Twenty years ago, Fumito Ueda and Team Ico designed the first part of a trilogy that would set a new standard in storytelling.
It’s hard to believe that Ico will turn 20 later this year. Fumito Ueda’s masterpiece from 2001 was my introduction to thinking more critically about the game’s interface and how we process and deal with stories. Ico presents a stripped-down story of childhood love and loss, but asks that we look at it a little differently than other games of the time. I consider Ueda’s painfully emotional trilogy to be some of my favorite games, and even if Ico isn’t at the top of the three, she introduced me to topics and design choices that shaped my understanding of what games could be.
While games before and after Ueda’s Ico took a more abstract approach to storytelling without you spoon-feeding the intended player reaction, Ico is arguably a classic. It’s a lesson in world formation, a test of understanding level design, an imaginative story that can only be experienced through play. If I try to explain to you what happened and how it made me feel, it doesn’t make any sense. Ico feels like something that cannot be repeated through just words or passively observed.
I say this as a fan who has just read an expanded, novel form of Ico in the book Ico: Castle in the Mist. It’s a beautiful rendition in its own way and probably one to be enjoyed by those of you who haven’t played the game, but it’s still no substitute for playing as Ico yourself.
Encountering Ico and the game’s ethereal young girl, Yorda, creates a connection through the game that we’ve seen emulated several times for nearly two decades. As Ico, you take Yorda’s hand and panic through the game’s old castle backdrop. Ico often pulls Yorda with him and moves inelegantly. His awkward movement collides with somber melodies and the game’s meticulously organized art style. But that’s the point – Ico is should be hectic. Ico himself has always remained a favorite of mine because he has a childlike feeling of amazement and terror towards those around him and never reveals what it means to be a child in his situation.
The first thing little Ico does is pick up a stick to protect himself and Yorda. The game asks this little kid to save both of them, but his panic, courage and movements make him believable. Ultimately, Ico overcomes the queen of the castle and the sinister, shady creatures because this is a hero story. But even in those impossible, larger-than-life scenarios that the game has to do with overcoming him, he never feels bigger or more powerful than his enemies. And how to do it feels Being Ico is just as important to understanding your story.
The sound and music of Ico play similarly to the art direction and opt for minimalism instead of extravagance in order to make bigger moments more punctual. Even Yorda herself does little to foster the dialogue between her and Ico, as she speaks a completely different rune language that you as a player cannot understand. The few moments of dialogue in the game are only encountered under circumstances like Ico versus the game’s evil queen, but even then there are few scenes that are far apart.
We saw Ico’s minimalist approach perfected in Shadow of the Colossus and then again in The Last Guardian, but it all started in 2001. Ueda’s trilogy is a master class in storytelling that requires commitment – something to be done do, don’t watch. And as we now celebrate two decades of Ico’s brilliance, the game is timeless, a title that any generation could re-release without having to justify its age.
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About the author
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Andrea Shearon is a news editor at TheGamer who loves RPG and anything horror related. Find her on Twitter via @Maajora.
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