ICO (PlayStation 2) 2001
Advanced key frame animation, advanced bloom lighting
Early Yorda concept (PSX)
Official site screenshots (site is deleted now)
Review - IGN (2001)
"Ico is a bit of a difficult study. Well, honestly, why beat around the bush? This is the damnedest game to come down the pike in a long while, and not just in the
Buchigire Kongou/Drum Mania "ain't that goofy?" sense. In gameplay terms, it is an extremely simple piece of work. On the most basic level, the challenge is just to move from point A to point B,
overcoming the inanimate obstacles in between. As an experience, though, it's almost impossible to describe.
Ico is short, Ico is quiet, and Ico is in fact nearly incomprehensible. It has an action quotient very close to zero. It has a story, but you see and hear only tiny hints and snatches, spending most of the game on one side of an impenetrable language barrier. So what is there to actually recommend this game, given that I do recommend it almost without reservation? The experience.
The feeling of simply being in the world that Ico creates is one of the most fascinating things I've ever seen in a videogame. The visuals, sound, and original puzzle design come together to make something that is almost, if not quite, completely unlike anything else on the market, and feels wonderful because of it. The sensation is like a very strange dream -- a little frightening, a little beautiful, intriguing throughout -- and its only main problem is the same one all dreams suffer from. It's over a good deal sooner than you might like.
Ico contains a smattering of 3D combat, but it seems to be there mainly to show off the remarkable look of the shadow-beasts that pursue you. Hand-to-hand encounters are few in number and dead easy anyway. At heart, Ico is a puzzle adventure game, a modern descendant of the Sierra, Infocom, and Lucasarts adventures that filled the PC market back in the day. It's a collection of brain-teasers, organized in roughly linear fashion, challenging you to find your way out of a haunted castle.
To recycle the structure of the introduction, that's the game in a nutshell, but at the same time that isn't the half of it. Ico is possibly the most marvelous creation of mood and atmosphere I've ever found in a game. The only close comparison in terms of quality would be Silent Hill, whose foreboding nightmare spaces prove equally enveloping, but Ico encloses the player in an entirely different feeling. Perhaps this is what Myst would have been like, had its creators possessed the technical competence to make something more advanced than a Hypercard stack. It's a similar sort of misty, twilit fantasy realm, almost barren of interaction with anything living, and with no obvious time or genre or other pigeon-hole to shove it in. Well, there's one living thing to deal with, at least. The quest, quaintly enough, is to save a princess, a beautiful young girl found trapped in a cage. Shadowy demons and a foreboding, regal woman pursue her, and so it's the hero's job to lead her to safety.
Now, saving princesses may be old hat in games, but she's the linchpin of Ico's puzzle design, and the key to its originality. Most would agree, after all, that puzzle design has rather landed in a rut in the adventure genre. Snorefests like Code Veronica and Fear Effect 2 have crashed and burned on account of their adherence to dry, repetitive fetch-and-carry action. Ico, in brilliant contrast, is a one-game renaissance in the field, combining challenges that emerge out of the features of the environment, rather than randomly placed objects, with the unusual kinks that leading the princess about throws in.
Jorda (her name) doesn't move on her own, and she's possessed of limited mobility in comparison to the nimble hero. To maneuver her around, you have to lead her by the hand, or call her from a short distance across a path she can easily negotiate. Opening the way through successive challenges isn't just a matter of getting the hero from A to B -- you also have to find a route for Jorda, which may be entirely different. Thus, different layers of challenge appear in many areas, with basic platforming to get the hero around and more complex environmental manipulation to maneuver Jorda.
The result is one of the most fulfilling puzzle challenges ever made -- this proves the art didn't die with Infocom. Ico draws influences from more modern games as well, though. For example, the brief puzzle cutscene effect from Ocarina of Time appears, showing the way to a key puzzle feature after you've activated it. The emphasis on using the features of the environment gives a little of the feel of something like Myst, meanwhile, but without feeling anywhere near as contrived.
The chief caveat, unfortunately, is that Ico suffers in the replay department. The promised feature of added story elements the second time through was scrapped late in development, and so upon repeat play the game turns out to be both drastically shortened and questionably fulfilling. Its length on a first playthrough can vary wildly depending on your puzzle-solving skill (8-10 hours is a median ballpark, certainly not the full range), but once you know what to do, there remains nothing but to do it, and you can blaze through in three hours or so.
This brings up an important point: if you finish Ico with a walkthrough, you're simply cheating yourself, both of the money you spent on the game and the experience it could be granting you. Getting help on one or two puzzles after an hour or so of goofing around, that can perhaps be forgiven, but you really ought to try and complete this game on your own brainpower. It's a far more fulfilling experience that way -- after all, much of the time you spend drinking in the atmosphere is also the time you spend wondering what on earth you're supposed to do next.
For a game where every unnatural movement is a remarkable event, I could stare at Ico for hours. Like Metal Gear Solid 2, it is a prime example of the graphical strategy that produces impressive results in this generation. Polygons are the foundation of a good-looking game, but they aren't the entire package by any means. The layers of effects on top of that foundation are what make first-class visuals on PlayStation 2. In Ico, to begin with, you have the castle and the two characters that inhabit it. None of these are particularly complex creations -- the castle is impressive thanks to its design, not the fine detail of its modeling. What brings it to life is the careful lighting, the judicious use of mist and fog, and the camera strategies that present it all.
The camera is semi-automatic, presenting default angles that you can vary slightly with the right analog stick. Thus, while you do have some autonomy, the game still controls how the world is presented. In the hands of weaker artists, this might be a problem, but Ico's designers use the camera to present incredible vistas without limiting your view of the puzzles at hand. The castle's design is so cohesive, too, that you can look down from the heights of one area and see places you've already been, as well as the path you took to get from one place to the other. It's one of many elements that work together to enclose you in Ico's world.
Light is another -- rarely do you feel the presence of light in so realistic a fashion as in Ico. It pours out of the sky, filters down through clouds, and drifts through dusty windows. Transparent textures, fog, and other effects tweak the way light meets your eyes, making for detailed, shaded scenes, each with their own particular feel. Different sources produce different sorts of light, too, from the continuous glare of the sun to the flickering glow of torches.
That flicker is a simply lovely effect, just like anything else that animates in this game. As I said, not a great deal moves about in Ico, but what does is almost perfectly true to life. That goes especially for the two lead characters, who have obviously received modeling attention in proportion to the size of their role in the game (after all, they're on-screen the entire time). Watching the hero scramble up ledges, leap across chasms, clamber up ropes, or simply run around a wide open space is a reminder of how artificial the movements in many 3D gamers are. The animation in Ico gives a near-perfect impression of the weight in the characters' limbs, the push and pull of gravity and the surfaces they move on. More infrequent, but equally well-executed, is the movement of water, fire, and other natural features -- the water surface animation could be the best I've ever seen -- and the shadows, of course, are amazing creations. They're presumably solid polygon models, but they ebb and flow as if they're made of nothing but smoke. However that's done, it's done very well.
After what you do and what you see, what you hear is the third leg in the tripod of a good game, and Ico again refuses to disappoint. For the most part, ambient environmental sounds are the only accompaniment, but that's the right decision -- too heavy a musical score would have overwhelmed the ethereal quality of the visuals. When proper music appears, on very rare occasions, it's light guitar-driven folk, which works well to complement the quiet, lonely atmosphere.
The sound effects are tuned to enhance the expansive spaces of the game world. Everything echoes, for example. Crackling fires mix with each other as they bounce around dungeons, rushing water fills underground caverns, and Ico's little shout as he calls Jorda is magnified by towering ceilings and stone walls. It's a small thing, perhaps, but it's another addition to the litany of tiny details that add up to Ico's amazing effect.
As I say, the only unfortunate thing about Ico is that it's over just a bit quickly. This is a world that one could almost drown in, so rich is its detail. The goal of the game is never clear, even when it's completed -- if there's a story here, Ico's creators have neglected to bother telling it to us -- but the game world presents itself as a reward for solving puzzles. You struggle through one area because you know the next one is going to be worth seeing.
So here's a question -- are there players who won't appreciate this game? Sadly, perhaps so. If you crave violent action and nothing but, Ico has hardly any to offer you. What it does offer, I think you sorely need, but opinions may inevitably differ on that point.
That said, anybody should at least give this game a try, and fans of a quality adventure should trample the homeless and small children on their way to picking up a copy. Even if it may not seem like your cup of sturm-und-drang tea, you owe it to yourself and the games industry at large to chip in a bit of horizon-expansion all round. Ico is something new, different, and brilliantly executed -- the more we see this kind of innovation, the better off we'll all be in the long run."
1) Developer Fumito Ueda came up with the concept for Ico in 1997, envisioning a "boy meets girl" story where the two main characters would hold hands during their adventure, forming a bond between them without communication.
2) Canceled prototype developed for Playstation 1.
3) Ueda also stated original Prince of Persia games as influence, specifically regarding animation and gameplay style.
4) After two years of development, the team ran into limitations on the PlayStation hardware and faced a critical choice: either terminate the project altogether, alter their vision to fit the constraints of the hardware, or continue to explore more options. The team decided to remain true to Ueda's vision, and began to use the Emotion Engine of the PlayStation 2, taking advantage of the improved abilities of the platform.
5) Ico has been used as an example of a game that is a work of art.
6) Ico music and atmosphere influenced by Silent hill (1999).
7) IGN's David Smith commented that while simple, as an experience the game was "near indescribable." The game's graphics and sound contributed strongly to the positive reactions from critics; Smith continues that "The visuals, sound, and original puzzle design come together to make something that is almost, if not quite, completely unlike anything else on the market, and feels wonderful because of it."
8) New york times- "Ico creates the sense of "trust and childish fragility" around Yorda, and that these leads to the character being "the game's entire focus".
9) Marc Laidlaw, scriptwriter for the Half-Life series, commented that, among several other more memorable moments in the game, the point where Yorda attempts to save Ico from falling off the damaged bridge was "a significant event not only for that game, but for the art of game design".
10) Film director Guillermo del Toro has cited both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus as "masterpieces" and part of his directorial influence. Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead considers, of his top ten video games, "Ico might be the best one".
11) First key frame animation and bloom lighting was in Outcast (1999).
12) Emulated in: PCSX2 (not fully emulated).
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