Developer: Team Ico
Submitted by: Retro Gamer
The four-year development cycle of Ico began when Fumito Ueda showed a short movie to Sony, encompassing the basic idea of Ico: the castle, the able lad and the enigmatic princess were all there, with sunlight pouring into open environments along with shadowy halls to contrast them. Ueda, who taught himself to animate, sought to tell the story through his characters’ expressions. Kenji Kaido, who’d overseen the big hit Ape Escape for Sony, teamed up with Ueda to bring his vision to life.
Ico was made by a super-small team of just 20 people, with Ueda reluctant to give up control of too many aspects of the product – he took on the role of lead artist, designer and creative director and often stayed overnight to get the game done. Originally destined for PSone with a slightly less ethereal look (Ico didn’t originally have horns but Yorda did, though the castle seemed largely the same) the game shifted development to PS2 and a more coherent visual style emerged, a result of the team’s make-up of mainly artists and programmers. While critically acclaimed from the moment it was released on PS2, Ico performed poorly at retail, becoming a collector’s item until popular demand led to a reprint to coincide with Shadow Of The Colossus, the team’s next title.
Ico is a sad, lonely trek through a cavernous castle that sees a boy, exiled from his kingdom because of the horns on his head, escorting Yorda, an enigmatic princess, out of the fortress in which they’re both imprisoned. On the surface, there’s not really a lot more to it – as Ico, you’re keeping Yorda alive as you go, fending off shadowy beings that try to drag her into the darkness. Essentially, Ico is a five-hour escort mission broken up by extended, smart puzzles, but this relatively easy game is defined by its overwhelming sense of atmosphere, with an eerily beautiful world that underlines the mournful tone of the story.
Looking at it now, the most forward-thinking touches are the lack of a HUD and, far more importantly, the economy of cutscenes in telling the story. There’s not a lot to know beyond the reasons why Ico and Yorda are imprisoned – but their emerging bond and your interactions in keeping her safe creates something that really beats anything a cutscene can provide. Sure, it sounds a little emo, and yeah, Ico definitely falls into that bracket of games that deliberately aim to provoke sad feelings from the player. But those moments are well-earned, particularly later in the story where it really gets tricky to solve puzzles while keeping Yorda safe and you’ve spent more time with both protagonists.
As you learn more about the background of the castle and Yorda’s true nature, Ico becomes somewhat heartbreaking, particularly in its closing hour when you get the sense your young hero is too naïve to really know what he’s up against. That’s the brilliance of Ico, really – mechanically, it’s a quality puzzler/platformer hybrid with some seriously smart environmental brainteasers, but your empathy for the hero’s plight, and the relationship that organically grows between the two characters is the real appeal to this masterpiece. The bizarre, always windswept pocket universe in which the game is set is just fascinatingly put together, and you only ever feel like you’re getting a tantalisingly small glimpse at the whole picture. You know about as much about what’s going on as Ico does; it’s an effective means of showing rather than telling with storytelling that builds a connection with your hero’s mindset.
This world and its characters are why everyone always argues for Team Ico’s games as examples of art, of course. That’s certainly a pointless overall argument due to the fact it’s been overplayed and endlessly unresolved, but the reasoning behind that kind of opinion is obvious: Ico definitely transcends the sum of its familiar parts in the telling of Ueda’s story.
Players experience something they don’t get anywhere else that makes them feel like they’ve stumbled across some kind of milestone in narrative design. That’s just a positive reaction, full-stop, and while we should never feel like we have to justify games to people who don’t really get them, there’s plenty about Ico that’s worth arguing for in the face of critics who doubt the legitimacy of interactive storytelling, seen recently in games like The Walking Dead or Journey. For the rest of us, it’s another sign that the evolution of interactive storytelling is always making positive progress.
Why It’s A Future Classic
Ico and its spiritual successor, Shadow Of The Colossus, invoke similar feelings in the player through the bleakness of their shared universe, but Ico is unique because of the attachment it forges between you and its characters. The small details in animation really make this feel like a forward-thinking game – watching Yorda chasing birds away or admiring the sights are the only clues you really have to go on with this travelling companion, and it’s a far richer way to portray a character than detailing a massive backstory or relentless voiceovers funnelled through bad actors.
This is reserved, smart and timeless storytelling, the likes of which we can still only see in trace forms across modern videogames. Ico, for that reason, is a genuinely mature work. It gives us a mystical world where we’re forced to fill in the blanks, and a gameplay dynamic that makes us think beyond the basic categories of the genres it crosses into. Contemporary games like The Last Of Us or BioShock Infinite owe much to Ico in terms of the way developers think about AI companions, and finding a balance that means such games never feel like extended escort missions – Ico got that just right. That dynamic between player and AI reached its next logical stage with this title.