ICO is a video game that makes me feel things. Things that I can’t quite describe.
Ever since I first stepped foot in the castle’s plundered hallways, heard Ico’s footsteps echo through the abandoned corridors, and practically felt the gentle breeze roll through its silent, long-forgotten courtyards, it’s a feeling I just haven’t been able to shake.
Its ethereal, dreamlike world – Ghibli-esque in its feel – is so steeped in mystery, drowning in atmosphere, and downright well crafted, that, in the years that have passed, I’ve almost convinced myself it’s a real place.
It’s one of only two games that have ever made me cry actual tears (well played, The Last of Us) and it’s been perched at the tippity-top of my all-timers list for a long while now, despite the best efforts of INSIDE, Celeste, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
But we have a strange relationship, ICO and I – in more ways than one.
A Changing Landscape
Despite releasing in Europe 21 years ago, it wasn’t until much later – in 2013 – that I first got my mitts on ICO in the form of the ICO & Shadow of the Colossus Collection for PS3. To my surprise, I found it had aged like a fine wine.
In hindsight, the shock was unwarranted; there isn’t really all that much in ICO to age. In some ways, it barely even resembles a video game – at least, not one of its time.
In 1997, just as the industry was fawning over full FMV, multi-CD-ROM epics like Final Fantasy VII, Fumito Ueda – who would famously go on to create Shadow of the Colossus and The Last Guardian – was envisioning a different kind of experience.
“I don’t personally like very complicated games,” he told CONTINUE magazine in 2005. “If there are too many stats and numbers, I lose interest right away”
And so, while the bulk of consumers were coveting increasingly complex and sophisticated experiences, Ueda kickstarted development on ICO, a game he would later come to describe as “defined by what is not there”.
It was this minimalistic, design-by-subtraction philosophy that acted as the guiding principle for development, and what would ultimately make ICO so very unique.
Less Is More
At its core, ICO is a very simple story of boy meets girl, and in order to thrust that emotional bond into the spotlight, any elements that were considered too gamey or distracting to the central mechanic were stripped away entirely.
There’s no quest log, no navigation system, no mini map, or convoluted combat mechanics. No health bars, skill trees. or weapon upgrades. No character customisation, side quests. or dialog options. There’s barely even any music – although what is there is absolutely sublime.
What remained was beautiful simplicity – a boy and a girl, holding hands.
“I wanted to create something no one had ever created. Whatever genre or type of game I made, I knew I wanted to do something unique. I also had this feeling […] that the gameplay needed to be simple.”
In that sense, Ueda and his team succeeded; there was truly nothing like ICO on the market at the time. Regrettably, though, that originality turned out to be to its detriment; simply put, ICO lacked the blockbuster appeal of 2001’s heavy hitters.
Games like Metal Gear Solid 2, Grand Theft Auto III, and Devil May Cry were incredible showcases of the recently-released PS2’s power. They were bigger, flashier, more cinematic, and far more ambitious than anything that had been attempted during the previous generation.
ICO, for all of its incredible qualities, was none of those things. Its use of keyframe animation and bloom lighting was certainly impressive for the time, but its development roots were firmly planted in the PS1 era. It was pretty, it was unique, but it wasn’t – mechanically speaking – anything that couldn’t have been done before.
Thankfully, history has looked kindly upon its more subtle sensibilities, and it’s since gone on to become a cult classic, a defining game of its era, and one of the most influential games of all-time.
Dark Souls creator Hidetaka Miyazaki said it awakened him to “the possibilities of the medium”, acting as the catalyst for him to pursue a career in game development, while Guillermo del Toro heralded it as a “masterpiece”. Quite rightly, too.
The Castle in the Mist
ICO’s castle is enchanting. It’s simply the most believable video game world I’ve ever inhabited.
You aren’t told of its existence through hushed legend or passed-down tales. There’s no 20-hour pre-amble leading up to a dramatic siege. You simply wake up within its dungeons, and are left to your own devices to uncover its mysteries. For a game that’s literally about holding hands, ICO couldn’t be much less of a handhold-y experience.
Exploring the castle is instantly captivating. Everything about its design, construction, and implementation is so staggeringly perfect that it genuinely feels like a place that exists in the real world. It doesn’t hide behind smoke and mirrors. It’s not simply a hodgepodge of fragmented, claustrophobic rooms, or a linear series of closed-off, one-and-done areas with invisible walls, hastily pieced together.
Its purposeful arrangement of interconnected rooms, chambers, courtyards, and bridges all make for an unparalleled sense of place, and as you delve deeper into its heart, you’ll climb high atop its battlements, see its walls sprawling off into the distance, and look back on towers that you’ve already scaled.
You’ll gaze out across the impossible bridge that leads to the distant mainland and feel hopelessly trapped, lost, and alone. You’ll see the sun bouncing off the distant cliffs as the birds soar across the sky, listen to the piercing breeze, and for a moment, you’ll swear you can almost feel it. You’ll sit and wonder, “Where the hell even is this place? Who built it? And where did they all go?”
It oozes atmosphere through its visuals and soundscapes, but also via a number of clever design choices, such as the camera system. Rather than a more traditional, over-the-shoulder affair that closely follows the protagonists, we watch Ico and Yorda struggle through the castle from afar.
It seems a fairly inconsequential detail on the surface, but the effect it has on the overall feel of the game cannot be overstated. Through it, the castle becomes not just another video game environment to run around in, but a character unto itself – it’s living, it’s breathing, and it’s watching Ico with us.
It also reduces Ico from a powerful, combo-unleashing video game hero that the camera swings, pans, and struggles to keep up with, to merely another lost little boy, with a wooden stick, trapped within the labyrinthine sprawl of this ancient castle. He’s just passing through this timeless fortress, like countless forsaken souls before him.
You Never Forget Your First Time
In March of last year, I drove the NC500 – a 500-mile road trip around the north coast of Scotland – with my brother. We absolutely nailed it. There wasn’t a single flippin’ caravan on the road, nor a cloud in the sky – a fact which, if you’re familiar with Scotland’s climate, is nothing short of a miracle.
If we drove it another 50 times, we’d never experience it that perfectly again. So we’ll never try.
The same is true with my experience of ICO. That first playthrough back in March 2013 was so completely and utterly perfect that I boxed the memory of it up and sealed it away in the loft of my mind forever. And while the temptation to revisit my old friends admittedly crops up from time to time, truth be told, I’m a little bit scared to.
I’ve read plenty of LTTP threads about ICO since completing it 10 years ago, and I’m weirdly petrified that maybe it’s not the flawless game that lives on in my mind. Maybe this time, the enemy encounters will be repetitive and dull. Maybe the platforming will be clunky and imprecise. Maybe Yorda will try to unalive herself at every given moment.
But when I played it, they weren’t, it wasn’t, and she didn’t. And that’s the way I’ll remember it, thank you very much.
In his review for The New York Times, Charles Herold summed up his thoughts by concluding: "ICO is not a perfect game, but it is a game of perfect moments."
If I had to guess, Mr. Herold probably had the legendary windmill scene fresh in his mind when he wrote that summation, but my perfect ICO moment was something altogether less scripted.
I remember drifting in and out of that hazy, peaceful state between sleep and the waking world. It was March, longer spring days were on the way, and the birds were chirping away outside – but another beautiful noise was filling the room. Heal – the game’s heavenly save screen music – was spilling out from the TV. It had rocked me to sleep.
I perched on my sofa – already completely besotted with the game at this point – looked at Ico and Yorda on the screen, and couldn’t help but form a wry smile; they were perched on a sofa, too. Just like them, I’d fallen asleep on the couch, to that ethereal save music.
It was at that point that I honestly felt like some sort of symbiosis had occurred, and the screen was in fact a mirror. Me and this game were one now. I cosied up in pure, dream-like ecstasy, and let ICO’s lullaby softly carry me away to the land of nod once more.
I genuinely couldn’t recall feeling that blissfully at peace before, and ten years on, that music still makes me feel things.
Sincerity Isn’t So Scary
I turned 30 last Saturday – roughly the same age Fumito Ueda was when ICO released. And, like him, I find myself craving simplicity as the years roll on.
To change tack slightly, the same is true of Matty Healy – front man of Brit pop-rock band The 1975, and another 30-something whose world I find myself caught up in recently. He built his career on the sort of wildly pretentious and trite lyricism that only an A-Level Philosophy student would be impressed by.
But with his latest album, the words have taken on a much more earnest flavour. When asked by Amelia Dimoldenberg on one of her famous Chicken Shop Dates to name his favourite lyric off the band’s latest album, he somewhat surprisingly chooses the relatively unseasoned “I’m in love with you”.
“Out of all the lyrics to pick, you’ve chosen 'I’m in love with you,' which anyone could say?” she questions.
“Exactly,” says Matty.
The angst and tryhardiness of teenage years, the uncertainty of early-20s life, and the existential crises that your mid-to-late 20s can bring about – they all seem to be melting away as I get older, leaving behind a newfound calm, clarity, and contentedness with the person I am.
It’s a fairly laboured point I’m hamfistedly attempting here, but what I’m trying to say is: simplicity is underrated. And ICO is a reminder that, no matter what life throws at us, all we ever really need is someone to hold our hand. And what could be more simple than that?