At its core, the story of Ico is simple: boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, boy loses girl. We’ve all heard that tired breakdown, along with it’s companion: every story has been told before. What’s important is how the story is told, and Ico‘s story is told through rich atmosphere and limited gameplay. With that regard, it is both a unique game and story.
Developed by removing any element of gameplay that would detract from the atmosphere of the game, Ico centers around the concept of two characters holding hands for the entire playthrough (I’ll get to that in a minute). Take a look at the screenshots we’ve posted. There isn’t a way-point indicator, a health meter, or a weapons bar. As a matter of fact, there isn’t anything on the screen except for Ico, Yorda, and their environment.
The enemies are a tad Devil May Cry, but they never swarm or overwhelm you. They jump at you, they jump back, and they slash – that’s about it. Only small variations in their physical design distinguish them from one another.
You can get up to five weapons, but two are secrets and you can never hold more than one in your hand (there isn’t even an inventory). Throughout most of the game, you will play with a large stick or a sword, and you have to switch between the two to complete different puzzles.
Think about games you play, now. There are so many distractions. Outside of most RPGs (and even some of those), I couldn’t give you a good plot synopsis of a major console release in the last five years. I could talk your ear off about the gameplay or the collectibles and (maybe) the characters, but the plot evaporates over time.
Games are interactive, so it makes sense that the only lingering memories we hold about them are the gameplay. But what if a game wanted to be more than that? What if it began from the onset to develop a relationship between the characters and speak to the player?
Ico is one of those games. By removing all of the distracting elements, the player is free to concentrate on the characters and their situation. The first time I, as a player, took Yorda’s hand, I felt something. Ico holds her hand in cinematic scenes, yes, but, in actual gameplay, he gently extends his hand and waits for her to grasp it. When that happened–that is, when I initiated that contact–I felt the tenderness there.
At the time, I tweeted about how adorable I found the game and moved on. Once you begin dragging Yorda everywhere, the cuteness becomes overshadowed by thoughts of women’s position in video games. Why does Yorda need rescued? Who is she? Where did she come from? And, most importantly, if she can manipulate electrical energy, why can’t she help herself?
These questions piled on top of each other while I played the largest portion of the game (and the longest stretch without a cinematic): opening the two gates. In the cinematic that followed, I finally understood. Yorda doesn’t want to help herself; she’s resigned to her position as “heir” to the queen. Whether Ico realizes this is unknown, but, as a player, we see it. We know that Yorda didn’t ever plan on leaving, but she did want to help Ico. So Yorda isn’t the girl who needs rescued as much as the savior, because Ico wouldn’t be able to navigate the castle without her abilities.
Because I was so immersed in the game, I found a fulfilling end sequence that touched me more with it’s sad, cold soundtrack. The music began when I found Yorda as a statue, and it didn’t stop until after the credits were through. It had a subtle start, and I only noticed it when I realized that the shadow monsters came in a force previously unseen in the game. With each one that dissipated, three more seemed to appear. They didn’t attack me, they just danced around in some unknown ritual. As I wandered the room chasing them, I saw each stone tomb light up as I slayed one. Then I realized that they had horns, like me. Then the eerie soundtrack creeped in, and I understood what I–Ico–was doing. One by one, I killed the outcast, horned boys who had preceded me.
At that point, I wanted to know what happened to Yorda more than I wanted to play the game, so I easily pushed through the final battle, hoping to rescue Yorda and live happily ever after. I’m gushing, I know, but this is what Ico does to you. To say that it is a simple game is undermining its beauty. It doesn’t have bombs or space battles or collectibles. It has heart.