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Viewed: 3D Third-person, floating camera Genre:
Media: CD Arcade origin:No
Developer: SCEJ Soft. Co.: SCEJ
Publishers: SCEE (GB/GB)
Released: 17 Feb 2006 (GB)
22 Mar 2002 (GB)
2001 (US)
Ratings: PEGI 7+, 3+, ESRB Teen 13+ (T)
Accessories: Memory Card
Features: Vibration Function Compatible, Analogue Control Compatible: analogue sticks only


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The term “art-house” is rarely applied to games. And when it is, it’s usually done by a marketing drone having brokered a deal for advertising with a magazine to get the term included, in order to make a pleasant splash on promotional literature.

However, some games really do transcend their low-brow plastic-spooned birth and enter the world of art. This can be a good thing or a bad thing, art being all personal like. Ico on the other hand, will live in to the future as arguably the first attempt at delivering an emotive and interactive piece of console art.

You play Ico, a boy born of a generational curse that sees him grow horn-like growths from within his skull. Cowering under the shadow of an empire that sees his birth as a prophesised threat to its existence, Ico’s family is apathetic when the ghostly horsemen come to take him away. They always knew it would happen and to fight it would only bring further misery to the already ostracised.

The game begins when Ico is left for dead in a catacomb, buried alive. He pushes it open and it falls, crashing to ground. Immediately the vastness of the castle and the scale of the escape task is realised. The first room is huge, almost overwhelming. All is grey, old, decaying. There is nothing organic in the place, just ramshackled ramparts and staircases that trail away into nothingness. A feeling of loneliness and an empathy with Ico’s smallness are the first pieces in a puzzle that will change the way you think about videogames for ever. There is no background music in Ico, with the development team opting for environmental noises instead. This delivers further feelings of tangibility, with the scuffing of Ico’s feet reverberating around his chamber.

The opening scene reaches its climax when Ico finds a translucent, beautiful girl trapped inside a hanging cage in one of the castles giant inner chambers. She is Yorda. Neither Ico nor Yorda know where they are, or how to escape. The massive castle has no exits, the rooms seemingly isolated and singular. However, the bond between the two children, though never vocalised, is about as close to love as a videogame can portray. When Ico, diminutive, unkempt and deformed, rescues Yorda, delicate and angelic, there is an unspoken understanding of a common need and a link between them that simply forces the player to become involved.

And the relationship between the two and your understanding of it, again transcends what is usually possible within a videogame. Perhaps it reminds you of those times when you were younger, 12 or so, still a bit scruffy, and you meet a girl, slightly older, who is beautiful. You play together on holiday and you can do more than her. You can, as Ico can, jump further, run faster, though none of that really matters to either of you. There is a bond forged in the confusion of entering adulthood that is a moment in life passing faster than you could understand at the time.

It is now that the true brilliance of the game mechanic that underpins Ico hits home. Ico is tough and rugged but Yorda is fragile and weak. Holding down R1 makes Ico grasp Yorda’s hand, and he drags her with him as they seek to escape. But certain problems are too much for the girl. She cannot jump or fall far. She cannot push obstacles and cannot climb. Ico must manipulate the castle at every turn to get Yorda through. At no point during this do you wonder why he must take her with him. You simply understand. Yorda has a connection with the castle. She can operate magical portals into new rooms. There is a delightful balance and co-dependency between the two, something fresh that goes someway towards further underlining the importance of this game.

The castle itself is a fusion of masonry and mechanics, with rusted machinery spewing from the hewn stone. It is set miles in the air, as you realise when Ico and Yorda first set foot into the open air. From the crackly, dusty inner recesses of the place, the atmosphere changes brilliantly when they step outside. The breeze is refreshing, there are birdcalls and from certain viewpoints, the sheer massiveness of the castle can be seen. The attention to atmosphere on show in this game sets a new president in game design. The lighting for instance, is without question the best use light to drive mood ever seen.

The guardians of the castle are smoke-comprised ghouls that evolve in freeform. Interested only in capturing Yorda, they spring from black holes in the ground and sickeningly try and pull her in. Ico must fight them off, eventually with sword, though initially with horns and stick. The ghouls are oppressive when encountered, leading the player, for the first time, to question an aspect of the game. They initially take so long to overcome that a feeling of oppression may take over. Far from being a design flaw, this serves to further highlight Ico’s strength. The battles are meant to be oppressive. When enemies in videogames are encountered, too often are they dispatched with a simple button press. In Ico, you learn to hate the enemies. If they Capture Yorda and drag her into the darkness, it’s like the world has stopped for a second. The game ends and you fade back into the real world, distraught.

Some gamers have renounced all other games in favour of devoting themselves to Ico. Giving up buying videogames and just waiting for the next Ico outing to be released is more common a practice than you may imagine.

Though difficult to express in simple words, we hope the above has given you an insight into what may be the most important game in the history of interactive entertainment. In a world obsessed with the progression polygon counts and digital audio output, Ico represents and elementally brilliant display of a computer driving human emotion.