Sunday, 9 August 2009

Revisiting a classic - ICO

Going back to a critically acclaimed videogame many years after it was released is always something that’s filled me with trepidation and concern. My worry is always the same – will I see it for what it was at the time of its release? Or will the ever-increasing technical improvements in graphics and accessibility ruin what is lauded as the most acclaimed and artistic videogame ever made?

My feelings as I started the game were squarely in the latter and it brought me back to earth with a bump at how spoiled and spoon-fed our games have now become. There was, of course, no tutorial to teach me the controls and no overt plot exposition to show me where I am in this oddly haunting world. It must be the first time in many years I stopped five minutes in to open the manual and actually read about the game I was playing.

This diversion into reading is what first triggered an unusual sense of immersion that many games have lacked over in recent years. The Witcher is the only other game that gives you so much sense of place when reading its manual before you play – thanks mainly to its unique and dark setting. Once I returned and started to explore the abandoned fortress, the game suddenly felt a lot more magical and ‘current’ thanks to this moment of separation.

 From here it would be easy to sing the praises of Team Ico on how they’d created an artistic masterpiece of minimalist game design. It feels like heresy to conjure any criticisms for the way narrative is stripped down to a bare minimum, or to voice misgivings about the game mechanics reduced down to basic puzzles. But although I felt that sense of massive scale about the fortress I was escaping, I never felt connected in the same way to ICO himself. Yorda’s mysterious being and her origins weren’t the source of intrigue I thought it would be either. Although she possessed an alluring innocence I never felt as connected to her the way the game obviously intended. For this story to work I needed her to be a character I utterly adored and cared about. Although ICO the boy did, it became clear to me that she never cared whether she lived or died. If her body was used to extend the Queen’s life, then she was more than willing to lie down and let it happen.

Much as I hate to quote psychologists, their theory that in every relationship there is a lover and a loved is very true. In videogames when you can’t rely on the player to react with full and unbridled emotion, it would have made more of an impact if Yorda was the one devoted to ICO. I quite understand the design of making Yorda so reliant on me, the player, yet appear so aloof to her situation. It’s an interesting character design and plays with your emotions in a clever way. But it just didn’t work for me and I ended up feeling as ambivalent about Yorda’s fate as she did herself.

But I’m not saying I found ICO lacking in soul or emotion. Far from it. There are moments in this game when the visuals take your breath away – and I mean this now, in the midst of a full HD revolution. ICO might look badly pixelated by today’s standards but it still has the power to impress with its sense of scale.

Not many games can convey the size of a massive fortress by sticking to a fixed camera. Throughout every Tomb Raider there’s been huge ancient structures represented on screen and not one has seemed believable or epic. Only in the recent InFamous did I feel any sense of vertigo when ascending Alden’s Tower. But ICO has an incredible knack of letting its environment take over the screen and speak for itself. I found both the characters lacking in depth but it was clear that teh best character of all was the fortress and the world around it.

Even when trapped inside the claustrophobic rooms the game still gives you glimpses of what lies outside – and when you finally reach the points where you can see across all the horizon it gave me such a sense of distance and depth. It’s the way ICO uses its environments which gave me those emotional moments the story itself lacked. To spend so long figuring out the puzzles, operating lifts, switches or combating the shadows – and then spend a moment on a grassy outcrop surveying the land was a magical experience. It also evoked a sense of utter melancholy and despair – something the game constantly made me feel until the very, very end.

The manner in which the world was presented worked in just the right way to encourage my curiosity. Sometimes with a minimal design games can fall into the trap of not showing enough for me to take anything more than a surface interest in the world they create. In ICO I was enthralled with this abandoned fortress and my play-time was filled with taking visual note of the architecture and the nature of its curious machines. ICO’s world has that same essence of ancient reality that sparked my interest in Middle-Earth after reading The Simarillion. To me, both those worlds have a sense of history that makes them feel more a part of Earth’s timeline than their own creation. This is why ICO resonates so much with anyone who plays it – because it has its creative roots wrapped around some primal recognition of its environments and the world it inhabits.

So, was ICO the experience I expected? Not at all. I hadn’t expected the characters to mean so little to me compared to the majesty of their surroundings. Only in two spots did the game hit me with some emotional moments – one is obviously near the end when ICO & Yorda are separated and I was left hanging by my fingernails, clawing at Yorda just like she had done to me so many times before.

The other, perhaps also predictably, is at the very end after being washed up on the beach. I’m always in two minds about endings that give hope or tie the narrative strings up so neatly. But on this occasion I felt the game balanced both of those concerns perfectly. Most of my experience with ICO was full of melancholy and to have the very end of the game conclude with the image of Yorda, washed up on the beach and opening her eyes, is about the most satisfying conclusion I could wish for. Despite my misgivings about the characters, ICO was full of atmosphere and presented a world that I can’t wait to be told more stories of.

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