Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Ico: It's Not You, It's Me

Shed a tear for Ico. Released at the dawn of the millennium to critical acclaim, it’s probably one of the top ten best PS2 games ever, and its unique ambiance and gameplay mechanics teased (and helped influence) a higher level of gaming. America responded by ignoring it. Even now, a decade later, Ico is still considered somewhat of a “niche” game, highbrow but lacking in broad appeal. And on top of that, I just played it for the first time and I must sadly announce that, while I enjoyed it very much, it won’t be on my favorite games of the year list. However, due to the circumstances surrounding this game and my opinion of it, I feel like I should talk a little about what makes Ico so cool, and why, to me, it brushes but doesn’t quite grasp greatness.

This is a story-driven game through and through; the gameplay itself is closely tied with its mysterious and ambiguous narrative. What do we learn, and what can we guess? Well, the titular hero is a young boy with horns, which do not make him the ideal playmate in his village. He is taken to an immense, crumbly castle that (barely) perches on an island of sheer cliffs and vast empty spaces. He is sealed up inside some kind of giant Nutella jar and left to die, but he’s lucky enough to escape. Then he finds and frees Yorda, a beautiful girl with mystical powers who is so childlike and fragile that, like the original little mermaid, she seems to be tiptoeing across invisible knife blades. Yorda’s (possible) mother, the queen of the castle, is displeased and tries to stop the duo as they search for an exit.

That’s the plot. Pretty bare bones. But what can we infer? Ico’s great strength, so great that some mistake it for a weakness, is its vivid depiction of its young heroes. Ico isn’t too talkative, but his body language conveys his personality: determined, sprightly, stubborn, the gawky gracefulness of youth dueling with the uncertainty of adolescence. He is notably younger than Yorda and so thinks little of romance, living in the moment. As the player guides Ico up ladders and across terrifying ledges, as he swings on chains and waves a sword with a delightful lack of skill, you kind of fall in love with him a little bit. You want to get him safely home and give him a hug and some hot chocolate. As for Yorda, may have heard that she’s a royal pain in the ass. You may have heard that the entire game is one long, tedious escort quest. That Yorda makes Princess Peach look like Samus Arran. That you’ll spend half the time dragging her along, prodding her into performing the simplest actions, searching for her when she wanders off, and defending her from shadow monsters while she stands there looking bewildered. All these accusations are correct, but unless you’re a jaded gamer (which you may well be), you’ll fall in love with Yorda too.

Just watch her. Team Ico put so much subtlety into Yorda’s performance. What may initially seem like sloppy AI is, in fact, sublime AI in how it depicts a passive character. Yorda is not stupid, merely naive; not useless, merely fragile and tentative. And there’s a reason for it. This is a girl who has never gone beyond the castle walls, who is firmly under the thumb of the sinister queen. She is daunted by the unknown. She’s not certain about this plucky horned boy who wants to rescue her, but she follows him because she doesn’t know the meaning of distrust. She may not even realize that there is any danger: while Ico is a hero on a desperate quest, Yorda is a child playing an elaborate game of hide and seek. And she learns. As the game progresses, she evolves into a more capable companion. Along the way, the nearly wordless bond between the two children strengthens into something very real -- not a conventional romance, but the kind of uncomplicated and unbreakable bond that only children can share. Play the game, watch the two main characters closely, and tell me I’m wrong.

To use a classic gaming cliché, the environment is a character in its own right. How long has this castle been quietly rotting away, occupied only by the queen, her daughter/prisoner, and her creepy and pitiful shadow minions? Few video game environments can so successfully convey the sense of being a real, physical space. It’s not like with most games, where every level or stage exists in its own, self-contained little bubble. The whole castle is always there, looming at the corners of the frame, unfolding gradually to reveal its nooks and crannies. You revisit places you have already been. You gaze down from a high ledge to see a distant courtyard you explored an hour ago. Ico pulls levers to operate creaky old machinery and we wonder: who built this thing? What was it used for? Did the queen always reign over this gloomy pile, or is she a squatter, moving in once it was already long abandoned? The game gives us no exposition, but it’s better that way; the castle becomes a mental as well as a physical space, the archetype of the Labyrinth from which the Hero and the Lady must somehow free themselves. Assuming they should free themselves.

The final thing I must gush about is the ambiguity of Ico. Most games are afraid to leave Good and Evil up in the air. Ico forces the player to wonder. Yes, Ico has every right to save his own life. Yes, the queen acts evil and (spoiler alert) is planning to occupy Yorda’s body so she can remain young. But...wait a minute. What does Yorda think of all this? She can’t speak Ico’s language and, again, probably doesn’t understand the danger -- but does she actually want to be rescued? Is Ico assuming too much? Rather significantly, the shadow monsters are only after Yorda and ignore Ico unless he attacks them. And the queen, more than once, tells Ico to leave and forget about Yorda. She doesn’t seem interested in killing little boys; just because the people of Ico’s village are ignorant bastards doesn’t mean she encourages them. From a certain point of view, Ico is being a bit of a brat, dragging Yorda into his own exploits without considering her feelings. A late scene also suggests that killing the shadow monsters might just be a bad thing -- or an act of mercy. And the game’s climax is sad, happy, and mysterious -- what, precisely, happens to Yorda, and how does it fit with the seemingly triumphant final scene? How much of that final scene is even real? I do so love a game that makes the player draw their own conclusions (Braid, Silent Hill 2, and Killer7 are other good examples).

So, okay....I really liked this game. Why didn’t I love it? Seems like it’s right up my alley. Yeah, I have a few minor gripes. The shadow monsters suck and the endless, repetitive battles with them suck even more. One area in the castle is shamelessly copypasted. It’s occasionally unclear where to go next, and which ledges Yorda can be hauled onto. And yeah, as much as I liked Yorda, I wanted to smack her when she couldn’t figure out that there was a ladder right the hell in front of her and she should climb it already. No game is perfect. What really made it hard for me to embrace Ico was that I couldn’t get over the fact that I’d seen and done it all before. The precarious platforming, the puzzles, the ambient sounds and bloomy lighting and drab, crumbling architecture -- I’ve been through all that. In Shadow of the Colossus.

See, it’s not the game’s fault, it’s mine. Shadow of the Colossus was the game that convinced me, after watching some gameplay, that I needed to come out of my five-year gaming coma and get a damn PS2, STAT. Shadow of the Colossus is the game Team Ico made after Ico, and it is also my favorite video game of all time. Unconditionally. Without a doubt. I won’t talk too much about SotC here (nor will I reveal how the storylines of the two games might be linked), but the problem is, Ico was essentially a warm-up for SotC. Many of the gameplay aspects and all of the dreamy visual flair of Ico can be found in its spiritual sequel. Now, I can’t claim that SotC is better on a technical level; I found Ico’s limber movements to be far more easy and natural than the stiff-legged plodding of Wander from SotC. And the characterizations in Ico are about a quadrillion times more effective (Wander is as expressive as a cinderblock and his true love spends the game dead on her back). But, but, but. I can’t get around my unseemly love for Shadow of the Colossus. I think that if I’d only played Ico first, I would love it more because I would be discovering Team Ico’s gameplay strengths for the first time. Instead, I play it and I think, “Cool, look at all these mechanics that will later be put to such AMAZING use in Shadow of the Colossus. Look at these themes that will be BRILLIANTLY explored in Shadow of the Colossus. I wonder if, while Team Ico were tinkering around in this game, they knew that they would later make the MAGNUM FREAKING OPUS that is Shadow of the Colossus.”

This keeps happening to me! I played Katamari Damacy 2 first, and by contrast, Katamari Damacy 1 is limper than a wet noodle. I played the second and third Sly Cooper games, then went back and played the first one, and if you have played the Sly Cooper games, you realize what a bloody gigantic step backward I took. Hell, I doubt I can ever really enjoy any of the early Resident Evil games because of the sheer, unadulterated, balls-to-the-wall fun I had with Resident Evil 4. Welcome to the dark side of backwards compatibility -- although, really, this phenomenon can be applied to anything. I adore the works of fantasy author China Miéville, so I went back and read his debut novel, King Rat, and thought it was a proper turd. One must accept that an artist reaches brilliance through trial and error. Not to say that Ico is not a brilliant game. But I’m the visitor from the future, wearing my cool silvery futuristic garb with lasers coming out of my nipples and shit, and I’m chuckling at Ico and saying, “Well, yes, this is very good and you should be proud of yourself, Mr. Ueda, but let me tell you what’s coming up!”

Oh, well. I’m more pensive about this than unhappy. I really liked Ico and I guess I can give it a special merit award, like the one they give to Danny the black sheep in So Dear To My Heart (How’s THAT for an obscure pop culture reference!). This is still pretty much a four-star review; it merely acknowledges that my own personal gaming bias means I liked Ico a tad less than I’d anticipated. But that’s okay, because it just shows how good Team Ico is, that their first effort is merely really good instead of phenomenal. And all of this may turn out to be irrelevant anyway, because, holy shit, this is about to happen:


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