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Ico

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Shadow of the Colossus

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by David DeRienzo - October 3rd, 2007

Art forms always start out in the most modest ways. From prehistory, when primitive humans would scrawl pictures on cave walls to communicate simple ideas, to the nearly unrivaled work of Raphael's frescos in the Santa Maria della Pace, used to tell the tale hundreds of years of history with a single mural, to the expressionism of Munch, Schiele, and others who used art to express their own emotions and invoke emotions in those who viewed their work. From the first words scribbled on a piece of parchment to convey a bit of information, to the timeless work of Richard Wright and James Baldwin, who used literature to express the feelings of frustration and rage they were enveloped by in the chaotic environments they were born into. From the first silent films which were no more than a novelty, to cinematic masterpieces like American Beauty and The Shawshank Redemption, which could up heave the emotions of their audiences from underneath even the most sound foundations with nothing more than a well-placed camera shot and a few lines of sincerely delivered dialog.

Is it perhaps not unlikely, or even inevitable, for a similar novelty like video games to become an art form as more creativity and emotion is placed in them? Will they always be mere products of entertainment, published for the sole intent of making a decent amount of money? Maybe. Maybe not. Or maybe, they've already transcended that level of mere temporary stimulation and have struck far deeper chords than they were intended to. It's difficult to say at this point. Even film isn't accepted as an art form amongst many demographics, as in the grand scheme of things, movies are fairly new. But even in this short time, there are games that, while universally stemming from the desire to amuse a player for several hours at the cost of $30-$60, seem to have gone far beyond that simple charge and have touched people in ways that only something that sincerely seeks to be profound can.

Two of the best examples of games that propose the question of games as art are a pair of unique and highly revered titles designed by Fumito Ueda, a first party developer for SCE. Fumito Ueda, like his surreal and enigmatic games, seems to have come from nowhere. Aside from being an animator for Enemy Zero, his only other credits as a member of a game's development staff are these two games. They are Ico and Shadow of the Colossus.

Ico (PlayStation 2)


Ico - PlayStation 2 (2001), PlayStation 3 (2011)

American Cover

European Cover

Production on Ico (pronounced "eekoh") began in 1998. The game was originally set to be a PlayStation title. In 1999, however, the production was shifted to the PlayStation 2 hardware, which gave Ueda and his team a much bigger palette of tools and possibilities to work with. The main idea behind Ueda's motivation for this game was to create something very simplistic and base, yet different from anything anyone had seen before. Everything that wasn't absolutely necessary to what the game was trying to achieve was removed. Ueda also wanted a game that was very stylistic. He wanted to show gamers and the industry something that looked entirely unique. To those ends, the staff of Ico succeeded in every imaginable way.

Ico received very little press and saw a very low-key release, being far more popular in Europe than in Japan or North America. In all, it sold only about 700,000 copies worldwide, the lion's share in PAL territories where the low print frequency caused the game to sell out just about everywhere and nab three-figure price tags on eBay and Amazon until it was reprinted. Yet in spite of its lackluster turnout, Ico was heralded by gamers and critics alike, the general consensus being that it was one of the finest achievements in video games at the time, and even at the very least, a breathtaking atmospheric and artistic experience unlike anything the gaming world had seen before. Ueda had succeeded at exactly what he set out to do, achieving far more with very little in comparison to other games that came around the same time such as Final Fantasy X and Metal Gear Solid 2, which were major industry spectacles cram packed with every conceivable utilization of the PS2's hardware.

But what is Ico? Why is it such a worthy achievement and how does it accomplish so much while being so simple?

Ico is the tale of the titular young, horned boy of whom the player takes control. At the start of the game, he is being taken through the woods on horseback, destined to be sacrificed. As he and his escort of armed soldiers leave the woods, a hulking, ancient structure begins to creep through the mist, and the vibrant colors of the world seem to fade away. By boat and by the pseudo-technological mechanisms in the castle, Ico is brought deeper and deeper into this haunting place, until finally, they reach an ominous citadel lined with ghastly idols. Ico is placed inside one of these hollow statues, left to his unknown fate by the soldiers who claim, in a fictional language made especially for this game (an element Ico and Shadow of the Colossus both share with the artistically similar Panzer Dragoon series), that this is what is best for their village.

Like many things in Ico and its spiritual successor and prequel, Shadow of the Colossus, it is never explained exactly why Ico is left here, or what fate is intended for him. We only know of what happens now and for the ensuing hours of Ico's life that are contained within this game. The rest is left to the imagination. This air of mystery and subtlety that encapsulates Ico's story, which is completely devoid of any narrative, is the first non-visual indication of Ico's genius execution. Where other games would have a lengthy prologue explaining the customs of Ico's village and the history and conceptions of children born with horns, Ico simply thrusts us into the game. The game doesn't try to present a story, rather, the game is the story. The player is meant to feel confused and at a loss, just like Ico himself. Because of this, Ico is instantly relatable, and that is probably the most important goal for the first few minutes of any game that intends to be intriguing.

Ico, not content to resign himself to whatever fate awaits him, struggles and writhes, causing his coffin-like prison to topple over and break. Ico is free. But now, with one dilemma evaded, another presents itself. Ico is still trapped inside this immense castle, lost and alone.. for now. As Ico begins to press into the castle, it immediately becomes apparent what type of game the player has just stepped into. Ico invokes the same play style as the old action adventure games in the vein of Prince of Persia, Out of this World and others, with the emphasis being placed on solving puzzles and tactfully managing precarious terrain rather than combat or using learned abilities. While at first Ico seems merely like a 3D incarnation of Prince of Persia, the game's most precious element is promptly introduced only a few minutes into Ico's quest in the form of a beautiful young maiden named Yorda.

Ico meets Yorda for the first time.

Ico encounters Yorda at the top of a magnificent yet dilapidated spiral staircase. She, like him, seems to be imprisoned, trapped in a steel crow's nest dangling hundreds of feet above the ground. It's immediately clear that Ico is a pure-hearted and gentle young boy. Once again, this is done without the use of dialog or narrative, but rather by observing his actions, his body language, and his eagerness to help a complete stranger. Ico activates the mechanism that lowers Yorda's cage. At the bottom of the staircase, the two meet. Young, energetic, and infinitely brave boy, and breathtaking, doe-eyed beauty clad in blindingly brilliant white. It is then that Ico ceases to be a mere modernized Prince of Persia clone and becomes something far more endearing.

Now Ico not only needs to navigate each area of the castle, but he must find a way for the far less nimble and nigh helpless Yorda to be able to keep up with him. In this sense, Yorda isn't just a character in Ico, she's a crucial element to the structure of the game. This is a prime example of what is quite possibly Ico's crowning achievement; the flawless fusion of all the game's elements, visual, aural, and mechanical, to create something that feels like a single entity rather than a package of features to be advertised on the back of a DVD case. Dissecting Ico in order to critique its music, its graphics, its story, or its play mechanics separately is very difficult and ultimately pointless because none of these elements can be separated from the game and still have the same impact. To sound a bit cliché, Ico as a whole equals far more than the sum of its parts.

With the introduction of Yorda also comes the game's very thin combat element. Yorda is in fact the daughter of the Queen who inhabits the Castle, and said deity is not at all pleased that this precocious little snot is trying to make off with her daughter. Therefore, she sends an army of shadow demons after the two that will appear periodically to interrupt Ico's ledge-hopping and switch-stepping by attempting to kidnap Yorda. Ico, armed only with a plank of wood at first, must hold the demons at bay. Otherwise, Yorda will be taken and Ico, now irrevocably tied to Yorda somehow, will be turned to stone. This adds a great level of suspense to what would have been an otherwise uneventful game.

Ico achieves all this while being one of the most beautiful games ever to grace a console. Even now, six years later, that statement still holds true. The flaws and imperfections in the models, though few and minor, are hidden behind a blur and a color wash filter that gives the whole game a very fitting, surreal feeling. The details in the architecture and the textures used all over the castle and its surrounding environments are incredible. The atmospheric lighting only enhances these elements, giving the game a very distinct mood. Every environment looks photo realistic and entirely believable. Not only that, but the environments have an immense amount of personality. Though the game takes place entirely inside the confines of one castle, there are many different styles of architecture that all have a different history behind them. Everything is properly aged and every scene tells a story. The castle itself is like a character in the game.

The Queen of the shadows confronts Ico.

Aurally, Ico also achieves brilliance. While the music is very low-key and appears only in select scenes, the incredible amount of ambiance is more than enough to serve as a backdrop to the action. Everything that can possibly make a sound in the backgrounds of Ico does, and it's just another layer of presentation that'll have you completely consumed by Ico's world. What little music there is, composed by Michiru Oshima, completely fits every scene and accentuates the visuals and the action happening on screen at any given moment. It also works with the visuals to further create a dream-like air about the game. In particular, the ending vocal song "You Were There" perfectly captures the emotions of the player and the characters after what they've been through.

All said and done, Ico clocks in at about 5-8 hours of play time. Some say that this is too short, but really Ico is just as long as it needs to be. If the game were any longer, Ueda's original, minimalist intention to have only that which was absolutely necessary to tell the story would have been defeated. As short as it is, Ico is completely satisfying. Regardless, however, a few extras are added when replaying Ico. These include a secret weapon, which is basically a light saber, and a humorous, alternate ending. These were only placed in the Japanese and PAL versions of the game, though. It should also be noted that a few of the puzzles are different in the US version, which was supposedly rushed to market.

Despite Ico's lack of sales, the game had a huge impact. Many extremely revered members of the gaming industry profess to have been inspired by Ico, including Eiji Aonuma (The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess), Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater), and most ironically, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time director Jordan Mechner, all of whom used similar blurring, color wash, lighting and texturing techniques to add a similar sense of personality and atmosphere to some of their more recent games.

The PS3 version looks crisper, but also makes the game's smoke and mirrors more visible.

Quick Info:

Developer:

Team Ico

Publisher:

Sony

Designer:

Fumito Ueda

Genre:

Action: 3rd Person
Adventure: Other

Themes:

Cinematic Platform Game
Fantasy: Sword & Sorcery
Sidekick
Unique Visuals


Ico (PlayStation 2)

Ico (PlayStation 2)

Ico (PlayStation 2)

Ico (PlayStation 2)

Ico (PlayStation 2)

Ico (PlayStation 2)

Ico (PlayStation 2)

Ico (PlayStation 2)

Ico (PlayStation 2)

Ico (PlayStation 2)

Ico (PlayStation 2)


Comparison Screenshots


Additional Screenshots


PlayStation Beta Screenshots


イコ—霧の城 (Ico: Kiri no Shiro) / Ico: Castle in the Mist - Novel (2004)

First Edition

Koudansha Edition

Paperback Vol. 1

Paperback Vol. 2

While it's not uncommon for Japanese video games to be adapted to mangas or animes, Ico was made into a novel instead, penned by the renowned mystery and SF writer Miyuki Miyabe. With more than 500 pages (in the first Japanese edition), it stands in contrast to the game's preference towards the implicit and the vague; about a third of the book deals with Ico and Yorda's background before being imprisoned in the Castle in the Mist.

The novel has been received with mixed reactions from fans of the game for that reason, but is generally considered a good fantasy novel in its own right, and was quite sucessful because of that. It has been re-published in Japan twice, and an English translation by Alexander O. Smith appeared in 2011.

Ico (PlayStation 2)


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