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You would be mistaken to think that Ico is neatly divided into “story” and “puzzle” segments; i.e., that the cinematic interludes take care of storytelling while the puzzles pad out the space between the interludes. I suppose the puzzles could be more or less enjoyed on their own. The narrative would collapse without the puzzles. This is because the puzzles are mere parts of the whole, whereas the narrative is the whole. Now the term narrative can be--ought not to be, but can be--misleading since it hints at something spoken or written, and Ico is almost completely nonverbal outside the cut-scenes. But a picture tells a thousand words, they say. Where they are sparing in words the scenes and the actions are rich in other kinds of information.
But a few words first before we go into that. This segment is concerned with everything from Ico’s meeting with Yorda up to the first appearance of the queen. On that note I may have made a mistake when I so stressed the puzzles in my last ramble. I almost made it sound as though there were nothing but puzzles between cut-scenes. Apart from neglecting the fair bit of combat, that would be oversimplifying things. But for the talk’s sake let us agree that by puzzles we mean everything Ico and Yorda must do in their quest for freedom, outside the cinematic interludes--in other words every action which is left to our control.
First of all, I cannot take the puzzles apart the way I have done the opening because they do not have plot elements of their own, except one: they show us that the children are progressing from point A to point B, and then to C, then to D, and so on. Therefore the narrative functions of any one puzzle are much the same as all the rest. (Does that mean “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all”? No; there is such a thing as cumulative effect.) For our purposes it would be pointless to look at each puzzle in depth. So I am merely going to set down, as far as I can, the principles that govern the puzzles in their narrative framework. These principles are:
(1) The castle is a hostile ground.
(2) Ico and Yorda must explore the castle.
(3) Ico and Yorda are necessary companions.
I imagine some of you would like to expand these. A previous poster, for instance, mentioned that the puzzles help us immerse ourselves in the environment. That is absolutely correct. But since it is more an aesthetic quality than a narrative device I have left it out of this list. I will however mention it briefly when I talk about the second statement. Let us then look at each of the three statements. As we continue, remember that we are pretending this is our first run through the game.
(1) The castle is a hostile ground. At this time it may be helpful to summarize what we already know on the castle. We know that it is absurdly enormous and must have demanded absurd amount of manpower to put together. We know that it is in disrepair and probably very ancient. We know that parts of it are operated by mysterious spells. We know that Ico has been brought here to die like others before him--and this by no accident nor by whim, if the caskets and the horned effigies are any indications. Add to these the awful gloom that haunts every corner of the castle, and the picture we have is one of decidedly sinister character. The picture is of course blurry, since we have not one solid bit of information about the castle. Yet we begin the game convinced beyond doubt that the castle is no friendly place. We are correct in believing so. That is what visual storytelling is all about: getting us to believe certain things without telling us to. We will be seeing a lot of that in this story.
Once Ico and Yorda start exploring the castle in earnest, we learn that the place is not merely unfriendly or indifferent; it is hostile. I am not talking about the lurking black wraiths, though they are certainly a part of it. I am talking about the fortress itself. Everybody knows that people build buildings in order to domesticate the environment. The idea is to make a domain of comfort out of an uncomfortable wilderness. By that logic this castle is a nightmare of residential planning. Instead of putting things within easy reach it hides things from you and makes you work to find them. It makes you circle a building three times at three different levels just to get to the roof. It will not let you go through a door unless by some cryptic reason it deems you fit to pass. Whichever the diabolical mind that designed it did not have comfort in consideration. It is a maze created expressly to confound, like something out of a painting by Escher. It would be a nice place to live if we had wings and could walk through walls--a splendid dwelling for fairies, but hardly habitable for mortals. It is a fantasy castle through and through.
You might say “Well, of course it was created to confound. This is a puzzle game, for Pete’s sake.” I know. I am only saying that the castle’s labyrinthine character has something to contribute to the story as well as to the puzzles. That is, given the premise of the story, it makes good sense that the castle should be so full of riddles. What is the premise of the story? Well, a pair of children want to run away from a big, mysterious, and frightening place. And the big, mysterious, and frightening place doesn’t want to let them get away. It is determined to block them, to frustrate them, and to slow them down. To move through the castle the children must outwit it. But wait a second here. “Outwitting” the castle almost sounds as if we were treating it as a person. In fact it very much sounds like the castle has assumed an adversarial role against the children. And it has. For the absolute majority of the time, the enemy Ico and Yorda must contend with is not the dark demons but the very castle whose ground they tread. Every scene in Ico reminds us of this. We are constantly looking at Ico and Yorda at a distance so that they appear tiny. By comparison the castle is colossal and imposing and everywhere, breathing down on the children. For its sheer beauty the castle can inspire us to marvel at it, but at the same time none of us would like to be in Ico’s shoes in reality. None of us would like to be trapped inside a deserted citadel in the middle of nowhere. We can afford to be delighted because we are not Ico. Delighted is the last thing Ico is at any moment in the story.
There are many terrors in life, but the terror of being lost is surely the greatest--right alongside its twin, the terror of being alone. The fear that the castle arouses is of a subtle and pervasive sort. It will not jump us from behind. But it is always before us and around us, daring us to ignore it. There is great serenity throughout the castle, yes. But anyone who has been lost by himself in a big, quiet place knows that serenity is no equal of peace. There is no peace in this place, only desolation. And mute malice. For we sense that there must be a malicious mind behind the malicious plan. Every painting has a painter behind it, and every story an author. Someone built this castle for a purpose less than innocent. As yet we do not know who that someone might be and what purpose. We do know that until we have left this castle behind we shall not be relieved of the dread.
Here I stop. I will be back with thoughts on the other two principles.
Very well said Peter. I hadn't thought of it that way. Even if the castle is an inaminate object it does become an enemy/character for the purposes of the story. Much like in the ring in Lord of the Rings.
The puzzles/castle separate you from Yorda at regular intervals. Because both you and her can die much more easily when your far apart you begin to dread having to leave her. This is initially because you associate death with dissapointment; you'll have to replay the section all over again. But it eventually becomes more of a traumatic experience as you begin to care about Yorda. This adds alot of weight to the scripted storyline sections when the characters are isolated from each other.
That's one reason why I like Ico. It creates in you an emotional attachment to Yorda, and you fear leaving her for even a moment, due to her helpless demeanor. I love a gaming experience that induces emotion.
RPG Elite (218) Mediocre Knight: Eidolon218
RPG Elite (218) Mediocre Knight: Eidolon218
Very entertaining analysis there, a pleasure to read.
The section about the gameplay/puzzles was interesting. Ico's fundamental flaw - not in design, but in concept - is that while the emphasis on the atmosphere and emotion of the scenario as opposed to raw gameplay provides an experience unlike any other, it means that a player is unlikely to have any huge inclination to play it again after completion.
I find it's often quite an effort to sit down and start playing Ico. I remember that I enjoyed it, that it was a special kind of experience, but I don't remember the details of how it made me feel. The main thing that you remember from a game is, of course, the gameplay, and Ico's core gameplay isn't anything all that special - it's essentially an adventure puzzle game, with some simple combat.
Once I do sit down and allow the game to absorb me, I remember why I like it so much. It's a shame that many gamers, even those mature enough to accept that it isn't a big actionfest, would be put off by it's relative difficulty to get into.
I have a theory here. Notice how (as your last sentence said) you fear that a replay wouldn't be that good was unfounded. I can only speak for myself, of course, but I think that when we see something that, by far, surpasses our expectations, we tend to believe that on second viewing, it won't be nearly as good (maybe because we'll notice flaws, or the suspense is taken out, or simply that the novelty of watching a new movie adds some immediate value that a reviewing won't have). This tendency may even get enforced, like when I rewatched the movie Spaceballs on a bus trip, and found nearly none of the jokes funny: I had changed quite a bit since watching it originally. End theory.
I think that Ico is very slick from a game design point of view as well as artistically.
The combat may seem a little repetitive but it does serve a purpose in building relationships between the characters. It adds to the sense of distress, even if thats just the sense of frustration you feel from the repetitiveness of it.
The way the game does away with health bars and medi packs is rather brave.
The puzzles and level design are so restrained and economical and that it works very well on replays. There's something about alot of adventures and RPG-adventures that I don't like. They're full of filler. Bloated epic pretensions. They just feel like so much work.
Ico shows alot of restraint by comparison. They were as careful in what they left out as what they put in.
I only got this game a couple of weeks ago and I've started playing through it again. I've advanced very quickly this time. The speed at which I can accomplish the puzzles (yet they still feel fresh) and the dispatch the enemies (knowing all the special door locations) have made it a more relaxing play. I'm playing alot more quickly yet I still found myself pausing at the windmill to watch it blow in the breeze, or look out at the cliffs on East beam-tower.
I like the fact that I can reach these beautiful parts of the game quickly. The game is short enough that I don't feel intimidated.
S'a good point twifkak, and I must admit I was mildly worried that a second playthrough wouldn't live up to what I remember it to be. Still, having played a good portion of it through again yesterday, it really hasn't lost anything.
I also just noticed that the demons at the end don't actually attack you, and have horns just like Ico. That terrified me.
An absolutely superb analysis, Peter. Keep it up. This is an interesting read.