I think Ico may be the first game Tiamonster and I split on for Gaming Graveyard (Uh-oh, mommy and daddy are fighting!). While I have minor complaints about the mechanics, I’m going to focus on the love story. The lazy, misogynist love story.
Ico is like a Hayao Miyazaki film without any characters. The setting is beautiful and mysterious with a dash of supernaturalness to spice it up. It’s also empty. It felt like running around someone’s Minecraft castle. This undoubtedly adds to the mystery, but this puts a lot of pressure on Ico and Yorda’s love story.
Before going further, let me say if you evaluate this game on its ascetics and gameplay alone, it’s a classic, almost a masterpiece. I’d say Shadow of the Colossus, Ico’s sequel/prequel/sidequel/who-the-hell-knows-quel, is Team Ico’s masterpiece (Team Ico is the name of the development team, not to be confused with the name of this game or the main character. Ugh.). So if you don’t care about story, feel free to ignore the rest of this post. That said, it’s clear Team Ico wants and expects you to become emotionally engaged with Ico and Yorda’s story.
There are only three characters in this game, Ico, Yorda, and her mother, the Queen. Evil Queen is evil. Not much to say about her. She wants to kill Ico and possess Yorda. You don’t learn much about her so she’s more of an obstacle than a character. I’m OK with that, it’s not her story.
Ico has a little more substance. I guess you could say he’s determined though I’m not even sure about that since his only other option is to go back to his cell and let the Queen absorb his essence or something. He meets Yorda, saves her from a shadow monster, and away they go through the castle, Ico leading her by the hand.
Yorda is the problem. She’s not a character, but a thing. This game would not be different if you replaced her with a gem or magical key. She’s just an object Ico’s infatuated with because of its beauty. He can’t even talk to her. He drags her around and basically uses her as a key to open doors. This is her only purpose. I had a healthier relationship with my horse in Shadow of the Colossus.
The sacrifice at the end is supposed to be the emotional culmination of Ico and Yorda’s love, but it comes off flat. Emotionally reacting to that moment is predicated on the player being invested in their relationship, but the problem is it never progresses beyond the initial meeting. We never see them learn to communicate with each other. We never see Yorda lead, only follow. We never see any change in their behavior at all really. You could reorder the entire game up to the final showdown with the Queen and it wouldn’t make a difference. I doubt you could even tell.
Their relationship is underdeveloped at best, and frankly sexist at worst (seriously, do a Google image search for ‘yorda’ and almost every image is Yorda being led by the hand, in her cage, on her hands and knees, or things, uh, much worse). I’m just not buying it. If the focal point of the game is a burgeoning love between two strangers, you have to actually show the burgeonation! Don’t just say it happened between scenes and hope the gamer fills in the blanks themselves.