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Now Ico is one of those experiences that make people who have experienced them want to talk about them. And talking about Ico has presented some challenges. For one thing, people do not always seem very sure exactly what it is they want to talk about. They want to talk, but many are stumped over where to start. Most of them agree with enthusiasm that the game is an amazing, moving experience, and that is typically how a chat about Ico gets started and sustained. But blanket praise usually cannot carry an engaging dialogue about anything for very long, because after a while people run out of nice things to say--and then the talk sort of fizzes off. Those dialogues that do feature real substance about Ico, I have noticed, most often involve one of three topics: gameplay, aesthetics, and story. By gameplay I mean everything that pertains to the mechanism of this particular video game. Aesthetics is concerned with the artistic vision and splendor unique to Ico. Story is of course about such things as plot, characters, symbolism, theme, interpretation and the like.
On the first two topics, gameplay and aesthetics, I feel that I have little of value to contribute. Gameplay is an issue that had better be left to folks who know something about the gaming genre--people who have played lots and lots of games, and I am not one of those people. If you want to read about Ico’s gameplay, you only need check out any of the dozens of expert reviews of the game. Indeed you need look no further than this very board. Many intelligent regulars here have far deeper insight than mine as to what makes a successful game. On the other hand it would be a waste of time to discuss aesthetics, since no words of mine could replace or enhance the charm of Ico’s visuals and sounds. After all why should I attempt to describe to you the fragrance of a flower, when you can just smell the real thing? Art criticism may be of some interest to professionals, but for most laymen it is frightfully boring and almost as useless. Which leaves me with story.
I have decided to write an annotation of sorts to the story of Ico, because I see the same questions come up again and again from people who only recently completed the game. They recognize that something significant has taken place, but often have trouble placing it in a context definite enough to base an interpretation upon. The story, if there is one, is just too darn inscrutable. In some cases people discern enough of the story to recognize that they like it, only to scratch their heads when asked to explain what about the story charms them so. This is not terribly surprising. Imagine a movie that is five hours long and has only a page’s worth of dialogue. If you actually liked the movie, you would certainly be mulling afterwards over how you could possibly have liked it. Ico is of course not a movie. Much of its narrative drive rides on putting you, the gamer, in the hero’s shoes. His predicament becomes yours, and so what might otherwise have been monotonous gains an immediacy that keeps you on your toes. But--and this is important--even though you control most of Ico’s actions, you are not Ico. You don’t see things the way he does. In fact at nearly all time you are observing him from relatively afar. You are a spectator as much as an actor. As a spectator you are privy to information Ico does not have--and at the same time you don’t know everything that he does. Which is why the presentation of the story is at once so simple and so baffling. Think about it: you are an eyewitness to absolutely everything that Ico does in the course of the game. How is it, then, that there still remain so many blanks begging to be filled? Without some key information that complement the goings-on within the game, figuring out its story takes a fair bit of guessing on our part. The game helpfully provides clues here and there. With logic and some imagination I think we can sketch a pretty reliable picture of what went on inside the Castle From Hell in its final hours.
With that lengthy introduction out of the way, I would now like to take a close look at the longest day in Ico’s life, beginning with the opening scene of the game. Everything that follows henceforth is my attempt to answer two questions:
(1) Does Ico have a coherent story?
(2) If it does, what in the world is that story about?
I do not expect you to agree with everything I say. My goal is to call your attention to certain details in Ico that might illuminate the story undergirding the game. After considering the things I will point out, you may arrive at a very different conclusion from mine. All the same I would like to put forward my own take on the story, if only to make the case that it is possible to make a modicum of sense out of Ico’s mystery--with full knowledge that what is sense to me may well be nonsense to another.
Now I do not believe for a second that you cannot appreciate Ico without resolving its mystery in your head. If you feel that a close analysis will only spoil for you the magic of the experience, you should just dismiss this exercise of mine. If, on the other hand, you were frustrated by the game’s silence on its own plot, you may want to hear what I have to say.
Talk to you all soon. (No, I haven’t written the whole piece yet. I’ll be posting in segments as I complete them, possibly to be compiled as a FAQ later.)
You mentioned something that inspired me to ramble. Games (as do movies, books...) want to drop people right in the thick of things. However, with games, the player must assume the role of some character, and it is impossible to convey a significant amount of the history, knowledge, and personality of that character in a short intro video. With many games we are left spending the first hour learning what's going on, how to aim the gun... things that make no sense for who's supposed to be a first-class soldier. This is a legitimate stumper, and is the reason many games take the easy way out: Santitarium and Myst are two that come to mind. (The former places you in control of a person in a mental hospital, who forgets who he is, while the latter places your character in a foreign world, so that while he may have a history, it has little relation to the game.)
I like it when games take "the easy way out" as you say, because I find it easier to identify with a character with less, I don't know, personality. For instance, in Myst, it's like YOU really are the character and I think thats cool. In Sanitarium, you start off knowing no more about where Max is than he does. The less fleshed out a character is, the easier it is for people to get into that role.
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
"it's like YOU really are the character and I think thats cool"
Hehe...yes, I agree completely and I wouldn't even call the use of an almost anonymous player-character the player can project her/his own personality onto "the easy way out", such is the cleverness of the strong sense of involvement and immersion it fosters.
I also like the 'a day in the life of...' concept, the idea that you're with(/are?) Ico for the most important day of his life - you see him grow, in a sense, and maybe grow a little with him due to a personal identification that wouldn't be possible with any other medium. There are other games I've played which do something comparable (often very good ones such as Halo and Chrono Trigger), but ICO seems the most subtle and hence effective.
PeterEliot: Good luck with the FAQ, I look forward to it ^_^
"a sick pedophile...should be removed from these boards as soon as possible"..."I DID throw up"..."made me loose my lunch" - Praise for CaptainSyrup
I want to make one thing clear before I go on. The scope of this exercise is limited to Ico and to no other games. I am going to start talking about Ico as if it were the only video game in existence. The idea is to help us appreciate the subject on its own merits. Once I go into other games and begin drawing comparisons, I am afraid I will no longer be examining Ico; I will be evaluating it. That is not my intent at all. This exercise is NOT my reasoning for How Ico Is the Greatest Game Ever. I would not know squat about the Greatest Game. My concern is on the narrative, not on whether Ico is a good game. All that this is, is to show you that Ico's narrative could be approached in a particular light, which you may accept or dismiss.
So let's talk about the opening. The opening cut scene (ugh, who comes up with these weird terms?) is long, but like the rest of the game it contains little speech--all seventeen words. The opening still tells us quite a few things. I think the best way to consider them is to take a walk through the opening, and assume for the study's sake that this is the very first time we are looking at these images. In fact I want us to assume that we haven't even read the introduction in the game manual. In this exercise, all our knowledge about Ico comes from the screen and the screen alone.
Now because the modern audience is an impatient crowd, and there is so much fiction available to choose from, kicking off a story with an unforgettable opening sequence or paragraph has become enormously important. The author-creator wants to make sure, as far as he can, that once the story begins the audience will feel driven to continue and not get off midway. A stock strategy of doing that is to drop the audience smack in the middle of the action and leave them to figure out what is going on--to forgo a tedious introduction and begin the story in the middle. We find the same thing in Ico. After the Playstation2 and SCEA logos flash, the game plunges into the story without even showing you a title screen. By the time you do see the title screen, you of course simply must know what is happening here.
The narrative opens with a view of a forest, green, lush, and warmly lit by the sun, with birds chirping among the trees. A beautiful, pristine landscape--in fact the only shot in the entire game wholly free of suspense or melancholy. The scene then switches to a group of horsemen making their way through the forest. These are obviously fighting men, wrapped from head to toes in armors. Their beasts are heavily burdened with traveling articles, which tells that they are on a journey. From their knightly garbs we may also expect a medieval flavor in the story that is about to unfold.
Our attention doesn't linger long on the knights' figures, impressive as they are. A member of the party stands out like a lamb amongst wolves--a young boy, seated before one of the knights. Next to the ironclad frames of the men, the boy is tiny and conspicuously unarmed. His puny form catches our eyes because he is the only anomaly in an otherwise consistent pattern. His presence in this outfit doesn't make sense. If someone had asked us a second ago what we were seeing, we would have answered, "a party of knights on horseback." But now the answer might be "a young boy in a party of knights on horseback." The kid has completely got our attention. And he keeps it through the opening. How could he not? He is the only one in the company who's got a face. The knights are hidden behind iron masks, and barely distinguishable from one another. They are faceless, nameless, and as we will soon learn, without any personalities relevant to the story. They are thoroughly anonymous. They are tools, not people--their job is to fulfill a function and make themselves scarce so that the characters that do matter can get on with the story.
Our curiosity turns to alarm once we have observed the boy closely (which we can hardly help). We see that he sports a pair of bullhorns on his head, and that these appear to be a real deal unlike the metal horns adorning some knights' helmets. The boy raises his hands to wipe his brow in the heat of the sun, and we learn that the hands are bound. All of a sudden it is clear that he is not there because he wants to be. He is a captive. Who is this boy, who looks harmless enough apart from the oddities poking from his head, and where is he being taken to against his will?
We get our answer soon enough. The forest path terminates, and so does the land. The ocean stretches before the party, and jutting from it is a rocky island as steep as your bedposts and much, much taller. A colossal fortress sits on it, half shrouded in the morning mist. It dwarfs the men and the horses and the trees and everything else in sight that's got a name. Fade to the title screen. Though the opening cut scene is far from over, this is where I place the end of the prologue.
I'll be back soon with the other half of the opening. By the way, I have no intention whatever of going through every puzzle and scene in the game like I did here. That would make this a walkthrough, and not a very good one. I will treat the puzzles' general relevance to the narrative, but my focus will be mostly on the narrative clues and devices scattered throughout the game, as well as the interludes that contain dialogue.
*I* completely agree that the "easy way out" characters are easier to identify with. The point is that we don't want to limit ourselves to this kind of story. Plenty of games (Grim Fandango is one) involve a protagonist with a very prominent personality, and while this is fine for an adventure game, the more interactivity we allow, the more we force players to "role play" and to make the same decisions that their character would make -- something I'm not comfortable doing. If I know that I'm walking into a trap, screw that, I'm not doing it just because my *character* doesn't know. (BTW, games that just drop a personality on and don't worry about the consequences, like Tomb Raider or something, are an even easier way out.)
I look forward to seeing a game that manages to let me become a player more freely. The current trend of "player bribes" (encouraging you to meet someone by promising a weapon upgrade when you do) isn't sufficient, IMO. What about going to someone for comfort, love, conversation? Hard to do when they're complete strangers, but I imagine at least one of the creative geniuses in the game industry would be up to the task of building that kind of relationship with an NPC.
Sorry about contaminating your thread, PE. This is important. :)
Don't have time to read your messages right now, but noticed that you were wondering about the origins of the term "cut-scene" and I happened to have a link:
http://www.mixnmojo.com/php/site/resource.php? feature=/features/wilmunder/wilmunder&page=4 (remove space)
Not a very exciting story, but informative nonetheless.
II. After the Prologue
So the knights have brought the horned boy, Ico, to a mysterious offshore fortress. Well, what’s the deal with this fortress? We will not know for a good while, but the opening affords us a number of ways to begin studying its mystery. You might want to watch the opening cut scene again before you read further.
In the last scene of the prologue, we left Ico and his captors gazing on the castle from a handsome, if somewhat run down, stone platform at the edge of the cliff. Once you choose the “New Game” option, the first thing we see is that same stone platform, except this time from below. The camera then traces the cliff down to the sea, where a mean-looking wooden dock extends from the shore. The party, now horseless, crosses the channel on a very small boat. This ought to strike an observant first-time viewer as being very odd. To explain, let me show you some pictures I have borrowed from Vincent Lam’s fan page.
You should recognize this shot from the game’s title screen. Near the lower right corner is the stone platform shown in the prologue. Here is another shot of much the same thing, from a frontal viewpoint.
This shot shows the castle as Ico and the knights must have seen it from the platform. In both pictures we can plainly see the main gate, flung wide open. Well, why didn’t the knights enter via the gate? Why did they go to the trouble of climbing down the cliff and braving the ocean waves on a tiny boat that you wouldn’t want for a fishing excursion on the village lake? Having completed the game, we of course know that the main bridge is not yet available. But, again, imagine that you are watching all this for the first time, without any prior knowledge whatever about Ico. Imagine, in fact, that you are Ico himself. Would you not be surprised to see an inviting gate before you, only to learn that you are not to enter that way?--that a gate exists, but that it is useless because there is no way for anyone to get to it? That the knights do not even have the option of using the main entrance and are forced to use a back door (if you will) informs us that they are treading a territory not their own. They are entering someone else’s turf--someone evidently more powerful than they.