Queen who has kept Yorda prisoner. These moments are portrayed in brief, infrequent but effective cut scenes.
The implicit story is told through gameplay. This involves the act of helping and protecting Yorda and of exploring and observing the castle. This implicit story is what gives the explicit story its power. Yorda is important not because of her occasional incomprehensible words to Ico but because the act of protecting her creates an emotional connection between the player and the damsel in distress. And it is trekking through the castle and viewing it from its highest points that creates a sense of scale and of entrapment. Movies can make us care about a character by creating a personality and a context, and can create a sense of situation through showing incidents, but a game can create feeling through experience.
Those moments where the implicit and explicit stories connect are the most powerful in the game, as when it seems that Ico and Yorda are about to escape the castle. The gate opens, a long bridge extends, and as you run forward, you think, this is it. There is the excitement of success, and a belief that you are about to see the world of Ico beyond the castle you have been trapped in for so many hours. When that hope is snatched away, along with everything else you have gained in the game, there is a genuine feeling of loss.
The explicit story and the implicit emotional journey mesh again beautifully in the game’s powerful ending. The affection you have formed for Yorda and your intimate familiarity with the castle you have explored make the final scenes incredibly affecting.
The last sequences are worth discussing in detail, but before I do, I want to urge anyone who has not played Ico to stop reading this essay right now. Seriously; go buy the game and play it: you can finish it in under 10 hours. Ico has the most memorable ending of any video game I have played, and I’d hate to ruin it for you.
In the last section of the game, Ico loses Yorda. It is very lonely exploring the castle without her, although after some exploration Ico finds a sword that allows him to open gates himself. Finally he finds Yorda, the Demon Queen and a whole bunch of demons in the room in which he was originally imprisoned.
Killing the demons is more melancholy than difficult. There are many of them, but they are harmless, yet Ico must vanquish them all while moody music plays (a harbinger of Ueda’s next game, Shadow of the Colossus, which centers on the senseless killing of peaceable monsters). The demons are horned, suggesting that they may be the souls of all the other horned boys sacrificed over the years.
Once the demons are vanquished, Ico faces off against the queen in an interesting boss battle that has some challenge but still has to be considered one of the least difficult boss battles in gaming history. During the battle, both of Ico’s horns get broken off. Perhaps this means that, like Pinocchio, Ico has become a real boy. Certainly it is symbolic of something, but I will leave matters of symbolic interpretation to others.
Ico vanquishes the queen, of course, but it is too late to save Yorda, who it is revealed was raised to be the new host for the Demon Queen’s soul. The ceremony to transform Yorda has begun and she is filled with the demonic blackness, becoming herself a shadow demon.
The castle seems to have been held together by the queen’s will; after she dies it begins to collapse in a series of tremors like the one that initially freed Ico. Meanwhile, the fight has left the boy unconscious; he lies on the stone floor as the castle falls around him.
As the earthquake ravages the castle, Yorda walks up to Ico and, now imbued with demon strength, lifts him up and carries him through the castle to an underground inlet. She puts him in a rowboat and shoves it into the water, then watches as he floats away.
As Ico drifts out to sea, we see the castle falling. The game revisits all the towers and caverns and chambers the player has explored, showing them each in their final moments. It is a last glimpse at the player’s journey.
As I watched the castle fall, Yorda still inside, I felt stunned disbelief. I had spent the last 8 hours protecting Yorda, leading her towards safety. Saving Yorda was to my mind the purpose of the game, and in that I had just failed. I had let Yorda down.
I knew I hadn’t failed in terms of gameplay; I had played well. But the game did something games don’t do; it gave me a sad ending, an ending of melancholy failure.
All through the credits I sat on my couch feeling dismayed. I couldn’t believe what had just happened. I watched the castle fall brick by brick, and then I continued to watch as the collapsing castle was replaced by a black screen over which the rest of the credits played.
At the end of the credits though, the game continued. Ico awakens on the beach and the player is once again able to control him. There is nothing to do at this point except explore the beach, and as Ico walks along he sees something at the edge of the water. It is Yorda, somehow still alive. She is neither the demon Yorda nor the luminescent Yorda, but a normal, flesh and blood girl. She says something to Ico and the game ends.
That ending made me so happy. I was thrilled, I was relieved, I was filled with ecstatic joy. Yorda was safe and all was right with the world. The game had resolved itself as games should; I had won the game and I had won in the story.
Ueda’s willingness to make players sad is one of the things that distinguishes him from typical game designers, and one of the things that makes his games feel like art (he moved much further into tragedy for Shadow of the Colossus). I appreciated his willingness to bring the player down, but I also appreciated his willingness to leave the player on a hopeful note.
Some people feel tragedy should be left alone. In a college film class my teacher ranted about the ending of the classic silent movie The Last Laugh, which seems to end in abject misery then tosses in a slapstick coda. He felt it was just a way to make the film more commercial, but I felt he held the common and mistaken belief that tragic endings are true endings and happy endings are inherently false.
My feeling is, all endings are inherently false, because life does not work like that. All of us end in death, of course, but in the meantime our lives are a series of joys and miseries, and encountering misery one moment does not mean you won’t find joy in the next.
For me, Ico’s double ending is the final perfect element in a game full of perfect moments. It is also the final example of what makes Ico so special, and so different from 99% of video games. Ico is a game that expresses a distinct vision. It is a game that expresses our doubts and joys through our actions and a game that shows that bravery, intelligence and caring for others are noble and will be met with success. It is a simple fable of good triumphing over evil, and it is ultimately a game of hope.
It is in every sense a work of art.