Ico – a work of art?

19 May

I’m a strong supporter of the growing movement that looks upon games as works of art rather than mere entertainment. I believe that video games should be treated with the same regard, and given the same level of critical scrutiny, as any novel, film or album. This is due to the fact that video games are an art form like no other, in that while you may get engrossed in the story or lost in the beautiful images on screen, what separates games from the other mediums is that they are interactive. I’ll write another post some day exploring this in more detail, but for now I’m just going to examine a game which cannot be described as anything but art: Ico.

Ico was released on the PlayStation 2 in 2001 and 2002, across various regions. It sold 700,000 thousand copies worldwide, though

Ico’s European and Japanese box art. It looks like Giorgio de Chirico’s ‘The Nostalgia of the Infinite’.

had there been any justice in the world it would have sold multiples of that. This is because Ico took a big risk: it greatly emphasised atmosphere, story and setting over both gameplay and even character development to the point where it became debatable whether we were playing a ‘game’ at all. The developers, the aptly-named Team Ico, deployed what they refer to as a “subtracting design”, where the interactive aspects were peeled back to make way for narrative and a high level of immersion.

The story goes that a young boy, Ico, is born to a rural Asian village (feudal Japan, I presume) but is cast away to a deserted, isolated fortress due to the fact he has horns, which the villagers interpret as a ‘bad omen’. At the seemingly-abandoned castle he meets Yorda, the daughter of the palace’s Queen, who is trying to run away from her mother for reasons that shall not be spoiled in this blog. To escape, Ico must navigate through the complex mazes and puzzles of the citadel, while at the same time battling shadow demons the Queen has sent to capture Yorda. The girl remains defenceless throughout, and Ico must often take her by the hand when travelling.

Ico makes use of the PlayStayion 2’s Emotion Engine, which was also used in the development of early PS3 games, to take advantage of the improved capabilities of the platform. Character animation was achieved through key frame animation rather than the more common motion capture technique, and Ico was an early game to incorporate bloom lighting into video games. The cinematic cutscenes are also beautifully animated. All of these visual factors combine to make Ico an absolutely stunning game to look at. I would cite it as the best-looking PS2 game, that I’ve seen anyway, and many other critics seem to agree.

An image of the castle from which you must escape.

The game also succeeds in the audio department. Dialogue is kept minimal in the truest sense of the world; characters rarely speak save in cutscenes, which are few and far between. Ico can call Yorda to his position, and he cries once struck by enemies, but these are indecipherable shrieks and yells, not dialogue per se. Ico also features a limited amount of music and sound effects, though little music is there is as pleasing on the ears as the graphics are on the eyes. I am listening to the soundtrack, titled Ico: Melodies in the Mist, as I write this, and I would recommend fans of atmospheric, minimalist music to check it out!

Both the visuals and the sound tie together to create a game which is absolutely drenched in atmosphere. Ico almost feels like a dream: the story is surreal, and visuals are dream-like and dreams rarely have music, do they? It reminds me of the Silent Hill franchise in that while the game can hardly be deemed ‘frightening’, the sense of isolation, loneliness and the unbalanced scale – you feel like an ant in a city – all mesh to create a sense of palpable atmosphere, in which the player is submerged. The lack of interface elements and the low number of foes make the game seem overtly real, and the objective of escaping the castle a matter of urgency.

Ico and Yorda, the protagonists.

Ico was the first game I played in a long time where I actually had a sense of empathy of the characters. I cared about what happened to them; I really, really wanted to do my best in helping them escape. The heightened sense of surrealist realism mentioned above involved me like a game has rarely done. I think that I empathised the characters’ plight because it felt like I was right there with them. The game is not perfect: the platforming elements can be irritating, the camera has this tendency to both meander aimlessly and abruptly zoom in and out with no warning, and the game is very short. I finished it on my first go in about six hours. However, none of these flaws interfere with that fact that Ico is frankly an amazing game that everybody should play at least once.



4 Responses to “Ico – a work of art?”

  1. Seán Enright May 19, 2012 at 3:45 pm #

    I agree with everything you’ve said, i’s especially like to see your views on games as an art form.
    Good job and good luck!

  2. innersenses May 20, 2012 at 3:49 am #

    Great article! Two things though, there were other factors that caused Ico to sell horrifically… Sony didn’t promote it at all well, and as well as that, if you haven’t seen the American box art for this game, look it up – it’s horrific.
    Also I wouldn’t describe the soundtrack to Ico as ‘minimalist’, but it is certainly atmospheric… unless of course you mean the music takes a backward step to put the visuals and gameplay at the forefront, in which case yes!
    But if you’ve heard ACTUAL minimalist music (and heard how boring and irritating a lot of it is) as a genre, you certainly wouldn’t describe Ico’s music like that. 😀
    I agree with most everything else 😀

    • simonmernagh May 20, 2012 at 11:18 am #

      Yeah it was badly marketed at the time, I’m sure the higher-ups at Sony knew Ico wouldn’t have sold a lot anyway, and it would only appeal to a niche crowd so I imagine they just didn’t bother. And yeah I’ve seen the US cover… It hurts my feelings.
      I meant that the soundtrack adds to the “subtracting” design that the developers used to keep it deliberately low-key. I’m aware there’s an actual genre of minimalism but I’m fairly ignorant of it to be honest!
      Thanks for the comment. 🙂

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