Ico (2001)

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Man likes well-regarded game; footage at eleven.

How does one end a game like Shadow of the Colossus with any semblance of hope? The story climaxes in a catastrophe caused entirely by your character‘s actions, not only eternally sealing off your now-demonic person but abandoning the woman you swore to save in a desolate valley with little hope of escape. It’s a gut punch of a finale, and its inevitability does not detract from its mournful and sour taste. Yet Fumito Ueda and his team are too smart and too human to believe you can end a masterstroke with a one-note, soul-stomping dirge, and as the credits roll, we can’t help but feel a shred of hope for the world they created. Perhaps it’s as simple as the mood set by Kow Otani’s score, or that we are grateful to spend a few more minutes gawking at the game’s lush scenery. But for fans of Ueda’s previous title, there is one overriding reason we believe all might not be lost: he reincarnated Wander as a boy with horns.

In many ways, it’s strange that Ico came before Shadow of the Colossus. It serves as such a positive counterpoint to the latter game’s dourness that I’d recommend ditching release date chronology and using it as a chaser to Colossus’ bitter spirits. Their stories are actually two sides of the same coin: while Shadow of the Colossus makes you embark on a quest to kill mysterious monsters for a vague shot at immortality, Ico lets you thwart a similar plot and save an equally unknowable – albeit far more endearing – creature from destruction.

Let’s return to the boy with horns. Somewhere between Wander’s rebirth and the beginning of Ico (if you buy the game’s timelines are linked by anything other than theme – which I do, if only because it strengthens the thematic ties – Shadow of the Colossus is a prequel), these horns become a stigma feared enough that anyone who bears them is locked away in an abandoned fortress. Such is the fate of our titular hero, who manages to escape his cell and free another of the castle‘s prisoners, a girl so bizarre and foreign that you soon forget you were imprisoned for your own abnormalities. She speaks only in gibberish and is dazed and timid to the point that she must be led by hand as you attempt to escape. What’s worse, the abandoned castle’s only other living (and I use the term loosely) inhabitants appear to be a Grimm-worthy wicked queen – set on using the girl, Yorda, as a vessel to perpetuate her long, sad reign – and her army of shadowy monsters, the metamorphosis that awaited the previously captured horned boys. Leaving Yorda alone for too long triggers these henchmen to pull her back into the queen’s oblivion, immediately ending your march toward freedom.

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Ico is often billed as the ultimate “escort mission,” a much-maligned level genre where one must guide a usually klutzy AI through any number of hoops and dangers. But Ico enthralls where similar objectives annoy by extending it to the game’s main mechanic. Smaller escort missions within a larger quest can feel like inauthentic padding; even when the save-the-girl trope is central to a game’s story, there’s no way it can feel as pressing if you spend equal time aiding villagers or going fishing. Your progress through the distraction-free Ico depends so entirely on Yorda’s safety that you are endeared to her despite never knowing if her mysterious powers are ultimately a source of good or evil. While you may never learn Yorda’s secrets, she is so clumsy and helpless that leaving her alone for the slightest moment feels like telling a child to wait outside a store at a crowded mall. (I’m sure there’s a think piece or two about how this is weirdly sexist, and while I wouldn’t argue the point, it helps that Ico is a mere child himself. Also, by game’s end you are as indebted to Yorda as she is to you.)

Yorda becomes so essential to one’s emotional attachment to Ico that the closing chapters where you’re forcefully separated feel incomplete. It’s similar to the art game classic Passage, where one chooses to go through the game alone or take on a lifelong companion. Separation from Yorda in Ico means more time to explore and make mistakes, but the castle feels even emptier and more dilapidated without a hand to hold. When you finally go mano-a-mano with the wicked queen, it’s an anticlimax that makes you wonder how these developers would soon craft some of the most jaw-dropping boss battles ever put on microchip. This is because despite the game’s title, we are not nearly as invested in Ico as we are in Yorda; luckily, the game’s true ending is a post-credit sequence that apes The 400 Blows’ endless jog across the beach and results in an abrupt but touching reunion. Ico is not quite the balls-out high wire act of Shadow of the Colossus; where that game seemed almost desperate to consistently top its own heights, Ico is much more relaxed but equally self-assured.

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Basically.

Ueda has been disconcertingly quiet about his team’s newest venture, the boy-and-his-griffin story The Last Guardian, even pledging he’ll quit Sony after the project’s ever-delayed completion. While I cannot overstate how much I want to experience that game, judging from the trailer, there is one small upside for me if it never sees the light of day: no one should have to witness a grown man cry.

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