in japanese ico means "let's go", which is no doubt a metaphor for this tale of a desire to escape.
ico tells the story of a young boy, seemingly human, but deformed. his village elders consider horns to be a bad omen and embark on a journey to seal the child in a tomb prison in the middle of nowhere.
ico is the name of the young demon child, but also the name of the game. apparently in japanese, ico means something like 'let's go', which is no doubt a metaphor for this tale of a desire to escape.
eventually ico breaks out of his death tomb, and you're free to control him.
ico is first and foremost a story, but it has a familiar base structure. the whole game takes places inside and around a giant, fortified castle. the architecture if of particular note, because it describes the kind of experience that ico is. there are lots of ridges to climb, paths to run across, staircases to walk up, gaps to jump. it is a foreboding and perilous quest that feels part tomb raider, part prince of persia.
sometime after you escape a certain death, ico discovers a strange cylindrical room with some mysterious and rusted totems blocking a path.
the only way is up the spiral path, a huge and awe-inspiring helter-skelter, wrapped around the lofty circular chamber. as you push ico, he scrambles up the ladder, and clumsily sprints up the spiral.
when you get to the top you notice a hauntingly white young maiden, trapped in a heavy steel cage with protruding barbs, and hoisted by a large chain mechanism.
the girl, yorda, speaks in an alien tongue though. ico cannot understand her, but his good and helpful nature urges him to pull a lever and lower the cage, down the spiral and to the ground.
the liberating feeling of escape is now intensified more so by your naive but benevolent rescue. you rendezvous with the girl, holding hands with 'R1', but just as you make contact, a dark smoke appears and some eerie shadows steal yorda away.
there is only a stick on the ground, and the only choice is to save her.
fights in ico are desperate, tenacious and frequent. they are more like scrambles and grapples as you must fend off the shadows throughout the rest of the game. engaging the enemy feels dry and hollow, unlike say in ikaruga or metroid, where it feels fun, pleasurable and gratuitous; something of an achievement.
the game is comprised of these fights that are weaved throughout the puzzle of the castle in a balanced and deliberate manner. you won't just walk into a room and find some filler baddies just for the sake of it. the threat usually arises when an exit or entrance is in sight, or after you complete a puzzle.
the puzzles in ico are fairly ordinary. you will find similar block puzzles and platforming elements in tomb raider or zelda. however, the graphical style of ico, which is heavily inspired by 19th century surrealist painter, giorgio de chirico, renders the castle in a similar manner to an oil painting.
the type of texture makes objects and surfaces feel rough, worn and either distinctly metallic, or distinctly wooden, or distinctly rock.
crates have solid steel embroidery, chains are stained a deep ochre soaked with oil and heavy, the walls are tiled in an obsessive pattern of grids, long steel ladders are bent at the top in a tubular curve, all against a misty backdrop of gaping arches and crumbling yellow bricks.
all of this lofty and sacred architecture, simultaneously familiar but unknown, changes how ico feels for the player. walking through the castle and beyond feels isolating, lonely and bereft of life. however, the isolation in ico is almost blissfully ignorant. at one point in the game ico leads yorda to a creaky old windmill surrounded by some beautifully reflective water. you can't resist taking a plunge in the pond and splashing about. the sun glows through the clouds in a lot of areas giving a hopeful and safe feeling (enemies don't attack in the windmill area). the sun shines in ico but you still feel cool.
if you leave yorda, there are sweet moments where she tries to chase what look like doves. it sums up the pure feeling of innocence and tranquility the game gives you.
there isn't any soundtrack, only the sounds of nature; silence and bird twitters; the sense of longing is really felt.
as i've described so far, the aesthetic in ico is very important. in fact, the graphics play more of a role than the 'gameplay'. in reality, the gameplay is carved from the graphics, and the constantly intriguing architectural design is wholly interactive.
the important thing in ico is not that you're simply getting from point 'A' to point 'B' by pulling levers, pushing blocks, lighting lamps, and shifting platforms, (which are solid gaming conventions), it is how it uses those conventions to tell a seamless and absorbing story. there isn't any superfluity, just a simple idea – "escape from this place", and that is all there is; story and game are one.
you're not just solving a puzzle, you're escaping with yorda and trying to find a way out of this prison. yorda is the key to unlocking the castle. she reacts to the odd totems that constantly block your path, and they shift aside, making a new exit.
it's the co-dependent relationship you have with yorda that defines ico. you both need each other to escape. yorda's mother has other plans and wants to keep her daughter in the confines of the castle, but you must at least try to do what feels like the right thing and run away.
often at times you will need to go into other rooms and leave yorda behind (she can't get past certain obstacles). but you only have a limited amount of time before the shadows get to her. everytime they catch her, my heart skips a beat. it's that emotional reaction between you and yorda that is really quite important.
as mentioned, the game is well balanced. you're doing puzzle, then fight, puzzle, then fight, puzzle, then fight, puzzle, then fight. each time you create an exit, yorda is torn from you, then you rendezvous. each time you clear an obstacle away from yorda, you run back to her and rendezvous. this is the rhythm of ico and the heart.
the placing of the save points and how they function is perfect. In each area you are doing the same thing, but often you can't save the game straight away or whenever you want. First you have to at least partially solve the puzzle of the area, and re-unite with yorda as she is the only one who can activate the iron sofa (the save point).
ico's pacing works wonderfully to tell a story: first, you split up, then maneuver around an obstacle or solve a problem, then you get back together with yorda, but as soon as you make contact, you're interrupted again by shadows, then you have to defend yorda, all before you can relax and rest together on the sofa. It makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside.
eight years on and ico has inspired quite a few games, ranging from beyond good & evil to zelda to tomb raider, to the new prince of persia. it's interesting that the games that inspired ico were later inspired by ico.
ico is about its own seamless world. look into the distance, see that pillar and that arch? you can reach that later in the game. reach that pillar and stand on the arch, you can see the bridge you were at. it's about its own special dream world, not about the specific parts that are easily deconstructed.
a musical companion, 'susumu yokota' - 'amonogawa':