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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?
Now, I already said that this exercise is not about how good a game Ico is, and I stand by my word. But I think I do need to say something about how Ico works if the next segment of this talk is to make any sense to you. (I will leave to you to judge how well it works.) Recently I exchanged some e-mails with a very devoted fan. He loves the game so much that he has written a fifty-page essay on it. He surprised me by saying that he had not played it in months. He said that the experience feels more real when he seldom plays it. About then I was also surprised to hear ladyhawke2 say on this board that she was only then playing through the game for the second time; I know how she adores it. But I really should not have been surprised at all. I have myself played the game to completion just three times. Now we have got a bit of a paradox here. Here we are, three diehard admirers of Ico who confess it to be their all-time favorite game--and we hardly play the game at all! Paradox is calling it nicely. Either we are lying when we say Ico is our favorite game, or we have deluded ourselves that we like it more than we actually do. Right? No? Well, why not?
At first glance it seems perfectly reasonable that you should spend the most time on the game you enjoy the most. But in fact people have been conditioned to think this way ever since they popped their first quarters into that arcade machine, long before video games were a part of the home entertainment system. If you were a good gamer, you got your quarters’ worth of playing time and then some. If not, you needed lots of quarters or you would not be playing very long. An idea took shape that in video games you invested Money in order to be rewarded in Time. That idea has stayed through the years. After all that is what replay value is all about, isn’t it? Replay value stems from the notion that a game’s function is to help us pass Time. And though we may not have to pop quarters in every fifteen minutes anymore, we do have to pay fifty dollars for a game, not to mention a few hundred for the system. Since the age group of most gamers is not known for its deep pocket, economics cannot help but remain a factor. But in the end that is all it is: economics. You may very well play Ico to completion just once a year. That is a sound financial reason not to spend money on a copy of Ico. It is not a sound reason to detract from the game’s intrinsic worth. It does not keep Ico from being someone’s fondest and fullest memory of a game.
Speaking of intrinsic worth, let us return to the game. I apologize for digressing, but I felt it was necessary preparation before we could place the puzzles in the proper narrative context. I do not want anyone to believe that I think the puzzles unimportant. On the contrary I think they are the muscles of the game. What I want to impress upon you is that these muscles serve two distinct sets of functions. The first and more obvious set is of the conventional sort, which applies to any puzzles. We solve them because they are fun to solve and because they help us pass time pleasantly. But are these the chief functions of the puzzles in Ico? I have to say No. You already know my reasons: puzzles are no longer puzzles once they are solved. And since every task in Ico has exactly one prescribed solution, it is pointless to go back and try to work things out differently. By this logic Ico’s puzzles ought to lose their capacity to entertain us once we have completed the game. But, at least for me, that is hardly the case. The fact that I have exhausted all technical possibilities in the game, but that my thought continues to dwell on it and be fascinated by it, tells me that the game’s true strength is not in puzzle solving. Depending on our approach to Ico, the experience can retain a great deal of their potency. This is where the second set of functions, the narrative functions, comes in.
And that is what I will be back with next time.
Eliot, when you mentioned that I was just now on my second time through the game, I was actually stunned for just a moment. Why has it taken me so long to get back to Ico? I'm not really sure why. In my mind, I remember the game so vividly that it seems like only yesterday that I finished playing the game.
I found it interesting when you stated that: "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."
With most of the games that I play, it becomes an obsession for me to get 100% of everything in a game. With Maximo, I wasn't satisfied until I had completely mastered the entire game along with the bonus level. With Vexx, it was getting all 81 shadowraith hearts along with beating the final boss.
But with Ico, it was completely different. There was no collecting of anything. With Ico, I was just excited to see what was around the corner or what was on the other side of the gate. I would go to bed at night after being stumped by a puzzle and lay awake trying to figure out what I was missing. I wanted...no needed...to rescue Yorda from the evil Queen. Once I was done playing the game, I knew in my heart that every game I played from then on would be compared and found lacking to Ico. That's how much this game touched my soul.
I am really enjoying reading your analysis of Ico. Thanks, Eliot, for all the time you are putting into it.
I know what you mean. Ico finds a place in your imagination the way a moving poem might; you come to know it by heart, so that it stays with you even when you don't have the pages open before your eyes. "Revisiting" it becomes less of a need when you feel it so close to you always.
I think there's also a worry that, like rewatching Spaceballs as an adult, my rose-colored glasses would break if I were to play it again. How could playing the game again produce an experience nearly as good as the first time? Just a thought, anyhow.
Excellent plot analysis. You should consider submitting this (after some minor editing) to the GameFaqs.com FAQ page. Yes, I know it is not an FAQ, however it should be acceptable as a plot analysis.
OMgud... crapzors... Someone must save the page and the links to compile into a website.
No, I'd rather stay here and hang with my fellow LUEers because I love them that much.... *sarcasm meter explodes* - souNReAL
The way I see it the puzzles serve two vital purposes; 1) They make you examine the environment and immerse yourself further in the world and 2) they build a relationship between the player and Yorda.
I think the puzzles brought the castle to life. The windmill could have been just a non-interactive prop. You'd look at it and then you'd go on your way to the next cutscene. Never stopping long enough to enjoy the world, listen to the wind howling or the sea crashing against the rocks 200 feet below.
In past games I've played with co-operative AI characters I usually curse at their lack of proper path finding and slow reactions. The scientists in Half Life have been subject to many ritual executions by my hand. But in Ico the interaction between the characters is linked in such a wonderful, dynamic manner that I really began to care about Yorda. The act of helping her over obstacles, reaching out to catch her and saving her from monsters made me feel protective. I could never willingly do her wrong.
While I'm resisting the urge to comment in detail, I certainly found the last part of the story analysis a very interesting view of ICO as a game. It's the next part that I'm really anticipating though. An explanation of how ICO's puzzles can produce the kind of enduring mental images that many players here have mentioned should be fascinating...
"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