Ico Analysis: I’ll never let go Ico, I’ll never let go…

Ico is a game that could not have existed in the ’90’s, yet much of its gameplay and puzzle solving reminds me of games from that era such as Myst and the Legend of Zelda series. Indeed, it most strongly seemed like a 3rd-person installment of Myst. It is an interesting combination, an experiment that paved a way for more peculiar games and arguably began the whole idea of alternative/hipster video games if Myst didn’t already own that distinction.

This was my first encounter with the game as I passed it by in my lower teens. This is a blessing in two-folds, I certainly didn’t have the mindset to appreciate it then, and the version released in the US was significantly inferior to the final version later released internationally which is the version included in the Ico Collection.

Its biggest flaw are controls which are clunky and clearly dated, turning around is awkward and learning the proper order of operations to jump, grab, climb, and drop takes some time and a few irritating deaths. Ironically, the most interesting feature of Ico is how it integrates the theme of companionship that is dominant within the game into its controls. If you don’t know already, the crux of the story hinges on guiding a glowing white girl named Yorda through a maze-like castle. Yorda herself is a frail girl who speaks sparsely and yet holds an interesting power within her that opens passages throughout the castle. So it’s up to your character, Ico, to guide her by the hand through this maze so she can in turn open up these passages only she can activate. When I say by the hand, I literally mean by-the-hand. You must press and hold the R1 button to grab Yorda by the hand as you run through the different chambers in order to guide her. This can be changed in the options to a simple “click-to-hold, click-to-release” alternative, but the original controls better represented the concept of being physically linked hand-in-hand, and this was the objective that the game’s director Fumeto Ueda stated in the bonus content available in the Ico Collection. It’s not a strenuous task, but it is enough that if your mind wanders and you forget yourself, much like you might let your hand drop to your side after holding someone else’s for awhile, Ico will release Yorda’s and the sudden break causes an odd visceral reaction as Yorda is left folding her hands together as Ico runs ahead a few paces.

The relationship between Yorda and Ico is the story, yet the characters know little about one another and little is explained. Moments like catching Yorda as she jumps across a gap, or pulling her out of a dark shadow that creatures repeatedly try to drag her down, are strange moments. I did not expect to feel as strong a reaction as I did when Ico would catch Yorda’s hand as she hung from a ledge. Even when I knew the animation would be the exact same thing as the dozen times before I still found myself expressing a short sigh of relief once she was back up and by Ico’s side. To this extent, Ueda succeeded in somehow making me care about these characters I knew nothing about.

The benches strewn throughout the castle are the game's save points. It's just another way for the developers to express the relationship between Ico and Yorda. Much more inventive then a glowing orb or some other random symbol.

The symbolism in the game are heavy with the ideas of purity and innocence. Yorda in her glowing white is the archetypal contrast to both the shadows that chase her and her mother the Queen, cloaked in the same blackness as the shadows. As for Ico, the horns on his head represent a curse that got him locked up in the castle to begin with. When they break in his battle with the queen there’s no indication that they were anything more then horns to begin with. Yet every kid born with horns in the nearby town is doomed to be locked in the castle. The barriers Yorda unlocks show stone figures of kids similar to Ico frozen in stone, which is a skill only the queen possesses. So is it the queen that has demanded these cursed children be brought to her castle? We know she seeks to regain her youth by sacrificing her daughter Yorda, but what of the 40 or so horned children, are they needed for her goal? It’s never made clear.

What seems apparent is that despite the horns, Ico doesn’t seem to be under any kind of curse. But the paranoia that has guided his village has caused the deaths of dozens of kids just like him. He and Yorda share this kind of innocence despite their connection to an evil force. Yorda is her mother’s daughter, as we at the start of the game and when Ico is knocked unconscious after having his horns broken off. Her dark form rises and rescues Ico, finally taking on the guardian role so long played by him. There is a strong yin and yang duality about them both, and I suspect the underlying story is about each helping the other embrace it. Yorda in particular could be thought to be rejecting her dark form for the entire game out of fear (perhaps of being like her mother), but by doing so, she becomes dependent upon Ico. It’s not until she embraces this part of her that she is able to take charge of the situation and become the savior.

Ico is a very brief game that delights in breaking the typical gamers expectations. It’s far from perfect, but has managed to make a name for itself in video game history by being inventive, minimalist, and visceral. It’s reasonably difficult for the average gamer to appreciate, but anyone interested in seeing just how wide a palette video games provide as a creative medium should certainly check it out.


—Coming Soon—

Shadow of the Colossus

The spiritual prequel to Ico, set in the same world and developed by the same team. It’s well regarded as the more appealing of the two games. Coming out five years after Ico, I’m looking forward to see what the developers learned and implimented that made Shadow of the Colossus the success that it was.

Till then, don’t forget to rate, comment, or subscribe!

-The Gaming Hipster-


Posted on October 10, 2011, in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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