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16 years ago #22
IV. MAGNIFICENT PRISON

Some Thoughts on the Puzzles

I said at the beginning of this talk that I would refrain from discussing gameplay. I think I have made an unreasonable promise. Ico’s narrative takes some hours to unfold, and we spend the majority of those hours solving puzzles. If I am going to talk about these puzzles at any length and maintain some sort of a perspective on them, I will after all have to address gameplay even if I do not call it by that name. (I confess I am not comfortable with the term; it is not in any dictionary, and I hesitate to make much use of a word that I cannot define.) Let me say again that I make no pretense to anything like expert knowledge about games, electronic or otherwise. I have only common sense at my disposal to deal with the subject. So please bear with me.

Having played through Ico, you know that everything I have talked about until now is only the introductory stage of the game. We are barely past the opening cut scene. Ico and Yorda have only just now met. That is not to say that we have not learned quite a lot of information already, because we have. But all we really have done so far is watching, not playing. And a game is supposed to be played. In that sense the game has hardly even begun. For we have only solved the first and the simplest of its puzzles, and there are many more challenging puzzles yet to come. And the puzzles are the substance of this game, are they not? Of course they are. If we had no puzzles we should have no game. The puzzles must therefore be the one absolutely indispensable part of the game. And if they are the one absolutely indispensable part, they must be the most important part. That is true to logic, isn’t it?

Clearly I do not believe so. I will explain why not. Without a doubt the puzzles are the most prominent feature of Ico’s gameplay. Yet most fans of Ico seem convinced that the puzzles are not its real stock. If you are inclined to disagree, recall to your mind some praises you have heard people say about the game. Are they mostly about the enjoyableness of the puzzles? Or are they about something entirely else? There is no contest here. People mention things like “incredible graphics,” “a heartwarming story,” “art,” and “beauty,” and what not. But, some would say, these are all nonessentials to a game. Pac-Man--my apology for mentioning another game, in violation of my earlier proposal--may lack these fine qualities, but that does not keep it from being a classic game. Following this logic, one could argue that Ico is a beautiful tale but an impoverished game. For there is exactly one way for you to complete the game. And once you have completed it, the element of challenge is all but gone. Puzzles you know the answers for are no longer puzzles. No wonder so many gamers consign Ico to that pile of games under the sign which says in bold letters “RENTAL ONLY.” But we Ico fans are strange. We insist that Ico is not only a competent game but a positively amazing one. Can we justify our claim?