Developer: Sony (Team Ico)
Article by Ben Langberg | September 2, 2009
I’m pretty sure I read about Ico in a game magazine in the early days of PlayStation 2. At the time, I was disappointed in the new system for three reasons:
- The PS2 was killing the U.S. Dreamcast market, even though Sega's system had a much better library;
- Other than SSX, the initial PS2 games weren’t that compelling; and
- After shelling out $299.95 once I finally found one, I was laid off from my dot-com job three months later.
Wondering where rent was coming from and having essentially an overpriced player for my old PSOne games did little to enamor me with Sony’s new black box. To say I felt like a dumbass would be an understatement.
Anyhow, back to Ico. From the previews I read, it sounded like a fun, original title, but nothing mind-blowing. It was not reviewed or marketed as a triple-A holiday title. Who knew that after playing Ico, it would become one of my favorite games ever?
Here you play as a horn-headed boy who has been banished by his kin, presumably left alone to die. Imprisoned in a castle, you soon meet an ethereal princess and, together, you try to escape. While you can fight, climb and attack enemies, only the princess can open the magically sealed doors that block your progress, so teamwork is essential. Gameplay is a balance of environmental puzzles and literally fighting monsters of darkness. While you and the princess do not take damage per se, if the monsters succeed in carrying her through one of their dark portals, the game is over. Ico could be described as one long escort mission, but it’s the only game I know of to do it right.
And it doesn’t hurt that the graphics are beautiful. The game is awash in overexposure with a hint of sepia tone. The lonely castle is massive with a real sense of scale and architecture. The stages all seemed connected to a real place. The draw distances can seem to go on forever—at least until the sea, way down below.
Ico is similar to another game I really enjoy, Out of This World. Both eschew language to tell their stories visually. Gameplay is intuitive and builds off of simple concepts; no tutorial is needed and the manual is entirely optional. All of this immerses you as a player, making it your story.
Every so often, the topic of “When will games mature as a storytelling medium” comes up in the gaming press. And when games like BioShock and GTA IV? are mentioned—both being fine games—I’m reminded that whenever a new medium develops, it draws on prior mediums before finding its own voice. Both of the above games heavily use the language of film to tell their tales, and in doing so, are inevitably compared to similar movies. The result is usually somewhere between “it’s a good story for a game” to “games are an inherently inferior medium.”
Ico, like Out of This World before it, uses the language of videogames to tell its story. If gaming ever becomes a legitimate art form, like films and music, I hope Ico is remembered as an early pioneer. If not -- if gaming never quite makes it past comic books -- I’m okay with that too. I’ll remember Ico as one of the best games I’ve ever played -- and the game that made me glad I bought a PS2.