A couple of years ago, Sony released a game called Ico for the PS2. It was a very simple game: you controlled a young boy who was born with horns and so destined to be sacrificed by being locked in a stone coffin in a mysterious castle. An earthquake disrupts the coffin and the boy, Ico, escapes. As you/he try to find a way out of the castle you find a shining white girl locked in a cage. You rescue her and continue your exploration. Simple.
What was strange about the game was the way that it created its atmosphere. Firstly, neither Ico or Yorda, the girl, spoke English or could understand each-other. There was very little music, just the beautifully rendered ambient noises of the deserted castle. Occasionally you were attacked by strange shadowy monsters who would try to steal Yorda, and your protection of this otherworldly character became a strong emotional bond through your journey. You could take her by the hand and help her up jumps that she couldn’t make by herself. Sometimes she would give you clues by wandering off and staring in the right direction. All the time her animation, and that of Ico, was absolutely exquisite which created a sense of belief in them both.
A small moment that sticks with me is the save points: these were not glowing gems, or space-age consoles, they were stone benches. Ico and Yorda would sit down, the screen would fade a little and a tinkling lullaby would play. Ico and Yorda would fall asleep on each-other’s shoulders, ready to be woken like Sleeping Beauty to continue their adventure when you returned to their fairy-tale castle. It really was a fairy-tale location too: it was strange, haunting, glowing, but also dangerous. Good fairy-tales have that sense of danger, a feeling that it could all go wrong and life would never be happy again, and that is what Ico gave those who entered it.
The castle itself felt like a character in the game: it was manifestly solid, and architecturally believable in the way that a long climb would often reveal places that you had gone through previously in the game, and places that you were yet to visit. Unlike the geographically floating corridors of games like Doom and Tomb Raider, Ico gave you an environment that felt real, which only added to the feeling of strangeness at its emptiness. Except it wasn’t quite empty: there was a strange and beautiful queen/witch, with design probably inspired by Walt Disney’s Snow White, who was trying to stop your progress, but her words were also in the language of Yorda and could not be understood; however, complete the game and you can play through again with all of the language translated, only to find that you had mostly assumed the right ‘plot’ to begin with. It was a game largely without plot, because your exploration created narrative for you, and subtle story-telling in games is a rare feat.
You might have guessed by now that I liked it! Sadly, the game was never going to be an easy sell and the sales on its first release were unimpressive. Fortunately the game has been critically massively popular, and there is a brisk trade in second-hand copies on eBay, often going for as much as or more than the game was priced at when first-hand. It looks like this has demonstrated enough of a continuing interest in the game that Sony have decided to re-release the game in the UK on Feb 17th 2006 and Amazone are offering it for the very reasonable price of £17.99. If you’ve not played it then it is well worth settling down on your stone bench and embracing the dream of a strange and peaceful game.
UK link (I’ve not found out whether this is coming out again in the US yet)
Another game, with a similar aesthetic and hints at being in the same universe is also being released on Feb 17th. It’s called Shadow of the Colossus and has had some very positive reviews. With the enduring legacy of Ico and the number of gamers who are still seeking a copy of it, I suspect that Shadow… will sell well.