What’s Old Can Be New Again

Do Classic Games Like Ico Hold The Key To Good Storytelling?

This week, dear play chums, I’m using you to help me do my homework. I’m currently taking part in a free, online course or MOOC on The Future of Storytelling. This is an eight-week course, running until December 20th. What the hell is a MOOC you may ask? It means Massive Open Online Course.

Each week, I tune in for online lectures from real university lecturers and academic or professional experts on storytelling, including literature, cinema, television and digital media. We’ve reached the chapter on storytelling in games and my task is to discuss a game that made an impression on me. So here goes…

Ico (pronounced ee-co) was created by Fumito Ueda and published by Sony, for the PlayStation 2, in 2001. I remember the first time I saw it as if it was yesterday. A friend, who worked in the industry, came home and said, "Check out this game I was given today."

Ico didn’t look like any game before it. The eponymous character is a young boy in a tunic, with sandals that slap on the huge stones of the game’s central setting, a cliff-top castle. Ico was born with horns and because of this his village banished him by locking him away in the fortress. The game opens with the scenes of Ico being incarcerated.

In the castle, Ico meets Yorda, an ephemeral girl, dressed in a white shift with bare feet and a shimmering aura around her. She is the light in the gloom of the castle. The main aim of the game is to keep Yorda safe and escape from the castle. The game consists of puzzles and shadowy forms, which try to take Yorda away and return her to the evil Queen.

What makes Ico different?

Sense of Scale: One of the opening scenes of the game sees Ico start at the bottom of a castle tower. The room has a stone staircase, which spirals around the edge of the internal wall. As Ico steps into the room, the camera pans back and the already small boy is dwarfed by the scale of this tower. He is tiny, alone, abandoned by his people. It’s an emotional moment. And then you move this tiny spec of a boy and listen as the slap of his sandals echo around the walls, as he runs up the endless staircase.

The castles itself becomes the puzzle. Iron gates need to be opened and rooms need to be flooded or bridges raised to get closer to their goal.

Emotion: I’ve already mentioned the e-word, but this was the first game I played, where evoking emotion was the central conceit. Although Ico has a stick, and then upgrades to a sword, this isn’t a game that focuses on killing the enemy. Now that was something new.

This wasn’t a game about killing all the shadow characters and destroying the Queen or blowing up the castle. Ico holds hands with Yorda. He tugs her along, as they run through the castle together and if she slips, he reaches out and pulls her up, leaving the gamer’s heart in their mouth. It’s about a friendship borne from necessity. It’s about a boy and a girl taking care of each other to survive and overcome the dark forces and hurdles that are stacked against them.

No Dialogue: Ico is largely free from dialogue and any words that are spoken are in a mysterious, imaginary language. Developer, Ueda has said that he wanted to tell a universal story, so stripped away the language and just made it up. He conveyed story through subtle body language and setting. As you play the game, you don’t really know why Ico is banished to the castle; you don’t know who the girl is or why they are both stuck there. You don’t even know what they’re saying, when they speak to each other. All you know is that they need each other to escape and it’s beautiful.

The Visuals: Ico introduced a new visual language to games. It was the first time I saw the sun-bleached, over-exposed effect, used to mimic real cameras. After Ico it was used in everything from Assassin’s Creed to The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and even war FPS games, such as Call of Duty.

This game also brought us the character who wouldn’t simply walk of ledges. Ico would teeter at the edge and if he fell, he would grab for the edge and then Yorda would pull him up. It sounds like a small thing, but play Tomb Raider pre-2001 and then you’ll understand. Every game uses this sense of self-preservation now. It adds another layer of verisimilitude.

No Health Bar: If you look at screenshots of Ico, it doesn’t even look like a game. There’s no health bar and no on-screen scoreboard. Those things just don’t matter in Ico. It’s about the boy meets girl relationship and the sense of these weak characters overcoming the obstacles in this beautiful, menacing fortress. It’s about the story, not an arbitrary score. And since the days of Pong and Pacman, it had always been about the score.

Ico’s Legacy: I think games changed after Ico. Lara Croft, from Tomb Raider, suddenly began to grab ledges, instead of just falling to her death. The lighting effects used in Ico were seen everywhere in games, even ones that weren’t trying to emulate the minimalist storytelling or gameplay. And developers saw that emotion wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Developers still cite Ico as an inspiration. Naughty Dog says Ico shaped some of the choices they made in making Unchartered 3. Similarly, Halo 4’s development team, 343 industries claim Ico was an influence. So maybe it’s no coincidence that this was the first Halo to have an emotional heart in the relationship between Master Chief and Cortana.

Back in 2001, Ico was a critical success, but it didn’t have the marketing clout behind it that more cookie cutter AAA titles got. This meant many gamers just didn’t even see it or maybe the screenshots didn’t tell them enough about the gameplay to give it a chance. Regardless, it wasn’t a commercial success, but it’s become a cult classic, as has the spiritual successor Shadow of the Colossus. Team Ico is a dev team with an eager following, as a result of this little game with a big heart. If you haven’t played it, you really should.

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